Archives for category: Movie
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Credit: USC Institute for Creative Technologies

It won’t be long before people besides Joel Haley Osment start saying, “I see dead people.”

You know how one of the main laments of Holocaust studies for future (and current) generations is that the survivor population is dying out? How books and movies aren’t the same as face-to-face encounters with in-the-flesh survivors? Well, the University of Southern California is trying to do something about it.

According to a recent CNET article, “As the aging Holocaust survivor population dwindles, USC scientists scurry to create life-size 3D holograms that can answer viewer questions through Siri-like voice-recognition technology.”

The hologram initiative is a collaboration between the USC Shoah Foundation and design firm Conscience Display. According to CNET, they are developing “installations that let students and others converse with the hyper-photorealistic life-size digital versions of the survivors. Viewers ask questions, and the holograms respond, thanks to Siri-style natural-language technology, also developed at USC, that allows observers to ask questions that trigger relevant, spoken answers.”

Quick aside: I knew USC was home to Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, but I didn’t know it was responsible for Apple’s Siri technology. Nice. Great way to use what you’ve got and keep things in-house, USC!

The initiative is called New Dimensions in Testimony and USC says it will “display testimony in a way that will continue the dialogue between Holocaust survivors and learners far into the future.”

If you can get past the creepy aspect, (can’t help but see this played out in a Scooby-Doo episode), it sounds like a potentially viable solution to stem the despair of those who feel the memory of the Holocaust will die with its survivors. With the amount of Holocaust literature, art and film already in existence, plus those in the works (like mine) or that will be made in the future, I highly doubt that, but still, it will definitely have a less dire effect when there are no survivors on the ground.

This is the part I like best (aside from the cool hologram element, of course): “New Dimensions in Testimony will yield insights into the experiences of survivors through a new set of interview questions, some that survivors are asked on a regular basis, plus many of which have not been asked before.” (italics mine)

Hopefully they can get this project done quickly while the remaining survivors are still lucid enough to answer these new questions with some degree of clarity. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see. But I must say, I trust these guys at USC. They seem to know what they’re doing.

I’m more interested in the “holy-hologram-wow” factor, but for those of you interested in the techie stuff, the aforementioned CNET article goes into greater detail and includes relevant links.

What do you think about Holocaust holograms? Creepy? Brilliant? Not sure? Do you foresee potential problems or glitches? Do you think kids will be freaked out by this or intrigued? Please, do tell.

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Sugihara-Train-9_4_1940-KaunasLithuania, USHMM, courtesy of Hiroki Sugihara

The Sugihara family headed for Berlin, Sept. 4, 1940. Courtesy of USHMM & Hiroki Sugihara.

I can’t get this image out of my head: Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara leaning out the window of his departing train, illegally signing off on visas to help thousands of Jews escape Hitler’s deathly grasp.

The Huffington Post captures the scene well: “The Japanese government closed the consulate, located in Kovno [aka Kaunas]. But even as Sugihara’s train was about to leave the city, he kept writing visas from his open window. When the train began moving, he gave the visa stamp to a refugee to continue the job.”

In Conspiracy of Kindness, a PBS film documenting Mr. Sugihara’s remarkable story, his wife, Yukiko Sugihara described their last days in Lithuania:

He was so exhausted, like a sick person. Even though he was ordered to go to Berlin, he said he couldn’t make it to Berlin and suggested we go to a hotel and rest before leaving. When we got to the hotel, the Jewish people came looking for us there. So he wrote some more visas in the hotel.

The next day when we got to the train station, they were there too. So he wrote more visas on the platform until the train left. Once we were on board, they were hanging on the windows and he wrote some more. When the train started moving, he couldn’t write any more. Everyone was waving their hands. One of them called out, ‘Thank you Mr. Sugihara, we will come to see you again,’ and he came running after the train. I couldn’t stop crying. When I think about it even now I can’t help crying.

From July 31 through August 28, 1940, Mr. Sugihara issued at least 2,139 visas; in many cases entire families were able to escape on a single visa.

Chiune Sugihara, Kaunas, Lithuania, 1940Credit: USHMM, courtesy of Hiroki Sugihara

Chiune Sugihara, Kaunas, Lithuania, 1940
Credit: USHMM, courtesy of Hiroki Sugihara

There is so much more to his story, much of it heartbreaking, but certainly worth knowing. PBS produced a timeline of his life with just the right amount of details to give us a sense of who this courageous man was. When he was sent to Prague in 1941 after Berlin, he boldly issued another 69 visas.

