Stop ‘Holocaust obsession’

Williams as ‘Jakob the Liar.’

By Debbie Schlussel

Jewish World Review / Oct. 12, 1999 /2 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

I HAVE A CONFESSION to make. Recently, I experimented with the latest product of a shameful industry. No, not porn. Though the experience did involve pictures — moving pictures.

I saw the movie, “Jakob the Liar.”

Starring Robin Williams, the talkie is the most recent output in a multi-media industry that has consumed not just Holywood, but large portions of the legal industry, the publishing world, etc. I refer to what my cousin, Menasheh, a Holocaust survivor, has dubbed the “Holocaust Business.”


Seriously, why did Williams participate in this farce? Because these days one can make any movie, whether it has redeeming artistic worth or not, if it’s about the Holocaust, it will be respected.

In Hollywood, it seems, you’ve really arrived when you’ve starred in a Holocaust movie.

Holocaust films are virtually guaranteed Oscar considerations.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Roberto Benigni and Liam Neeson. Did you ever hear of them before the hoopla surrounding “Life is Beautiful” and “Schindler’s List”? Didn’t think so.

“Schindler’s List” was moving, poignant, and a cinematic high point. It accurately and vividly depicted some of my grandfather’s own experiences during the Holocaust. But “Life is Beautiful”? It’s no surprise that before “Life is Beautiful,” Benigni’s biggest role was a rehash of the comedic, bumbling Inspector Clouseau in 1993’s “Son of the Pink Panther.” The Holocaust is not an Inspector Clouseau type of event, but Williams and Benigni have managed to turn it into one.

How many “clown” Holocaust movies must we endure? Even comedian Jerry Lewis has gotten in on the act. Actually, he pioneered this genre, starring in and producing the 1972 film, “The Day the Clown Cried,” in which an actual painted-face clown leads Jewish concentration camp kids into the gas chambers.

Oh, the movie was never released. In those days — way, way back in the 70s — you see, people would have been reviled — as they should be but aren’t these days — at such a prospect.

Reportedly, Lewis was on anti-depressant and not in his right mind when he made and funded his memorial to the Six Million.

Today, though, such a film is not an unfortunate, ill-advised mistake. It’s Academy Award material, and other than a sick obsession with the Holocaust, there can be no other reason why “Jakob” was produced.

Given this incessant obsession, you can’t help but be amused when comedians like Jerry Seinfeld poke fun at all of these Holocaust movies. He made an entire episode of his show mocking the outrage of others surrounding a romantic interlude he and a girlfriend had during a screening of “Schindler’s List.”

Sadly, the Holocaust preoccupation is not just an episode of “Seinfeld” or an interminable catalog of movies. Today, the Holocaust is big business with a complete product line. There are more people getting jobs based on the Holocaust. There are more lawyers filing lawsuits based on the Holocaust. And there are more films on the Holocaust. All of this while there are less and less Holocaust survivors still alive.

And let’s not forget the official U.S. National Holocaust Museum in Washington. Doesn’t this museum belong more appropriately in Germany, or in Austria — from where Hitler hailed and where, today, a fascist presidential candidate praised Hitler as a job provider and his S.S. Waffen as men of character.

Unfortunately, like some industries, the Holocaust has become a promising career path. There are people running a plethora of Holocaust organizations and foundations. They get grants and raise money in fundraising letters, so that “we will never forget.” There are a lot of careers built on this Holocaust Business.

Again, I have no problem with remembering history, including the great tragedies. But there is something really wrong about a people — the Jews — who, with such a rich religion, with such a rich history spanning thousands of years, when they replace that whole history with a few years in recent history, spanning less than a decade.

Today, while most Jews know little about their religion, and even less about the long-enduring history of the Jewish people, everyone knows about the Holocaust. And it seems that this event has not only become Jewish history — it has unfortunately become the Jewish religion.

There have been many other devastating tragedies in Jewish history — pogroms, Inquisitions, etc. In fact, most Jews don’t know about a Jewish tragedy equal to, if not worse than the Holocaust–the 12th Century wholesale massacre of the Oriental Jews of North Africa living in the Maghreb (now known as Morocco, Libya, and Tunisia). That massacre was committed by the Al-Mohad Arab Moslem dynasty, though, not the more politically correct far right-wing Nazi perpetrators. So the memory of those Jews is apparently not as important. The Holocaust Business is a politically correct industry.

It is a great shame when a few-year tragedy becomes our central focus, the central experience of a people with many achievements and positive events. But, again, it is even more lamentable, when the tragedy is pushed on others in the form of endless products.

Besides the movies, books, miniseries, etc., there are the trial lawyers and their class-action lawsuits. Again, though the numbers of Holocaust survivors who could benefit are growing very thin, every day there are more and more class-action lawsuits being filed against corporations who had any connections with the Holocaust, using slave labor, such as in the case of Ford Motor Company, or using the concentration camp inmates as human guinea pigs, such as in the case of Bayer.

Should these companies be punished for their wrongdoing? Sure. But should today’s stockholders and consumers of products of those companies — they would be the ones to ultimately bear the burden of the multi-million dollar awards and settlements — be punished for something which occurred before most of them were born and with which most had nothing to do?

Should greedy trial lawyers get millions for suffering during the Holocaust, when they never even experienced the pain of the Holocaust, and most of its victims are now dead and will never benefit from the lawsuits? And why did they wait all of these years to file these suits which could have provided a decent life for many of these deceased survivors?

Is it a coincidence that a primary lawyer filing these lawsuits — who has transformed these Holocaust suits into a career — is named Ed Fagan? Charles Dickens would be proud.

Remember Fagan from his Oliver Twist? Sad to say, but for lawyers, the Holocaust has become the new tobacco, the latest Oliver Twist from which to make an easy buck. Most of the Holocaust victims and survivors — who, again, are also mostly dead — would not want their memories to live on in this way, and like my grandfather, they would not want the Germans’ or corporations’ money.

Besides the trial lawyers, settlement terms of some of these cases provide that most of the money will end up going to liberal social causes and groups, anyway — hardly victims of the Holocaust. To the lawyers, the Holocaust is just another product to exploit.

Maybe Jerry Lewis’ clown Holocaust movie was just a good product, a good business decision, but before its time. After all, when the film was shot, Lewis owned a chain of child-and family-oriented movie theaters. He probably figured that if he threw in kids, a clown, and the Holocaust, the movie would make big bucks in those theaters.

With the success of “Life is Beautiful,” with the success of the Holocaust lawsuits, movies, careers, with the success of the whole set of Holocaust products, he’s probably kicking himself. Though it’s rumored that a few years ago, he, too, used his ridiculous movie to make money, by reportedly showing snippets of it during a French telethon. Et tu, Jerry?

It’s sad that the Holocaust has become just another business, just another subsidiary of the whole civil rights conglomerate. But there is hope. On its debut weekend, “Jakob the Liar” came in at a very disappointing eighth in the ranks of box office showings, with only $2.2 million in ticket sales.

Maybe “Jakob” will be the last Holocaust comedy, and maybe the consumers of the Holocaust Business are letting the producers know they are now growing tired of the product. I’m not holding my breath, though. I’m bracing for the day when I turn on my T.V. to see an infomercial touting the latest silly Holocaust product, an abomination to all who suffered through the tragedy.