My mother, seeking to protect her sensitive, fearful oldest child, urged me not to see the movie scheduled for the hotel ballroom that evening, “Let My People Go”. I knew nothing about the film, except that all the teenagers at the convention would be seeing it. I was seven or eight, and curious, and I wanted to see the movie, which was the only thing to do that evening anyway.
“You’re too young to see these things,” my mother told me tensely, “when you had nightmares about Tarzan I could show you pictures of the actors, assure you it wasn’t real.” Which was true, she’d gone to the library and found books that proved her case. After her photographic proof that the actors who played the savage cannibals wore regular clothes, drove cars, laughed, played with their own kids, spoke English, the nightmares in which my mother, like Jane, was struck down by a cannibal’s hurled spear, stopped.
That strategy had also worked a few years earlier when terror of another flood like in the time of Noah, vividly depicted by a children’s book illustrator with an Italian name my mother always recited in connection with this story — ah! Tony Palazzo!– kept me awake at night. She drove me past rows of houses on the beach and my fear succumbed to Reason.
“But these things in the movie really happened, and not that long ago, and they were horrible, and I don’t think you’re ready to see them.” And she was right, but having been told many times by my childish, blustering father that I was not too young to start acting like a man, goddamn it, I was determined to see the move come hell, high-water or spear throwing cannibals.
The movie started innocuously enough, woodcuts and old paintings, mosaics, pictures of ruins, a narrator detailing the ‘lachrymose history’, as I’d later come to know it, of the tireless persecution of the Jews. There were the pyramids, built by Hebrew slaves, a familiar story to me, nothing shocking there. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians, not a trauma to me, I thought smugly to myself. The subsequent exile, I was young to grasp how traumatic this might have been. The Romans destroyed the rebuilt temple, OK, that’s a shame, but I didn’t like going to temple anyway.
The movie was clearly building to something, I was not too young to miss the terrible foreshadowing as the persecution and exile of ancient times became a steadily heavier drumbeat. Now some crude depictions of Jews put to the sword during the rise of warlike Islam, pretty bad, but just drawings. In Christian Europe, meanwhile, the Dark Ages had descended, harsh, brutal lives lived under the pall of monkish ignorance and superstition, and the Jews to blame. By the Middle Ages the Jews were entrenched in collective Christian consciousness as the crucifiers of Jesus Christ, the son of God and the Christian Messiah. That we were blamed for killing the Messiah came as a shock to me, I’d always thought the Messiah hadn’t come to earth yet, that once the Messiah arrived the hearts of children would be returned to their parents, forgiveness would be universal and there would be no further violence or cruelty, no death.
The torturers and hooded Klansmen of the Spanish Inquisition stood out to me, the auto de fe, trial by being burned to death, was truly horrible. Things quickly escalated from there, pogroms, the music got more tense, and soon there were some black and white photographs. In Russia, blood libels against Jews, claims that Jewish monsters killed Christian children to make matzoh on Passover. This made no sense to me, even an idiot knew that matzoh was basically flour and water, where did the dead Christian child come into it? A photograph of a grim French military man, falsely accused of treason against France and executed, though everyone in France, and everywhere else, knew he’d been set up because he was Jewish. Theodore Herzl’s photograph, with that beard practically begging to be carved in marble, the dream of a Jewish State and now the filmmakers kicked into high gear. This is what they’d been building up to.
Centuries of persecution of a small, decent people, driven from their homeland, vilified and hated everywhere they settled, expelled from Spain and every place else, murdered with impunity– there was only one solution: a return to our homeland. This would not be without struggle, in part because those on the land that would be our homeland considered it their homeland, not ours. Deals were made, land bought, proposals made, unmade, snags hit, navigated, more snags. Nobody, it was clear by now, was in any hurry to help the Jews.
Meanwhile, more killing of Jews in Europe, persecutions in the Arab lands. Suddenly, oh boy, there’s a familiar Jew hater– Adolf Hitler. I had a feeling he’d show up in this shit show. There he is, dancing a mad jig after the fall of Poland. Turns out this ‘jig’ was the creation of Allied propagandists using a technique I myself would use decades later, repeating a sequence of frames over and over and speeding them up to achieve a desired effect. These propagandists took a one second sequence of Hitler laughing and stamping his jackbooted foot and repeated it enough times to create a convincingly mad, cackling dance. I knew nothing about this trickery, an insignificant detail in context, as I watched in rising horror.
The violins on the soundtrack began weeping more emphatically. Then, as I looked around me at crying teen-aged faces in heavy cigarette smoke, there was the footage, shot by the Nazis themselves, of exactly what my mother had cried to try to stop me from seeing. A terrified boy my age with his hands up, savage beatings, Jewish corpses lying on the sidewalk. This was terrifying imagery. Then there was the guy with the wheelbarrow, on grainy black and white film, moving resolutely forward. The giant wheelbarrow was filled with jiggly, rubber looking skeletons. He was wearing a cap and smoking a cigarette. He came to the edge of a huge pit, upended the wheel barrow and dropped the corpses down a chute. They wriggled down the ramp, landed on top of hundreds more naked dead skeletons.
I ran up the aisle through the crying audience, got to the elevator, to the room, saw my little sister’s shocked face as I burst into the room and, a second later, projectile vomited. My mother hugged me, crying, and said “I told you….”