None of this was without consequence. Upon his return to Japan in 1947 (he and his family were interned in Russia for 18 months after the war ended), he was forced to resign and lived the next 25 years in obscurity, taking on  menial odd jobs including selling light bulbs door to door.

All this time Mr. Sugihara wondered if his visas actually worked. Although many survivors attempted to locate him, no one succeeded until 1968, when visa recipient Joshua Nishri, by then an Israeli diplomat, got in touch with him.

It wasn’t until 1985 though, after amassing hundreds of survivor testimonies attesting to Mr. Sugihara’s brave acts of kindness, that Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, declared him “Righteous Among Nations,” and planted a tree in his name. A park in Jerusalem was also named for him.

The timeline concludes with his death in 1986 at the age of 86, “…having proved beyond doubt that one person can make a difference. By some estimates, more than 40,000 people alive today have him to thank for their very existence. Sugihara once said, recalling his decision in Lithuania in 1940, ‘I may have disobeyed my government, but if I didn’t I would be disobeying God.’ ‘In life,” he said, ‘do what’s right because it’s right, and leave it alone.'”

In 2000, on the 100th anniversary of his death, Japan formally acknowledged his courageous deeds. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Foreign Minister Yohei Kono apologized to Sugihara’s widow, Yukiko, for any ‘troubles’ that Sugihara had suffered and unveiled a plaque at the ministry’s diplomatic record office, where Sugihara’s picture, his story and the list of people to whom he issued visas are now prominently displayed.”

The New York Times referred to him as the “Japanese Schindler.” No disrespect to Mr. Schindler, but Mr. Sugihara saved more lives. (I know that sounds petty and somewhat callous, but hey, it’s true.) Perhaps Mr. Schindler should be called the German Sugihara?

If you’re interested in learning more, have at it:

Beate Sirota Gordon; via The Forward

Beate Sirota Gordon (photo via The Forward)

I love learning about unsung heroes. Especially when they’re women. And Jewish.

Meet Beate Sirota Gordon (pronounced bay-AH-tay). Born in 1923 to Russian Jews who had settled in Vienna, Ms. Gordon lived in Japan from ages 5 to 15; her father, a world-renowned concert pianist, had been courted by the Imperial Academy of Music in Tokyo. In 1939, just before her 16th birthday, she moved to California to study at Mills College; her parents remained in Japan. After the attack on Pearl Harbor she was unable to reach them and had no idea if they were even alive.

Using her skills (fluent in English, German, Japanese, French, Spanish and Russian) and smarts (convinced her professors to let her take her exams without attending classes and secured a job at a U.S. government listening post monitoring radio broadcasts from Tokyo), she slowly but surely figured out how to discover their fate.  As reported by New York Times obituary writer extraordinaire Margalit Fox (now that’s a job I truly envy), Ms. Gordon “later worked in San Francisco for the United States Office of War Information, writing radio scripts urging Japan to surrender.”

Beate Sirota Gordon in 2011; photo: Stephan Babuljak

Beate Sirota Gordon at 2011 Commencement;   Credit: Stephan Babuljak

By the war’s end, she’d graduated from college and had become a U.S. citizen, but she still had no word of her parents. At this time American civilians were not welcome in Japan. By securing a job as an interpreter on General MacArthur’s staff in Washington, D.C., Ms. Gordon eventually made her way to Tokyo on Christmas Eve 1945, where she promptly discovered the depth of the city’s devastation. She went straight to her parents’ house and found a mere charred pillar.

She eventually found her parents, who had been interned in the countryside and were severely malnourished. She nursed them back to health in Tokyo while working for General MacArthur.

The first item on MacArthur’s agenda was to draft a post-war constitution for Japan, a top-secret assignment that had to be completed in one-week’s time. As the lone woman on the committee, Ms. Gordon was assigned the section on women’s rights. She was 22 years old.

“Japanese women were historically treated like chattel; they were property to be bought and sold on a whim,’ Ms. Gordon told The Dallas Morning News in 1999. “Women had no rights whatsoever.”

Among the rights granted as penned by Ms. Gordon were “choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters.” The constitution went into effect in 1947.

She didn’t mention her role in Japan’s constitution until the mid-1980s. Her memoir, The Only Woman in the Room, which came out in 1995, made her a celebrity in Japan. There is also a documentary about her life, “The Gift From Beate.”

Although there must be other stories out there of Jews in Japan during and after WWII, this is the first I’ve read about. If you know of others please send them my way.

As if we needed another reason to heart Mr. Jolie.

IndieWire reports the still-hot actor/producer (Moneyball, The Tree of Life) is going to produce and possibly star in the movie adaptation of Edwin Black‘s, IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation.

