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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hollywood's take on the Holocaust

Good Germans and Uplifting Uprisings

By Ben Crair [1]

One way to measure the approach of the new year is to count the Holocaust films at your local multiplex. The holidays arrive just as studios begin wooing academy members with serious dramas, and there's nothing more serious than genocide. Over the decades, this award-baiting subject has enticed directors Otto Preminger, Sydney Lumet, and Steven Spielberg and stars such as Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Judy Garland, and Meryl Streep. This winter there's a slew of new additions to the genre, including Bryan Singer's Valkyrie, Stephen Daldry's The Reader, Edward Zwick's Defiance, and several smaller features like Good, Adam Resurrected, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

Or maybe new isn't quite the right word. If you watch several Holocaust films back to back, as I did recently (during the most wonderful time of the year, no less), you start to notice patterns. In fact, by my count, there are really only five basic Holocaust plots. Forthwith, Slate's taxonomy of the genre:

Good Germans

Before the Marshall Plan had run its course, Hollywood combed through the rubble looking for tales of German goodness. One of the earliest results of this search was The Desert Fox (1951), which tells the story of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. As commander of the Deutsches Afrikakorps, Rommel supposedly ignored orders to execute captured Jewish soldiers.
The Young Lions (1958) starring Marlon Brando fits into this category, too. Although protagonist Christian Diestl was not a virtuous type in Irwin Shaw's source novel, Brando insisted that his character be sympathetic. To accommodate the actor's ego, the screenwriters turned Christian into an honorable German who is shocked by his countrymen's atrocities.

Of course the most famous film about German decency is Schindler's List (1993). The real-life Oskar Schindler was, undoubtedly, good—he is the only person known to have gotten Jews out of Auschwitz. Lest that seem too slight, director Steven Spielberg threw in a rousing speech for Schindler, in which he declares "I could have done more." The latest good German is Tom Cruise's Claus von Stauffenberg in Bryan Singer's Valkyrie. Some might dispute the classification of Valkyrie as a Holocaust film, since it concerns the July '44 plot to assassinate Hitler and neither Jews nor concentration camps enter its frames. But the viewer is alerted to von Stauffenberg's goodness when the first thing he says he'll do "once we have control of the government" is "shut down all concentration camps."

Von Stauffenberg and his ilk were historical anomalies, but Hollywood seems not to have taken notice. In the mid-'60s, critic Judith Crist quipped, "[A] screenwriter, with a revolutionary glint in his eye was telling me the other day he's going all-the-way original; he's writing a World War II movie with bad Nazis."

Resistant Jews

Films about Jews during the war typically focus on resistance, which, unlike the camps, lends itself to moral uplift. Anne Frank never fired a rifle, but her survival for two years in an Amsterdam attic foiled the Nazis' ambitions—that is, at least until they found her. The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) is, in this sense, the first American film about Jewish resistance. It is not the darkest: Anne's despair is twice relieved by spontaneous group song.

Later resistance films lose the music as they move out of the attic and into the ghettos. Yet they retain the spirit of the line that Anne utters twice, shortly before she is deported: "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart." In the first American feature about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the television film The Wall (1982), a character similarly chimes, "[T]he only way to answer death is with more life." Another television film, Jon Avnet's Uprising (2001), also tells the story of the Warsaw Ghetto, and it ends with a triumphant speech by Yitzhak Zuckerman, one of the resistance's surviving leaders: "The dream of my life has come true."

Edward Zwick's new film, Defiance, concerns the plucky Bielski Partisans, who fought against the Nazis in present-day Belarus, and focuses on Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig), who prances around the Belarusian forest on a white horse. At the film's end, a dying man tells Tuvia, "I almost lost my faith, but you were sent by God to save us."

Postwar Judgment

Culpability is a notoriously thorny issue among Holocaust scholars, since the scale of the crime blurred the line between perpetrators and bystanders. But Hollywood started issuing verdicts directly after the war.

Orson Welles' The Stranger (1946) was the first American feature film to incorporate documentary footage of the camps, which, it claims, were "all the product of one mind"—the fictional Nazi genius Franz Kindler, who "conceived the theory of genocide." The consolidation of German guilt into a single villain makes retribution rather simple, since all the protagonist has to do is find and punish Kindler.

Justice is more elusive in Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), which stars Spencer Tracy as an American judge flown in to preside over the trial of four German judges. The main defendant is Ernst Janning, the German minister of justice, who takes the stand against his lawyer's wishes at the film's climax and confesses, "If there is to be any salvation for Germany, we who know our guilt must admit it—whatever the pain and humiliation." So much for Janning, but Judgment also explores how the Cold War undermined America's determination to try rank-and-file Nazis. "There are no Nazis in Germany," an embittered American prosecutor tells Tracy at one point. "Didn't you know that, judge?"

