Roman Polanski’s film masterpiece “The Pianist” can be taken as a timely parable for Israel’s current survival. Today, when Israeli society is sharply divided on the question of “Palestine,” sensitive issues of Jewish “collaboration” will inevitably arise in public debates. This essay argues that certain apt insights for Israel’s future may be discoverable in the terrible choices that fell upon Holocaust-era Jews in Europe, especially in Nazi-occupied Warsaw.
On the surface, “The Pianist” is “merely” the true tale of a talented Jewish musician, Wladyslaw Szpilman, caught up in the unfathomable depths of Nazi occupation and terror. More profoundly, of course, it is a disturbing visual microcosm of the generic human struggle between good and evil, a titanic contest that is sometimes utterly clear but at other times distressingly “gray.”
The Nazis in Poland were monsters, to be sure, but what are we to say about the others, including Jews, who were sometimes forced to become collaborative perpetrators? What pertinent lessons can we still learn from this 2002 film for insight into Israeli and even Jewish preservation in our own time? Is there, for example, a discernible message here concerning Jewish cooperation in creating “Palestine”?
Let us first recall the basic film. Emaciated, skeletal, starving, and disoriented, the pianist endures German-occupied Warsaw with aid offered by both Jews and gentiles, and, also, with torments meted out by both Jews and gentiles. Yes, some Polish Catholics risked their own lives to save him, as did several Jews, including a member of the Jewish police. But some, mostly non-Jews, took considerable comfort, and occasionally delirious joy, in the Nazi-orchestrated mass murders.
What can we say more precisely about the Jewish police in Poland? Shall we be ashamed that thousands of Jews rounded up, abused, beat upon, and deceived their fellow Jews in what turned out to be a grotesquely futile attempt to save their own lives, and the lives of their families? Or shall we be more understanding, recognizing the overwhelming and ubiquitous human inclination to survive at all costs, even if the cost is, at least in retrospect, unmentionable? Let us be fair. What would we have done in identical circumstances?
However we might choose to judge the Jewish police in Warsaw, what really matters more is that we learn from this grim past to identify all future forms of active collaboration with our enemies as not only foolish but unforgivable. Now, and certainly with the benefit of an ineradicable hindsight, we must understand that our moral and intellectual imperative to survive together as Jews is also the only way we shall ever survive separately as individuals. Nowhere does this seemingly paradoxical understanding hold greater meaning than in regard to present-day Israel and in particularly to the question of “Palestine.”
Learning from the Holocaust, from the particular and perplexing existential circumstances of “The Pianist,” it is plain that we must never again do the grotesque bidding of assisting our intended murderers. It will also be insufficient if we should choose only to think about our anti-collaborative actions and associated policy prescriptions. We Jews are already good enough at thinking. Now, however, we must also learn to feel these actions and prescriptions, and to feel them as Jews.
Interestingly, in modern philosophy the human imperative to combine feeling with thinking can be located in its purest, boldest, and most compelling form in the magisterial writings of the twentieth-century Spanish Catholic scholar, Miguel de Unamuno, especially in his The Tragic Sense of Life. Perhaps more than anyone else, Don Miguel understood that our perishable world is built on “the man of flesh and bone,” or upon ashes.
As “The Pianist” opens, the protagonist (played by Adrien Brody) is describing new anti-Jewish laws to a gentile friend, who quite naturally proceeds to comment, “This is absurd.” How, she asks the cultured Szpilman, can an intelligent people, the Germans, prescribe such gratuitous harms against a singularly capable, innocent, and caring people? Why shouldn’t Jews be allowed to drink coffee in cafes or sit on park benches? Incomprehensively, can the modern world once again have become medieval?
The correct answer, of course, is plain to all who know history. Absurdity can become normal. The veneer of human civilization is exceedingly thin. Beneath this veneer always lurk utterly primal needs and ferocities, persistent barbarisms that usually remain latent but that can explode with unimaginable fury when encouraged to emerge by a respected, or feared, public authority.
Why shouldn’t six million Jews (the particular number is ominously noteworthy, as that is roughly the number of Jews in present-day Israel) now be permitted to live safely in their own tiny mini-state, a country smaller than Lake Michigan, when an Islamic world of over one billion people already has several dozen states, not one of which has risen to even the most minimal standards of democratic rule?