Claude Brodesseur-Akner reports in Vulture, New York Magazine’s culture portal,

“While the Holocaust obviously predates the personal computer, it did not precede the information age, and Black’s book answers one of the Holocaust’s most obvious questions: How did the Nazis identify and round up so many Jews with such precision and speed?”

Of course there are other companies complicit in helping the Nazis implement their master plan that are still around today: Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen,  Ford (see Ford and the Führer). Other household names including Krupp, Kellogg and Bayer also profited from forced labor of Holocaust victims.

I remember learning about some of these companies’ involvement when I was younger and swearing I would never purchase or use any of their products. Well, to date I’ve never owned a Ford, Mercedes or VW but I’ve certainly ridden in all three. And I’ve taken Bayer aspirin on more than one occasion and although not a coffee drinker, my husband (the son of two Holocaust survivors) uses a Krupps coffee grinder to get his beans just right. Oh, and Kellogg’s? Please. Like Seinfeld, I could eat cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I’m getting off track here. The purpose of this post is that I’m excited for this movie to be made. And in a weird way I’m glad Brad Pitt is the force behind it, if only for the fact that he’ll be able to attract the right people and backers to get it done.

It’s interesting because you’d think this is a movie Steven Spielberg, with his Shoah Foundation and Oscar-winning Schindler’s List, would make. But I’m glad that it’s being made by a gentile — a smart, sexy, talented gentile, at that. I like when nonmembers of the tribe take up our cause.

Movie still from "In Darkness," courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

After the success of her 1990 film Europa, Europa, director Agnieszka Holland swore she’d never do another  Holocaust movie. 

“I feel like I said all I wanted to say,” she tells SFGate.com. She even lists the potential dangers of fictionalizing the Holocaust in an interview with the Washington Post:

Being moralistic, being sentimental, looking for some good-feeling lesson coming from this experience, because I think it’s impossible to have one. Making all the Jewish characters some kind of faceless angels. To make it black and white. To make it accusatory. To re-create clichés that have already been told many times.”

Oh, and then there are these beauties, in reference to being pursued by a screenwriter and producer team:

They wanted to make it as an English film with some American star playing the lead. I have seen these English-speaking Holocaust films, and I think they are bad.

I didn’t want to make another Holocaust story in English. I just felt that it would be fake.”

And yet, In Darkness, her new Holocaust film about a Polish petty thief who helped save Jews by helping them navigate the sewer system, is up for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. What made this one different?

The screenwriter kept coming back to me, and at some point I started having dreams about it, so I thought maybe I better do it. And they agreed to shoot it in the original languages (Polish, German, Yiddish and Ukrainian). I wanted the audience to experience the movie, to really have the feeling that they made the journey and I think language is important to that.”

I haven’t seen the film yet, but it’s on my list. If you’ve seen it, please share your thoughts (without disclosing any spoilers, of course) in the space below.

 

Several months ago I wrote about Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest living Holocaust survivor. She’s still alive and presumably tickling the ivories, but she’s also another year older. Tomorrow, November 26, she will be 108 years old.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY ALICE!!!

According to this article on Czechposition.com, Alice swam daily until age 97, still plays piano daily, and is an eternal optimist (How could she not be? Imagine living that long with a sour disposition? Doesn’t seem possible…). Hope I’m half as spry at half her age.

The video above is one of many that were done in April 2008. There’s a total of 12 clips; here’s a link to all of them.

Filmmaker Eva Zelig

The seven-minute video above opens with a slowly rotating montage of sepia-tone photographs showing well-dressed European families circa 1920s and 1930s. The film pauses on each photograph while red-lettered words appear near each person’s face. They read: “Fled” or “Hidden” or “Killed.” Sometimes all three will appear within one family.

The ones who fled went to Ecuador, an unlikely destination for European Jews. Visas were hard to come by so they went to whatever countries would accept them. Apparently Ecuador had an open immigration policy for Jews then, as they were interested in developing the country. Many of the 4,000 Jews who went to Ecuador didn’t even know the country existed, and ended up there because so many other countries closed their doors to them.

I didn’t know that so many European Jews ended up in Ecuador. I heard about this project from a friend of a friend and don’t know Eva Zelig, the filmmaker, personally. Yet I was excited to come upon her video and can’t wait to see the documentary in full. The only way that will happen is if Eva reaches her fundraising goal of $35,000 by December 12. So far she’s raised upwards of $16,000 from people like you and me. I gave what I could, which was enough to entitle me to a copy of the DVD when it is finished, estimated to be September 2012. If you haven’t already, please watch the clip and if you’re moved to do so, please contribute what you can (you’ll also get to be in the film’s credits). I, for one, can’t wait to see the final cut.

