How Schindler's List Got It Wrong

Western Cinema Overlooked Soviet Holocaust Deaths

Gray Areas: Olga Gershenson has unearthed a number of Soviet films that dealt with the fate of Jews during WWII. Among them was the film ‘Professor Mamlock.’
Courtesy of Olga Gershenson
Gray Areas: Olga Gershenson has unearthed a number of Soviet films that dealt with the fate of Jews during WWII. Among them was the film ‘Professor Mamlock.’

By Sasha Senderovich

Published September 19, 2013, issue of September 20, 2013.
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● The Phantom Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and Jewish Catastrophe
By Olga Gershenson
Rutgers University Press, 290 pages, $32.50

As a teenager growing up in Ufa, Russia, I used to play piano in a Jewish music ensemble. Our group was once invited to play a prescreening concert at a local movie theater called Rodina (Motherland), built in 1953 in Stalin’s Empire style, giving it the appearance of a palace; it had a stage for musical performances in the foyer.

Our performance, which the audience appreciated and for which we were paid our first fees for creative work of any kind, was the opening act for the screening of “Schindler’s List.”

My musician friends and I were sure we were doing our part to help the public acquire consciousness about the Holocaust in that early post-Soviet moment, when the discussion of this subject, among other long-repressed historical facts, was permitted for the first time. Spielberg’s film, however, ought not to have been the film that introduced Russian audiences to the subject of the Holocaust, as Olga Gershenson’s pioneering book on the history of Holocaust representation in Soviet cinema suggests.

Gershenson, who is an associate professor of Judaic and Near Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, notes that Spielberg’s film is indicative of larger ways in which the Holocaust is treated in Western cinema. Namely, this film — like many other Holocaust films — emphasizes the experience of those who suffered and died in Auschwitz or in other concentration and death camps and consequently ignores the deaths of nearly half of all victims of the Holocaust who were rounded up and gunned down on Soviet territory before death camps, all of them located outside the borders of the USSR, were even operational.

Our visual vocabulary of the Holocaust — “emaciated bodies, striped uniforms, barbed wire, crematorium ovens, and mounds of personal effects,” as Gershenson summarizes it — is largely informed by the history of Western representation of the catastrophe.

This glossing over of the destruction of a large part of European Jewry in Western cinema goes along with the Soviet Union’s own lack of engagement with the deaths of a large portion of its Jewish population. Though Soviet cultural policies varied during both World War II and afterwards, Soviet censors in the postwar period were largely unwilling to allow the representation of the destruction and suffering of Soviet Jews qua Jews. Preference instead was given to representations of the suffering of the whole Soviet people during the German occupation (27 million are estimated to have been killed).


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