by Ryan Woodward, Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh Library and Education Associate
Twenty-five years ago. I am 15 years old and sitting in a crowded theater in my hometown. Schindler’s List has just been released and there doesn’t appear to be an empty seat. My whole family is here, my brother and I sit together near the front while my parents are somewhere in the back. By this point, I had studied and read about the Holocaust for a few years. Beginning with an early fascination with World War II and impacted by Anne Frank’s story, I was privileged to have studied the Holocaust in my western Kentucky public schools in both the seventh and tenth grades, no mandate necessary. No amount of instruction or exposure to graphic descriptions in history books, however, has prepared me for what I am about to see. There is a new feeling when the shocking brutality you are witnessing has been carefully orchestrated, features slick Hollywood cinematography, and you paid to watch it. I think to myself, “They can make movies like this? And it’s ok?” I cannot recall a time before or since when such a full theater is completely silent for the three-hours-plus runtime of the film. The only sound I recall outside of the film is my own racing heartbeat during the horrific scenes of the Krakow ghetto liquidation. Again, silence as the theater empties. I leave feeling less sad than exhausted.
Last week. I was one of two people in a Pittsburgh theater on a Friday afternoon for the 25th anniversary re-release of Schindler’s List. I have seen the film dozens of times on much smaller screens by this point. Nearly every mention of it in academic writing offers some measure of negative criticism, which is fair. These reviews and critiques have only caused me to explore the film yet another time to reassess my feelings about it. The film has its flaws, to be sure, but overall, it holds up well, is beautifully photographed, and can be quite effective, given the right context and usage, for Holocaust education.
Studying the Holocaust is not only learning about historical events, it is also about bearing witness. In graduate school, a Literature of the Holocaust course required us to read among other books, Elie Wiesel’s Night and Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. Some complained, having read them before, and anticipated readings that were either unfamiliar or more challenging. There is something to be said, however, for revisiting material at different ages or after various life experiences. How might one’s perspective change when reading Night, not only at age 15, but again at 25, 45, or 75? This was precisely my motivation for wanting to see Schindler’s List for a second time on the big screen.
Viewing the film on a larger scale provides the audience with several benefits, chief among them the ability to notice smaller details. The ability to better see the actors’ faces, their expressions and reactions, led me to a greater appreciation for the talent involved throughout the film. The shocking brutality that confronts first-time viewers gave way to the characters’ witnessing of said brutality. An early scene in which an engineer is murdered for speaking up during the construction of the Plaszow labor camp cuts briefly to Helen Hirsch, who becomes the commandant’s servant. She glances just as the engineer is shot. The film is full of similar scenes of characters looking, witnessing. Revisiting the film has now become more about bearing witness. This time, I leave the theater more sad than exhausted.
After the film, I walk the few blocks to the Tree of Life synagogue. It has only been a couple of weeks since our community experienced an all-too-real shocking brutality. I go without an agenda or any expectation of feeling any particular way. Rather, I am drawn to the beautiful building to say I am a part of this community during this unique time. I do not seek out any evidence of the crime committed there, nor do I avoid looking at the boarded-up doors and windows. I am bearing witness, along with millions of other people all over the world. This will not be my last visit to reflect on this history of this space, of the atrocity committed here, or how our city will be forever affected.