262: International Holocaust Day

Archival Spaces 262

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Uploaded 5 February 2021

On 1 November 2005, the United Nations General Assembly designated 27 January as “International Holocaust Remembrance Day,” in order to commemorate the liberation by Soviet Russian forces of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau on 27 January 1945. According to the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The purpose of International Holocaust Remembrance Day is two-fold: to serve as a date for official commemoration of the victims of the Nazi regime and to promote Holocaust education throughout the world. UN Resolution 60/7 also specifically rejects any form of Holocaust denial, and encourages national and local governments to physically preserve geographic sites of the so-called “Final Solution.” Finally, the resolution condemns all forms of religious intolerance, as well as incitement to violence against any minority ethnic or religious communities.

I began this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day by tuning into a virtual concert on Zoom, sponsored by the German General Consulate/Stephan Schneider and the Holocaust Museum L.A./Beth Kean, which featured pianist Morris Ernst playing selections from various composers who had been driven into exile by the Nazis, including Arnold Schoenberg, Walter Arlen, Eric Zeisl, Arthur Lourié, as well as Viktor Ullmann, who was murdered in Auschwitz. Walter Arlen is still with us at 100 years(https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/blogs/archival-spaces/2019/08/16/happy-birthday-walter-arlen).

Jessica Jestain: The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

In the evening I watched The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017,Nki Caro), one of now over 1000 films that touches on one aspect or another of the Holocaust. The color film, starring Jennifer Chastain, relates the story of Jan and Antonina Żabiński, a Polish zookeeper and his wife, who were responsible for rescuing several hundred Jews from the Warsaw ghetto. An international co-production, shot in the Czech Republic with American funding, the film focuses, like Schindler’s List (1993, Steven Spielberg), on the “Righteous among the Nations,” those non-Jews who risked their lives to save victims of the Holocaust. The film is certainly worth watching, although as some reviewers opined, the animals are handled with more emotion than the emaciated ghetto inhabitants. The exception is Shira Haas, the diminutive Israeli actress who shined in TV’s Shtisl (2013- ) and Unorthodox (2020), who steals the show as a pubescent girl raped by two German guards. But the ending, which finds the Polish family reunited and undamaged offers a feel-good moment for audiences and allows them to forget that the Jewish survivors invariably lost their whole families and often remained traumatized for life. Visualizing the Holocaust is fraught with difficulties, even when intentions are good.

The first Holocaust film I ever saw was Erwin Leiser’s Mein Kampf (1960). I was eleven years old when my parents went to a drive-in to see the film, leaving us children in the back seat to sleep. I didn’t. I watched, understanding little. However, the images of naked women being chased into the gas chambers were burned into my brain, making me worry about my own family. But it was in college when I saw Night and Fog (1956), Alain Resnais’ short documentary that the true horror of the Holocaust hit me. I had to run to the bathroom to puke when the shot of the mountains of hair came on the screen. I felt the materiality of those objects as stark symbols for the absent lives, snuffed out in an industrial process of genocide. The power of Resnais’ film lay in its highly poetic commentary by Jean Cayrol over  images of the abandoned camps at Auschwitz, endlessly tracking along barracks walls, showing mountains of suitcases, shoes, clothing, and hair, all that remained of millions of victims. By then, I also knew my dad had been a concentration camp survivor, though not a death camp. It is one reason I became a life-long student of the Holocaust, beginning with my dissertation on anti-Nazi Films.

Nuit et Brouillard (1956)

The first Nazi Konzentrationslager (KZ) camp I saw was Terezín/Theresienstadt, which I visited with my parents in 1965 when I was fourteen. Because it was an old garrison town that had been converted to a ghetto, I didn’t completely comprehend that the town had been a death camp. Much later I saw the Nazi documentary Theresienstadt (1944), wrongly identified for decades as Hitler Gives the Jews a City, and Alfred Radok’s The Distant Journey (1950), which used stylized imagery to visualize the town’s horrors. Not that any single film can make sense of the Holocaust. Indeed, the Holocaust cannot be adequately visualized in any one film and the Nazi KZ sites themselves only give an inkling of the genocide unless accompanied by educational tools. But memorial sites can have an emotional impact.

Terezin/Theresienstadt. All Nazi work camps featured this slogan: “Work Makes You Free.”

Travelling to Italy to see my parents in 1979, I and a fellow student stopped in Dachau at my suggestion. We spent several hours in the camp and museum, then talked for hours about German history as we drove on to a village in Austria where Thomas’s grandmother lived. I explained to him that Dachau was much like Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg, the work camp where my father was incarcerated, but that inmates were not expected to survive. They were not extermination camps, like Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor. At his grandma’s I noticed several photos in the sitting room with young men in SS uniforms. When Thomas asked his grandma about them, she started beaming, proudly explaining that her husband had been Gauleiter; two of her sons (T’s uncles) were in the elite SS unit, Leibstandard Adolf Hitler. Thomas was in such shock that he had developed a psychosomatic illness by the time we got to Italy. Thomas associated his grandmother with care-free summer holidays as a child, and only now realized that his immediate family belonged to the front line perpetrators.


My own epiphany about the true extent of the Holocaust and the industrialized nature of the Nazi genocide came when I traveled to Oświęcim/Auschwitz in 1988.  I had binge-watched Claude Lazmann’s Shoah (1986) on video, before screening it at George Eastman Museum, but even that film didn’t give me a sense of the monstrous geographic space of Birkenau’s death camp. First going to Auschwitz I (work camp), the tour began with a short Russian documentary, made in 1945, which did not even mention the word Jew and featured a Catholic funeral. Finding the death camp (Auschwitz II) also took some energy, since there was no signage anywhere. When I finally did, I couldn’t believe the size of the camp. The ramp was over a mile long. Just stunning. Another shock was to see that ordinary Poles were living in the house of Rudolf Höss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, while other Poles lived in newer housing within 100 feet of the gas chambers. Seeing the real camp also made me realize that some of the most famous Holocaust films failed to differentiate between work and death camps, including classic examples, like Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stage (1948) or Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo(1960).

Given the fact that 63% of Millennials and GenX do not know that six million died in the Nazi genocide, we can never have enough films about the Holocaust.

Kapo (1960, Gillo Pontecorvo)

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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