Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Home for the Holidays: the Poignant Lessons of “The Long Way Home”

The passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg just before the start of Rosh Hashanah has introduced many of us to the Jewish High Holy Day period, which begins with a New Year celebration and culminates 10 days later with Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement. This designated period of self-scrutiny has encouraged me to be introspective too. In a contemplative frame of mind, I watched The Long Way Home, a documentary that won a 1998 Oscar for its unsparing look at what happened to European Jewish refugees after their liberation from Nazi death camps in 1945. The footage, movingly narrated by Morgan Freeman, is a reminder of the power of documentaries to unearth aspects of reality we’d prefer to keep hidden. Moriah Films, the production arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (which is the sponsor, as well, of L.A.’s Museum of Tolerance) is adept at using documentaries to drive home lessons from the past that impinge on our lives today.

 Appropriately, the clip below from The Long Way Home contains archival footage of an event that’s both hopeful and painfully sad: of Holocaust survivors crowded together on Yom Kippur day at the Feldafing Displaced Persons Camp in Germany, fervently chanting memorial prayers for the loved ones they’ve lost at the hands of Nazi overlords. It’s September 1945 and they’re alive, though barely: in many cases their entire families have been wiped off the face of the earth.

 What makes the moment disturbing rather than triumphant is the fact that this D.P. camp—like others scattered across Europe—is being run like a military prison.     There’s barbed wire and cramped barracks: harsh discipline, too, for those who don’t follow the rules. As someone says, “the camp is filthy beyond words, sanitation is virtually unknown. With few exceptions the people of the camps themselves are demoralized beyond the hope of rehabilitation.” Over a shot of a group of men sprawled in a heap, staring off into space, a camp inhabitant chimes in: “We are living like a litter of puppies.” A visiting U.S. official named Harrison sends home a damning report: “As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them, except that we do not exterminate them.” He fears this is a lesson that the German people will be happy to take to heart: that Jews are indeed not worthy of being considered human beings.

 President Truman appealed to British prime minister Clement Attlee to make the humanitarian gesture of admitting a large number of displaced Jews to Palestine, but his request was flatly turned down. Soon after the heart-wrenching Yom Kippur service at Feldafing Camp, General Eisenhower himself came to visit, along with General George Patton. Eisenhower too was dismayed by the camp’s squalor, and demanded changes. Patton thereby removed military guards, but considered this a major mistake. As he noted in his diary, “If the Jews were not kept under guard they would not stay in the camps. They’d spread over the country like locusts . . .  [Sympathetic U.S. official] Harrison and his ilk believe the D.P. is a human being, which he is not. This applies particularly to the Jews, who are lower than animals.”

Chilling words, which help explain a widespread way of thinking that allowed the Holocaust to occur in the first place. To his everlasting credit, Eisenhower removed Patton (whose blunt heroics we well know through the 1970 film starring George C. Scott) from having a say over the fate of displaced Jews. Still, the documentary shows how their tragedy continued even once the war was over.


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