It comes down to 2. Jordan Hiller has given us the 25 top Essential Jewish Movies....
#2 Schindler’s List
My father tells the story of a man who miraculously survived the Holocaust.
When this man was dragged to the open mouth of a pit and pushed to his knees along a row of other condemned Jews, and a Nazi officer began shooting each Jew in the back of the head one by one, when it came time for this man to be murdered, the Nazi officer’s gun jammed, and kept on jamming, refusing to fire. Eventually, this man dared to glimpse over his shoulder to discover his fate, and what he saw was an angel bathed in light standing directly behind the frustrated Nazi. The angel told him, “If you get up now and run, you will live.” So he got up and ran, and ran, and fled into the woods, and kept on fleeing until the gunfire and furious clamor grew distant, and until there was silence, and he was alone. This man, this survivor, told my father his story in shul one Shabbos. This man, this survivor, prayed on behalf of our congregation each Rosh Hashanah while I lived at home, and my father assured me that the merits of his tefilah would get us through another year.
Steven Spielberg’s almost sickeningly precise, patient, careful, and controlled Holocaust film depicts the scene of Amon Goeth, a Nazi officer horrifyingly realized by Ralph Fiennes, trying to kill an old rabbi in the gutter. And the Nazi’s gun jams and continues to jam and then a second gun refuses to fire and continues its refusal, and because of this the rabbi survives the moment and eventually survives the war. He survives long enough to say Kaddish on the manufacturing floor of Oskar Schindler’s shell casing factory for the six million lost, though at the time the number of dead was simply referred to as “countless.”
If you can still see through your tears by the end of Schindler’s List, the last scene of the film shows Schindler’s Jews – those twelve hundred Jews that by all accounts the handsome and charming German industrialist saved by bribing and manipulating the Nazi elite into allowing safe harbor in his employ – laying stones on his grave. Each stone represents one life, but unlike stones, a human life breeds more life, and can begin an unfathomable process to heal, and grow, and even flourish in a new homeland.
The ring those Jews gave Schindler at the end of the war was inscribed with a principle espoused in Gemara Sanhedrin: If you save one life, you save the world entire. In our day, we are witnesses to this truth. Steven Spielberg, through his monumental film and through his work with the U.S. Holocaust Museum Video Archive, has permitted us to become reluctant witnesses to so much more. And witnesses, testimonials, remembering, and not letting time forget what was done to us is vitally important. Many would say important because it could happen again, but I would leave it at important just because it happened.
Some might argue that Schindler’s List is not a Jewish film. It is technically about a heroic gentile who risked much to save Jews, and secondarily about a demonic regime that slaughtered our people unreservedly and without conscience. There are Jews in the movie, most prominently a tactful accountant played soulfully by Ben Kingsley, but Jews mainly function as referents for either gracious saving or heartless destruction. They are at the mercy of chance, and whim, and whether a given Nazi drank enough or too much vodka on a Tuesday morning.
There is a memorable conversation in the film (written impeccably by Steven Zaillian) which centers on the meaning of power. Schindler (suave, appropriately conflicted and tortured Liam Neeson) argues that power is having full justification for inflicting punishment on someone and then choosing not to do it, while Goeth believes power is the ability to rip Jewish skulls apart with bullets shot from a long range rifle between sips of coffee at breakfast. While so much about how World War II and how the extermination of millions actually occurred is frighteningly unclear, what is grossly evident is that those shipped to work or death camps along with their poor, poor, innocent children…those people were powerless.
Schindler’s List, because it is so finely crafted and authentic, truly allows one to experience the devastating, calculated breakdown of a Polish Jew in 1939 through the end of the war. What began as dreadful rumors gradually melts into embarrassing edicts which transition abruptly into forced ghetto relocations. From there the nightmare of the labor camps soon follow and eventually gas chambers and ovens. Within a short span, Jews devolved from attempting to pack valuables and heirlooms into suitcases when leaving home to hiding neck deep in human waste. A Jewish father who only years earlier ran his own business and was surrounded warmly by family for Friday night kiddush could regularly find himself thoughtfully, almost distractedly watching the ashes of his children fall like snow in the bitter cold atmosphere.
How did it happen? How did we let each stage come to pass without massive upheaval, rebellion, and defiance? It’s impossible to watch a Holocaust movie such as Schindler’s List without these awful considerations. Spielberg’s film certainly can drive one mad with wonder.
If Spielberg intends any message with Schindler’s List other than the standard “Never Forget,” (and he very likely does not) it is that Jews should consistently and overtly recognize that we share the world with non-Jews, and that there are a lot more of them than there are of us. Just as within our community, some are plainly good and others are inherently wicked; most, however, like Oskar Schindler, are beinonim, with dramatic potential to slide either way.
Schindler began the war as a wily profit conscious entrepreneur who took on Jewish laborers because they were the cheapest alternative. By the end of the war he was a grief stricken man despite his incredible accomplishment, regretting every life he maybe could have saved, but didn’t. Jews should bear this in mind when dealing with the gentile world. All rhetoric aside, it is very much our behavior which dictates how the non-Jewish beinonim of the world relate to us. As we are currently in an extended galut, we cannot underestimate the value of potential Oskar Schindlers. They are no less capable of ensuring our preservation than radiant angels who firmly decree, “If you get up now and run, you will live.”