The Reader likewise takes place at Nuremberg, where young law student Michael Berg witnesses the trial of his former lover Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). But the film is less concerned with Schmitz's crime than with her own personal tragedy. Embarrassed by the fact that she's illiterate, Hanna refuses to take a handwriting test to prove that she did not order the deaths of 300 Jews. Illiteracy, it would seem, is more shameful than the orchestration of mass murder and more dangerous, too: Hanna is sentenced to life, while her guilty-but-literate co-defendants get away with just a few years behind bars.


There are two basic survivor narratives. Redemption stories, like The Juggler (1953) and Exodus (1960), frequently present Israel as the key to their heroes' deliverance and star good-looking men like Kirk Douglas and Paul Newman. By contrast, films like Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker (1964) suggest that the camp experience is inescapable and star homely actors like Rod Steiger.

Films that fall into the "no escape" group often unfold like mysteries, with the survivors' camp experiences functioning like clues to their present behavior. Sophie's Choice (1982) and Steven Soderbergh's The Good German (2006) fit the bill, as does this season's Adam Resurrected, which stars Jeff Goldblum as a mental patient who survived the Holocaust by playing the part of an S.S. commandant's dog.

The Fable

Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful (1997) is an Italian film, but Americans were happy to surmount the language barrier—the film grossed $57 million at the box office and Benigni won an Oscar for best actor. This story about a Jewish father who convinces his son that their internment is a game proved that you can depict concentration camps so long as you pretend they're something else. Two years later, Jakob the Liar (1999) tried a similar trick: Jakob (Robin Williams) spreads hope through a camp by making up stories about Allied victories. This season's entry is a British film, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which tells the story of the friendship between a Jewish boy and a German boy across a concentration-camp fence.

Though films across these five categories are rarely as outright cheery as, say, The Diary of Anne Frank, they almost all project the optimism that Lawrence Langer described in 1983: "[T]he American vision of the Holocaust … continues to insist that [the victims] have not [died in vain], trying to parlay hope, sacrifice, justice, and the future into a victory that will mitigate despair." As a Holocaust survivor puts it in the penultimate scene of The Reader: "Go to the theater if you want catharsis."

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Levi Strauss, a German Jewish immigrant from Buttenheim, Bavaria

Levi Strauss from Buttenheim, Bavaria [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

Levi Strauss, born Löb Strauß, (February 26, 1829 - September 26, 1902), was a German-Jewish immigrant to the United States who founded the first company to manufacture blue jeans. His firm, Levi Strauss & Company, began in 1853 in San Jose, California.

Levi Strauss was born on February 26, 1829 in Buttenheim, Bavaria to Hirsch Strauss and his wife Rebecca (Haas) Strauss. His parents named him Löb, but he changed it to Levi after he came to the United States.[2]

The Strauss family was a member of the respected rural French Jewish community in Buttenheim. In the year 1810, a fifth of the inhabitants of Buttenheim were of the Jewish faith. In the 19th century, the Bavarian laws restricted the choice of profession and married partners of the Jews. Additionally they were only allowed to settle down in the community under certain circumstances. Only emigration allowed those particular freedoms. When the situation of the poor was made remarkably worse by general economic conditions the subsequent emigration included many Jews. So by the 1820 many members of the Jewish community in Buttenheim had been gone to emigrate.

On June 4, 1847 the widowed Rebecca Strauss applied for permission to emigrate to the USA. This permission was granted on June 14, 1847. At the age of 18, Strauss sailed for the United States to join his brothers Jonas and Louis, who had begun a dry goods business in New York City. His mother and two sisters came with him. By 1850, Strauss was already calling himself Levi.

In 1853, Strauss became an American citizen. He moved to San Francisco, where the California Gold Rush was still going on. Strauss expected the miners would welcome his buttons, scissors, thread and bolts of fabric. He also brought along canvas sailcloth, intended to make tents and covers for the Conestoga wagons many miners lived out of.

Strauss opened his dry goods wholesale business as Levi Strauss & Co. He often led his pack-horse, heavily laden with merchandise, to the mining camps in the Gold Rush country. He learned that prospectors and miners complained about their cotton trousers and pockets tearing too easily.

A Jewish Latvian immigrant named Jacob Davis (born Jacob Youphes) decided to make rugged overalls to sell to the miners. Fashioned from brown sailcloth made from hemp, his trousers had ore storage pockets that were nearly impossible to split. Davis wanted to register a patent, but lacked money. Strauss agreed to help him and they went into partnership.

