Last night, I took my 15-year-old to see one of the most important films ever made: Steven Spielberg's opus about the efforts of one very wealthy, magnanimous man to save over a thousand Jews from certain death in extermination camps.
If you've got teenagers that you think can handle this kind of thing, I strongly urge you to do the same while it's on the big screen. The future of our country could use a bit of a grisly history lesson right about now.
It's gonna hurt, which it should.
* * *
Ella has grown up "half-Jewish" and has continually expressed an interest in learning more, voluntarily enduring several hours of an orthodox Rosh Hashanah service, proudly lighting Hanukkah candles and listening to explanations of the Passover Seder plate. What makes her Jewish and Unitarian families most proud, though, is that she clearly has an innate sense of social justice.
Full disclosure: I am unapologetically antagonistic toward religious rituals (of any denomination) that are dogmatic, archaic, and by their very nature, exclusive. I also, however, have a very aggressive stance on intolerance, and I fully appreciate that genocidal massacres don't just happen with one flick of a Zyklon-B gas valve.
They start insidiously by sowing fear and panic, then vilifying and dehumanizing specific groups of people, and slowly normalizing hatred and absolute intolerance until even good people follow and suddenly, it's institutional and accepted.
Yes, it's awful but what can I do about it?
I'm white, so I don't have to worry about routine traffic stops.
Oh, those poor people. At least WE aren't the ones being herded into train cars.
All those illegal Mexican murderers and rapists are taking our jobs.
It's a Jewish conspiracy to rule the world. They are the cause of all your problems.
There are some good people on the Neo-Nazi side.
What happened in Nazi Germany began in the late 1920's and it took more than a decade for the war to open people's eyes. By then, it was too late.
My point is, institutional racism becomes the norm in democratic societies all the time. If we ignore history, it's our own fault.
It's everyone's fault.
* * *
Ella and I sat through Schindler's List with the expected discomfort. I'm not sure exactly how much detail she knew about the dehumanization, the propaganda, public humiliation, property seizing, cramped ghettos, the random point-blank killings, the "work" camps, the packed trains, the gas chambers, the piles of burning corpses (that put Ella over the edge, by the way), the crematoria, and the utter lack of control and agency millions of people had over their own existence; but she knows now.
We spent a lot of time in each other's arms, tears mixing in a silent connection. The movie even managed to elicit a few laughs and smiles as the suave, Nazi-party member Oskar Schindler managed to go from inveterate playboy and businessman into principled, undaunted humanitarian savior. We talked a bit on the way home, but Ella didn't need to hear much more from me.
After our tears had dried, she and Sophia joined me in lighting the candles for the final night of Hanukkah: a testament to resiliency and light for future generations of kind, tolerant souls just like the ones that currently occupy the bedrooms on the top floor of our home.
My favorite line in the film is at the end when Izaak Stern, Schindler's accountant and right-hand man paraphrases the Talmud to help assuage a torn Schindler, who wishes he could have saved more people: "He who saves one life, saves the whole world."
I think Ella gets it.