(Written in 2014)
I just returned from an emotional trip to Germany in which I met many Survivors and their families. Each and every person that was part of the large group (80+) had a disturbing story to tell and with each new tale I cried all the more. These are all special people, and not just because they experienced horrendous crimes against humanity and lived to tell the tale.
I met four Survivors, all men, who followed the exact same trajectory as my father had. They were born into a solid middle class life in Lodz, Poland, only to have it violently and irrevocably stripped away, replaced by life in the Lodz Ghetto. In 1944, they were all sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. When they thought it couldn’t get any worse (how do you top Auschwitz??), they were sent to Germany to be a slave in a tire factory run by Continental-Gumi (which is still a huge company that won’t publicly acknowledge it’s participation in these war crimes), and finally, to Ahlem, which according to them was the worst of the worst. It was a concentration camp in which they had to work as slaves underground in mines and tunnels with no protective gear, overcrowded unsanitary conditions, and malnourishment (to say the least).
Imagine my shock when I discovered one of the Survivors (Chaim Liss) lived in the same apartment building as my father and his family before the war! What were the odds? Meeting and talking with these men and their respective sons (and one grandson) has been life changing for me. These fellow 2Gs are the brothers I always wanted – caring, fiercely intelligent, interested, compassionate, and powerful each in their own unique way. We talked, we cried, we laughed, and drank way too much in the hotel lobby bar after all the day’s events.
Since I’ve returned to my real life here in Los Angeles, I’m struck by a nagging feeling – What to do with all this? I want to create art, help promote tolerance and end anti-semitism, as the German group who hosted us all want to do. I want to keep the individual stories alive, of which there are so many – too many – each one more brutal than the next. I want to write a screenplay with my (new) brothers in which we finally make a Hollywood movie about the Holocaust told from the prisoners/slaves point-of-view, which would be more action packed than anything out there today.
But I also feel like ‘John Sullivan’ from the brilliant film by Preston Sturges, “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941). In the movie, Sullivan is a man who is famous for making popular comic movies but feels his work lacks deeper meaning. He goes on-the-road as a vagabond in order to learn about the Everyman’s tribulations so he can make serious films that matter. His chaotic travels lead him to get into a lot of trouble and he ends up as a prisoner on a chain-gang. Life on the chain-gang is far worse than anything he could have imagined. Stripped of all freedom, dignity, and clean clothes, the men become shells of their former selves. The climax of the film is when all the prisoners, including Sullivan, receive a much needed respite; still tied to each other with chains and shackles, they are led into a church and made to watch a Mickey Mouse cartoon. The relief of laughing at something so “mindless” transforms the tortured men into joyous human beings, not a care in the world.
Sullivan has traveled the country looking for hardship only to discover, “there’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”
The events in Germany were happening while the war raged between Israelis and Palestinians. A lot of the families I met were from Israel, and so there was endless discussions on the subject. My three brothers and our German hosts talked about how to resolve the conflict and end anti-Semitism, but collectively we came to the conclusion we have no idea.
I was going to interview Germans-On-The-Street, asking them about The Holocaust. That was my big fantasy. When faced with the reality, I didn’t want to disturb their lovely Saturday afternoon. They had nothing to do with what happened. Like me, they were born into a shameful legacy at random. The luck of the draw. What can be done now but just live your life with gratitude and kindness? And laugh a lot, every chance you get.