Note: Controversial director Roman Polanski’s 2002 film masterpiece, The Pianist, can be taken as a prescient parable on many levels. Today, when credible issues of Jewish “collaboration” in matters concerning Israeli security are aptly sensitive, elements of this film can be very helpful in understanding the critical choices and obligations presently before us – as Jews. With this in mind, I ask you to examine and consider the following film “review.”
Louis René Beres
On its surface, The Pianist is “merely” the true tale of a great 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 struggle that is sometimes utterly clear, but at other times also distressingly “gray.” The Nazis in Poland were monsters, to be sure, but what are we to say about the others, including many Jews, who became actual and collaborative perpetrators in every corner of the Holocaust Kingdom? What pertinent lessons can we learn from this 2002 film for Jewish, and especially Israeli, preservation in our own perilous time?
Recall the basic story. Emaciated, skeletal, starving and disoriented, the pianist endures German occupied Warsaw with aid offered by both Jews and gentiles, and 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, most other non-Jews in fact, took considerable comfort and even a delirious joy in the German-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 and hence ironic 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?
However we might choose to judge the “Jewish Police” in Warsaw, what 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 as distinctly unforgivable. Now, and certainly with the benefit of an irrefutable hindsight, we must surely understand that our collective moral and intellectual imperative to survive together as Jews is also the only way we shall ever survive as intact individuals. Nowhere does this seemingly paradoxical understanding hold greater meaning than in regard to present-day Israel.
Learning from the Holocaust, from the particular and perplexing existential circumstances of The Pianist, we must never again do the terrible bidding of assisting murderers against ourselves. It will also be insufficient if we choose only to think about our anti-collaborative actions and policy prescriptions. We Jews are already good enough at thinking. Now we must also learn to feel these actions and prescriptions, and to feel them as Jews.
Interestingly enough, in the world of modern philosophy, the moral imperative to combine feeling with thinking can now be found in its 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. More than anyone else, Don Miguel understood that the world is ultimately built upon “the man of flesh and bone,” and therefore upon ashes.
But back to The Pianist. As the film opens, the protagonist (Adrien Brody) is describing new anti-Jewish laws to a gentile friend, who 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 a park bench? Has the modern world once again become conspicuously 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 are utterly primal needs and ferocities, persistent barbarisms that usually lie latent, but which can always explode with an unimaginable fury when encouraged to emerge by a respected or feared public authority.
Why shouldn’t six million Jews (the particular number is obviously noteworthy) 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? Why is the “civilized world,” following U.S. President Barack Obama’s “road map,” eagerly preparing to carve yet another terrorist state (“Palestine”) out of the still-living body of Israel? Why, in the enduring matter of a Palestinian state that would inevitably become a new launch point of violent attack upon both American and Israeli interests, are tens of thousands of Jews in the United States and Israel manifestly indifferent to the still-developing Holocaust? Why are these Jews sometimes even actively engaged on the side of our (and their own) common enemies?
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and publishes widely on international relations and international law. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.