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Breaking the 'Big Silence' : 'Schindler's List' Forces Germans to Look at Their History

March 07, 1994|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FRANKFURT, Germany — Young Germans often call it "the big silence." At home, among family, talk of the Holocaust was taboo. Children learned quickly that the subject was too painful, too shameful for their parents and grandparents to face. And most stopped asking.

Now, Steven Spielberg, a Jewish-American film director who lost 10 relatives in the Holocaust, gives them "Schindler's List" and tells them that it is not only OK to ask questions, it is essential to look history in the eye without shame.

"Germany is ready and waiting and willing--the new generation of Germans--to look at their past and not put it behind them but bring it with them throughout their lives," Spielberg said at the film's German premiere Tuesday in this city where Schindler spent his last years. "Not as a way of paying penance or expressing guilt or shame but as a way of understanding that we cannot put the present or future to right until we make peace with our past."

Will his message be heeded? Seldom in Germany has a film generated such emotion and soul-searching as "Schindler's List," the story of the "good German," businessman Oskar Schindler, who did what most Germans could not or would not do: Save Jews from the Nazi extermination.

"Everyone should see this film," the conservative daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine stated categorically in a front-page review.

Spielberg's film "is an event of contemporary history," added the liberal Die Zeit newspaper critic.

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But at the same time, many German reviewers are asking why a German has never made this film. And some Germans say "Schindler's List" is too long and too sad to bother seeing.

As in other countries, German audiences are filing out of theaters at the end of the three-hour film in stunned silence, like mourners leaving a funeral.

"I am totally shattered," Thomas Schreier, 24, an insurance salesman said after opening night in Berlin.

The film gives Germans a hero through which they can look at the Holocaust, a pain-reliever they have not always had. But it also raises uncomfortable questions: If Schindler resisted the Nazis, why didn't so many others? If Schindler found out what was happening, why didn't the others who say they never knew?

The film forces younger Germans to ask what they would have done in their parents' shoes, and the answer is not always what they would hope.

Over coffee after seeing "Schindler's List," university student Bert Schleimer says that he was 12 years old when he learned the full horror of the Holocaust's 6 million dead Jews. He came home from school and angrily confronted his father, who had been a teen-age soldier in the Third Reich.

"I asked, 'What did you do?' And he said, 'You are young and haven't seen. You wouldn't have done anything either.' And now I fear he is right."

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As a child, Andrej Pomtow tried to broach the subject of the war many times with his parents and grandparents, but with little success. Then he heard his grandparents refer to a green armchair in their home as "the Jew's chair" and was told that they had bought it cheaply during the war from Jews forced to sell their belongings before fleeing.

"When I learned where the chair came from, I was really shocked," said the 27-year-old Pomtow. Only then did he find out from his mother that his grandfather had been a soldier, his grandmother a Nazi collaborator, and that they were ashamed.

At the Frankfurt premiere, Spielberg described how Schindler's story brought about his mid-life metamorphosis from entertainment movie-maker to the director of the world's most ambitious Holocaust film. It is a transformation that sounds much like Schindler's own evolution, and one that Spielberg hopes to share with generations of Germans.

Even as Spielberg reminded Germans that anti-Semitism "predates Nazi Germany by many hundreds of years," anti-Semites were throwing bricks and a firebomb at a synagogue in the Ruhr valley city of Essen. In the southwestern town of Karlsruhe, a bomb threat was called into the crowded theater where the film opened.

Neo-Nazis are a small but vocal minority in Germany, Spielberg said.

Asked if he feared that the film would assuage German consciences, he said, "I hope that's true. It could ease the conscience."

Spielberg wants Germans to look, listen and learn. But the Bonn University students said many of their friends felt the movie was too long and wouldn't go see it. Their parents, they said, found the subject too disturbing.

When asked how he felt about "Schindler's List," Pomtow chose to focus on technical aspects, as if to avoid its moral content. But his colleague, Bert Schleimer, responded as Spielberg might have hoped.

"This is not my history directly, but it is my country and I have to be careful that the Holocaust does not happen again," Schleimer said. "We have to work to convince people that all people are the same, that if (immigrants) come to Germany, they don't leave their homes without reason. They are in fear, maybe for their lives. And they need help. We have to do something against racism."

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Researcher Andreas Scharpf of The Times' Berlin bureau contributed to this report.

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