In recent years, Hollywood, for better or worse, has played a significant role in educating the public about the Holocaust and its contemporary implications. Sophie's Choice, Schindler's List, Life is Beautiful, the recently released Aftermath, along with many other films, have created some degree of popular cognizance about the nature of the Holocaust, the role of rescuers, forms of resistance and contemporary manifestations of anti-Semitism.
These films are obviously not a substitute for serious scholarship, pedagogy, or the inclusion of Holocaust curricula in our nation's schools. But they can provide a window to a wider awareness about the darkest chapter in the annals of Western civilization, and should be applauded, even as commercial enterprises, for their ability to impart critical lessons and knowledge to young people and adults.
This is why The Book Thief, based on the popular 2005 novel by Markus Zusak, is an important new contribution to the Holocaust film genre.
The film's protagonist, an illiterate girl named Liesel Meminger, is orphaned in Nazi Germany after her mother is imprisoned for her Communist beliefs. She is adopted and embraced by a simple older couple in a small village.
As the Nazi savagery unfolds, the girl's adoptive parents hide a young Jewish man in their basement. Her adoptive father intervenes as the Nazis pull a Jewish man from his shop. In response, he is beaten and ultimately drafted, notwithstanding his advanced age. Others in the town, of course, either embrace or are indifferent to the Nazis' fascism and anti-Semitism.
Leisel is taught to read by her adoptive father and gains an appreciation for literature by the wife of the town's mayor as well as the Jewish man hidden by her parents. Leisel is able to transcend the bigotry that surrounds her through education, drawing personal strength and elevating those around her through her blossoming literacy.
On one level, as some critics have noted, the film does not break new ground. Depictions of brutality under Nazi rule and variegated responses of ordinary Germans, including efforts of righteous gentiles to save Jews, are not new. Some critics have also challenged the overall depiction as sanitized, almost halcyon, relative to the horrors of the Holocaust.
Yet this film is important, particularly for young adults. One of the challenges on this 75th anniversary year of Kristallnacht is the reality that survivors are aging. There are fewer and fewer individuals able to bear personal witness - to move students the way so many have been in recent decades because they were privileged to hear first-person testimony.
Given that reality, popular culture can fulfill an important educational role. This film is based on a book that was on the New York Times best-seller list for 230 weeks and sold more than eight million copies in 30 languages. The book, while read and enjoyed by many adults, was really crafted for adolescents. And, indeed, that is where the movie can and should have the greatest impact.
It is an accessible film that in many ways does depict the realities of Nazi Germany and the environment that led to the murder of six million Jews and millions of others in the gas chambers. A bit sanitized - perhaps. Well suited for young adults - absolutely. The film provides a candid and age-appropriate vantage point for younger viewers and indeed may be an entry point to awareness and further exploration.
It's also important because of its underlying message - the power of words and literature. As someone who lived through World War II in Poland as a hidden child, I know all-too well the power of words to demonize and dehumanize and also to inspire the noblest and bravest responses. After all, the Holocaust did not begin with the bricks of Auschwitz. It began with words, angry words, hateful words.
In The Book Thief¸ the Jewish man hidden by Liesel's family gives her a present, a diary, and tells her, "In my religion we're taught that every living thing, every leaf, every bird is only alive because it contains the secret word for life. That's the only difference between us and a lump of clay. A word. Words are life."
Words are indeed life, and sometimes can make the difference between life and death. It's my hope that the central message of The Book Thief resonates with young adults and inspires them to constructively challenge bigotry and discrimination they too often witness and experience in their own lives. If that happens, then this film will have made an important contribution.