Two More of the Six Million Live — in Art and Film
by Ralph Seliger
Sunday, April 7, marks Holocaust Remembrance Day. This solemn day is commemorated annually by Jews around the world, recalling that from June 1941 until the end of the Second World War in Europe in May 1945, one-third of the world’s Jewish population perished in a systematic campaign of annihilation. This indelible fact still has reverberations today.
Surprisingly, much about this mammoth horror remains to be learned. A recent New York Times article tells us that researchers have discovered evidence of “42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe,” rather than 7,000 sites thought previously to comprise this world of enslavement and genocide.
In another few years there will be virtually no living witnesses. However, it shouldn’t surprise us that literary and cinematic remembrances still proliferate, especially now that living memories approach their end.
The life and death of a 26-year-old artist, Charlotte Salomon, reminds us of Anne Frank. On the eve of World War II, Salomon joined her elderly grandparents in the south of France, where she found only a temporary refuge before Nazi aggression engulfed them. Since Salomon’s father and stepmother managed to survive the war in hiding in Holland, where both lived out their long lives, the Dutch laid claim to Salomon’s legacy, much as they had with Anne Frank. The Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam became the repository of Salomon’s considerable oeuvre as an artist (1300 works).
Although not a diarist, Salomon documented her family background in Germany and her life as a refugee in vivid color gouaches, framed with bits of narration as in a graphic novel. These are presented with stage directions and musical suggestions, as if the work were an illustrated script for an opera representing her life. (Salomon’s stepmother had been an opera singer.) Real-life characters are given different names, and some plot elements may have been invented, but the basic narrative of Life? or Theatre? A Play with Music encapsulates Salomon’s reality. Opinions differ as to whether she had a romance with her stepmother’s voice coach, as her work suggests, or if an infatuated young woman let her imagination take flight.
Dutch filmmaker Franz Weisz was so captivated by Salomon that he made both a 1981 biopic, Charlotte — featuring Derek Jacobi as her lover — as well as a 2011 documentary, Life? Or Theatre? (Scenes from the earlier film, which is unfortunately not available through Netflix, are recycled for dramatic effect in the later documentary.) Salomon’s story is so multi-layered as to make a challenging, albeit compelling, subject, and Weisz’s documentary is confusingly complex, multilingual (English, Dutch, French, and German), with clips that meander from the 1960s and ’80s up to 2011.
Weisz reveals through a previously unknown letter that was in the possession of her stepmother that Salomon fatally poisoned her mean-spirited grandfather in a desperate effort to remain sane. Indeed, what adds poignancy to Salomon’s life is that her art marked a triumph over clinical depression, which had plagued the women on her mother’s side of the family. Her mother committed suicide, as did other female relatives, including her grandmother when they were together in France. Salomon heeds the advice of her French physician that she save herself through her art. In a frenzy of creativity, she apparently succeeds.
She married an Austrian-Jewish refugee, also in hiding, shortly before the Gestapo found them. Four months pregnant upon their arrival at Auschwitz, she was immediately gassed. But her art survived in the safe-keeping of that doctor; “C’est toute ma vie” (this is my entire life), she told him, words that proved tragically prophetic.
Another Jew from Germany whose legacy has been preserved by a Dutch filmmaker is Walter Süskind, who has been described as “the Jewish Schindler.” His story is told in a feature film, Süskind, directed by Rudolf van den Berg, which left the packed audience at January’s New York Jewish Film Festival silently glued to their seats for the closing credits, as people recovered emotionally from its wallop. I was immediately inspired to check on the film’s authenticity and discovered an American documentary, Secret Courage: The Walter Süskind Story, completed in 2005 by Tim and Karen Morse.
Süskind was a businessman, with a salesman’s gift for persuasion. He became an official in the Jewish Council, entrusted by the Nazis to deliver the Dutch Jewish community to detention in the Westerbork transit camp, where they awaited deportation to “the East,” to a fate not initially known. Like Schindler, Süskind befriended the Nazi commandant by drinking and partying with him. That commandant, Ferdinand aus der Fünten, is portrayed in the film as a lonely and insecure functionary by the accomplished Austrian actor, Karl Markovics (star of The Counterfeiters, a 2008 Academy Award winner).
Suskind led an elaborate scheme that involved manipulating records and utilizing a network of safe houses, organized by the Dutch Resistance, to save about 1,000 Jewish children, who were hidden and then mostly taken in by farm families. According to my conversation with Tim Morse, it is possible that Fünten and/or other Nazis turned a blind eye towards Süskind’s rescue operation – but his film tells a contrary tale of a beautiful young boy whom Fünten doted upon, and who was thereby doomed because he could not be secreted away.
Tim Morse further indicated to me that the Dutch film made Süskind’s wife a more sympathetic character than she actually was, and changed the circumstances under which the couple was sent to Westerbork and Auschwitz. The basic facts, however, are incontrovertible: They were deported, and Süskind’s wife and child were quickly murdered. He met his demise either on a death march towards the end of the war, or at the hands of other inmates who killed him as an agent of the hated Jewish Council, not knowing of his heroism.
Walter Süskind’s story is worth elevating beyond the film festival circuit. Yet perhaps because it’s in Dutch, even the distributor, when asked, expressed no more than hope that Süskind would have a commercial run.
Ralph Seliger specializes in writing about Israel and Jewish cultural and political issues. He was the final editor of Israel Horizons, publication of Meretz USA (now Partners for Progressive Israel), and continues to blog at the Meretz USA weblog and at Tikkun Daily.