The Eternal Jew
The most horrific and upsetting images I have ever seen were from the BBC World at War programme about the Holocaust. The walking skeletons with their empty eyes and the piles of skin and bones that were once living people being moved about by farm machinery in the concentration camps. I was 16 years old and on Israel Tour with my youth club and we were in a classroom at Yad Vashem, the museum of the Holocaust. I have never been able to erase those memories but I have developed a trigger response and if my brain thinks that there is a possibility of me seeing an image like that again, my hands are on standby to shield my eyes.
My trigger response was alerted this week as I sat down to watch The Eternal Jew, a Nazi propaganda film made in 1940, as part of my research. I watched it on YouTube so I had my finger on the Escape button - but I didn't need to use it. Does it sound weird to say that I was pleasantly surprised? Have I subjected myself to so much Holocaust research lately that this film seemed pretty lightweight. Was this the best the Nazis could come up with?
I imagined watching it through the eyes of a group of 14 year old Jewish boys in early 1944. Would they have been horrified to be told that the Jews were controlling Hollywood and Wall Street? To see footage of Charlie Chaplin receiving a warm welcome in Berlin? To see examples of erotic art and publications which were once considered to be great modern art but were now classified as pornography? Or to watch a Polish Jewish family eating, drinking, singing and laughing around the dining room table to celebrate Purim? I couldn't imagine that group of boys getting very upset about any of those things, particularly not the erotic images!
Of course this film was not made for an audience of adolescent Jewish boys and I must also add that there were some very direct anti-Semitic statements made: "The Jews are a race of parasites", "The Jews are a sick, deceitful, poisonous race", and at the end Hitler calling for "the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe" but overall watching this film gave me an idea of how the Nazis were able to convince the ordinary German people, suffering from terrible economic hardships at the time and still reeling from the last world war, that getting rid of the Jews would be the 'final solution' to their problems.
I guess the question is, which is the more powerful – the horrific images which never leave you or the subtle propaganda which led to the murder of 6 million people?
Stig Hornshøj-Møller, a Danish historian, says of the film "It seems almost impossible that the same film which, in 1940, produced "shouts of disgust and loathing" engineered by the Minister of Propaganda, is now greeted with laughter and - more importantly - insight. Can the greatest antisemitic film of all time now be a tool for greater understanding of prejudice, and for empathy with its victims?"
Interesting to note also that "The film has been banned for public use in Germany, the only exception is use in college classrooms and other academic gatherings; however, exhibitors must have formal education in "media science and the history of the Holocaust." It is obviously clearly available on YouTube where I accessed it without any restrictions this week.