Holocaust Memorial Day 2019

This year marks not only the eightieth anniversary of the Second World War, it is also the seventy-fifth anniversary of a lesser known, yet important film None Shall Escape, the first Hollywood film to openly depict Nazi brutality towards Jews.

In this film, made more than a year before the Allied victory in Europe, the main character is Wilhelm Grimm. Grimm is a defendant before an international war crimes tribunal for his conduct as the Nazi commandant of occupation forces in Litzbark, Poland, a village where he had lived prior to the Second World War. His biography is revealed in the testimony of witnesses before the tribunal. From the testimony, the audience learns that Grimm leaves the village in disgrace because of the rape and subsequent suicide of one of his former students, with the victim dead, a mistrial is declared. He is given financial aid to leave Litzbark by Father Warecki, the village priest, and Rabbi David Levine. He goes to live with his brother in Germany and is seduced by the Nazi propaganda. He returns to Litzbark after the Nazi invasion of Poland and inflicts misery on the people of that village.

The genesis of this film originated with Sam Bischoff, a producer at Columbia Pictures, in 1942. He learned from a statement by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the Allies were gathering information about war crimes committed by the Nazis. To ensure accuracy, the studio sent the script to the U.S. State Department for review. The filming was completed in two months (August-October 1943) and directed by the Hungarian Andre DeToth. Four years earlier, DeToth’s camera captured the images of the Nazi invasion of Poland.

At the 1944 premiere, the audience witnessed acts of Nazi brutality, as personified by the character Wilhelm Grimm. A Polish synagogue is converted into horse stables on the rational that “Horses are more important than Jews”. The Nazis make a propaganda newsreel of smiling Jews in the village receiving food, yet once the camera is turned off, the food is taken away. Eventually, the Jews in Litzbark are herded onto railroad cars, destined for concentration camps. Grimm orders Rabbi Levine to quiet the crowd and convince them to comply. The Rabbi defies Grimm and instructs the people to resist. Grimm repays the kindness of the Rabbi shown earlier in the film with a bullet, murdering him in the presence of his congregation.

The film earned an Oscar nomination for Best Story, but lost to the Bing Crosby film, Going My Way. American audiences might best remember one of the cast from this film, Henry Travers, who portrayed Father Warecki, as the Angel Clarence in the 1946 film It’s A Wonderful Life.

In 1944, Joshua Kaufman had no time or opportunity to watch None Shall Escape, but he could tell anyone who would listen much about Nazi atrocities. He was confined to the concentration camp at Dachau. His sentiment about his American liberators was summed up in this quote “To me, the American soldiers were proof that God exists, and they came down from the sky”. Sgt. Herman Zeitchik, a veteran of D-Day, was one of the American heroes who liberated Dachau. This year, these two men were among the guests of President Donald Trump at the State of the Union address, two men united by war three quarters of a century ago, one a survivor, the other a savior, both guests of honor of the President of the United States, while the Nazis Zeitchik fought and Kaufman endured remain in their graves covered in eternal ignominy.

One of the phrases associated with the Holocaust is “Never Forget”, yet recent events cause me to wonder if there is now arising a generation of people whose motto about the Holocaust would be “Never Learned”. Consider some recent examples: High school students who made a swastika from plastic cups and then gave a Nazi salute. A member of the majority party in the United States House of Representatives stands accused of making anti-Semitic comments. The murder of eleven Jewish Americans at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg last year. Is the legacy of the survivors of the Holocaust to be lost by a new generation that is either ignorant, apathetic (or both) because the event happened so long before the new generation was born?

In an early scene of None Shall Escape, the presiding judge reminds the tribunal “We must be aware of our great responsibility not only to the past but to the future.” The judge’s advice is still important for people today. There will come a future when no Holocaust survivor will be alive to speak of what happened. If people in the present and the future abdicate this responsibility to remember and speak about the Holocaust, does that give the Nazis and their ideology a posthumous victory?


William E. Plants
URG Chaplaincy Coordinator

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