Financial executive turned documentary filmmaker Mary Skinner says 9/11 inspired her to do something more meaningful with her life. It took several years and lots of obstacles, but she did it and the fruits of her labor are wholly apparent.

In the Name of Their Mothers is Skinner’s documentary film about Polish war hero Irena Sendler, who was little known until four Kansas teenagers wrote a play about her for a school project.

Sendler, a Catholic social worker in Poland, organized an underground rescue network in the Warsaw Ghetto, ultimately smuggling 2,500 Jewish children to safety. Sendler says she knocked on doors and “talked Jewish mothers out of their children.”

As reported by Helen Zelon in the September issue of More magazine, “During nearly eight years of film-making and multiple trips to Poland, [Skinner] fought bureaucratic snafus and language barriers,” to bring this project to light. Despite a snafu that disqualified her from entering American film festivals, her documentary was picked up by PBS and debuted in the U.S. on Holocaust Remembrance Day, May 11, 2011.

And this just skims the surface of inspirational stories Skinner wants to share with viewers. According to the article in More, “Skinner has a trove of World War II stories, and is now branching out into educational film projects.”

Cool. Can’t wait to see more.

Eva Kor

As many of us know first hand, hate takes a lot more energy than forgiveness, and yet for so many of us it’s hard to let go of the rage. It’s comfortable in a way because it doesn’t ask us to change, it doesn’t ask us to look deeper inside ourselves, it doesn’t ask us to consider the fragility of the other person, an enemy, someone we despise.

Eva Kor and her twin sister Miriam were among the 1,500 twins (amounting to 3,000 children) Dr. Josef Mengele experimented on in Auschwitz. After 50 years of carrying the weight of insurmountable hatred for Mengele, often called the “Angel of  Death,” Eva forgave him. That was in 1995, two years after Miriam died of bladder cancer at age 59, a direct result of being one of Mengele’s human guinea-pigs. “Miriam’s kidneys stopped growing,” says Eva on The Forgiveness Project website. “They remained the size of a child’s all her life.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eva and Miriam were 10 years old when they arrived in Auschwitz. Mengele used them for many of his cruel genetic experiments, injecting them with potentially lethal strains of bacteria and not giving treatment. Mengele killed some of his twins immediately so he could dissect their bodies for research. Only 100 pairs (total of 200 children) survived his death lab. Eva and Miriam survived, if barely. There was a point when Mengele stood over a very ill Eva and said she’d be dead in two weeks.

Eva speaks eloquently about her decision to grant amnesty to Dr. Mengele: “Forgiveness is really nothing more than an act of self-healing and self-empowerment. I call it a miracle medicine. It is free, it works and has no side effects.

“I believe with every fiber of my being that every human being has the right to live without the pain of the past. For most people there is a big obstacle to forgiveness because society expects revenge. It seems we need to honor our victims but I always wonder if my dead loved ones would want me to live with pain and anger until the end of my life. Some survivors do not want to let go of the pain. They call me a traitor and accuse me of talking in their name. I have never done this. Forgiveness is as personal as chemotherapy – I do it for myself.”

If you want to learn more, watch this five-minute trailer for Forgiving Dr. Mengele, a 2006 documentary about Eva. Her dissenters, among them other surviving Mengele twins, are very vocal and given equal camera time to voice their outrage and opposition.

This short  film, Porcelain Unicorn, won last year’s “Tell It Your Way” competition in which entrants were given freedom of expression and could take up any theme. However, they were bound to two constraints:

1. The dialogue had to be exactly six lines.
2. The film could not exceed three minutes.

The sole judge was director-producer Sir Ridley Scott.

I was impressed with how much was packed into so little. Such attention to detail and it really created a tangible mood, as if you were there in Germany 1943. Someone on Youtube commented that he’d seen a three-hour film and experienced less emotion. That same commenter also wrote, “There was no need for the Jewish Nazi point — this would be moving whatever the belief system portrayed.”

I don’t quite get that argument, as this was a vignette of a brief but powerful interaction between a Nazi youth and a Jewish girl. If it was a film about two people of other denominations, then it would have been a different film. This was what writer/director Keegan Wilcox wanted to portray. I don’t get the commenter’s beef. Do you?  Watch it and see for yourself and let me know what you think.

P.S. A shout out to my mom for alerting me to the Porcelain Unicorn. I had no idea it even existed. Thanks Mom!