On May 20, 1873, Strauss and Davis received US patent 139121 for using copper rivets to strengthen the pockets of denim work pants. Levi Strauss & Co. began manufacturing the famous Levi's brand of jeans, using fabric from the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Strauss died in 1902 at the age of 73. He was buried in Colma. Strauss had never married and left his thriving business to his nephews Jacob, Louis, Abraham and Sigmund Stern. They rebuilt the company after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. The following year, Jacob Davis sold back his share of the company.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Lazarus Straus and Macy’s

Lazarus Straus and Macy’s [1,2,3]

Lazarus Straus was born in Otterberg, Bavaria, in 1809. His grand-father, who bore the same name, was one of the most prominent Jews on his day in the Rhenish Bavaria. When in 1806 Napoleon conceived the idea of according the Jews emancipation in the territory of which he has assumed control, he appointed Mr. Straus’s grandfather, who was known as Reb Lazar, a member of the Sanhedrin, or council, which was entrusted with the preparation of a plan for emancipation.

Mr. Straus’s father was identified with large farming interests, and the son also devoted himself to this vocation during his early manhood. He was eminently successful and accumulated a comfortable competence. His leisure time was devoted to study, and more especially to the acquisition of Hebrew learning and knowledge of the Jewish literature.

When the revolution of 1848 stirred Germany, Lazarus Straus championed at once the cause of liberty and emancipation. While not actively engaged, he did his utmost to raise recruits and gave largely of his means to aid the cause. Notwithstanding his ardent devotion to the ends for which the revolutionists fought, Mr. Straus was not exiled with the other prominent leaders. He remained at his home for the next five years, but then he became dissatisfied with the existing order of things and resolved to emigrate to the USA.

He landed in 1853 and proceeded to Talbotton, Ga., where he started a general merchandise business. There he remained until the first year of the war, when he removed to Columbus, Ga. The close of the war found him considerably poorer, and the general depression which followed induced him to come East and try his fortune anew. He had made up his mind to move to Philadelphia, but his son Isidor prevailed upon him to come to New York instead.

Mr. Straus arrived in New York in 1865 and he established with his son Isidor the firm L. Straus & Son. The business prospered from the start and soon the other sons were drawn into it, the firm eventually becoming L. Straus & Sons, and at the same time one of the most extensive importing houses of glassware and crockery in the country.

When R. H. Macy, the head of the firm of R. H. Macy & Co. died in 1874, L. Straus & Sons acquired an interest in that concern. In 1893, R. H. Macy & Co. was acquired by Isidor Straus and his brother Nathan Straus. In 1902, the flagship store moved uptown to Herald Square at 34th Street and Broadway.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Gimbels and Saks Fifth Avenue

Gimbels, Wikipedia [1,2]

Gimbels was an iconic major American department store corporation from 1887 through the late 20th century.

Gimbels was founded by a young German Jewish immigrant, Adam Gimbel (1817–1896). Gimbel arrived as a penniless young immigrant from Bavaria in 1835, settled in New Orleans and earned a living as a travelling peddler. He opened his first store in Vincennes, Indiana, in 1842.

After a brief stay in Danville, Illinois, Gimbel relocated in 1887 to the then boom-town of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The new store was an immense success, quickly becoming the leading department store in Milwaukee.

In 1894 Adam Gimbel acquired the Granville Haines store in Philadelphia, and in 1910 opened another branch in New York City. With its arrival in New York, Gimbels prospered, and soon became the primary rival to the leading Herald Square retailer, Macy's.

In 1922 the chain went public, offering shares on the New York Stock Exchange, though the family retained a controlling interest. This provided the capital for expansion, starting with the 1923 purchase of across-the-street rival, Saks & Co., which operated under the name "Saks Thirty-Fourth Street". With ownership of Saks came a new, about-to-open uptown branch, Saks Fifth Avenue.

In 1925 Gimbels entered the Pittsburgh market with its purchase of Kaufmann & Baer's. Although this expansion spurred talk of the stores becoming a nation-wide chain, such hopes were ended by the Great Depression. The more-upscale and enormously profitable Saks Fifth Avenue stores did continue to expand in the 1930s, opening branches in Chicago, Boston and San Francisco.

At one point, Gimbel Brothers Inc. was the largest department store in the world. By 1930 Gimbels had branched to seven flagship stores throughout the country and had net sales of $123 million. By the time of World War II, profits had exploded to a net worth of $500 million, or over $1 billion in today's money. By 1965, Gimbel Brothers Inc. consisted of 53 stores throughout the country, which included 22 Gimbels, 27 Saks Fifth Avenue stores, and four Saks 34th St.