Local author’s book explores Holocaust in film

Never Again, Sylvia Ginsparg

By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Sylvia Ginsparg, a psychoanalyst in private practice who is on the faculty of the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute and the St. Louis University Medical School Department of Psychiatry and Pediatrics, is not only highly respected in her chosen profession, but is also as an expert in films with Jewish content, especially those dealing with the Holocaust. Her multiple areas of expertise are highly evident in her superb new book, “Never Again: Echoes of the Holocaust as Understood Through Film” (Xlibris Corp., $29.95, cloth; $19.95, paper; $9.95, e-books- [email protected]).

“Much has been written and structures have been erected to commemorate the lives lost in the Holocaust,” writes Ginsparg, stressing that her book focuses “upon what ‘living’ has meant for those who survived.” She uses a series of case studies based upon carefully selected films to discuss “the ongoing impact of the traumas suffered by first- and second-generation survivors.” She adds that “almost without exception, these films were either written, directed or starred in a lead role by a first-or second-generation survivor and therefore, present an informed representation of what these people continue to experience.”

The book, which is written in a clear, accessible style, is divided into four major sections. They are:

• Humor and the Holocaust (which includes the films “Life is Beautiful,” “Jacob the Liar” and “Train of Life”)


• Music (“Shine,” “Gloomy Sunday,” “The Pianist” and “Bach in Auschwitz”)

• Trans-generational Transmission of Holocaust Trauma (“Un Secret,” “Rosenzweig’s Freedom” and “Left Luggage”)

• The Child Survivors (“Au Revoir Les Enfants,” “Mendel” and “Fugitive Pieces”)

Recently, Ginsparg sat down to discuss her new book with the Jewish Light.

What inspired you to write the book “Never Again: Echoes of the Holocaust as Understood Through Film”?

I was a Jewish child during the years of the Holocaust, and I survived, which seemed to me to be almost an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. I survived through no cleverness or genius on my part, but rather through the courage and the foresight of my grandparents and great-grandparents. I have always felt that left me with a responsibility to give back to those who were less fortunate than I was at that time and to do what I could to prevent a repetition of that disaster.

I understand you or your family dedicated a Holocaust Film Library to the Brodsky Library. How much influence did your father have on your interest in this subject?

My father, the late Sidney Levine, always stressed how important it was to him that we do all we can to prevent any recurrence of the Holocaust. The ‘Never Again’ in the title was to be a tribute to him.

Tell us about the Holocaust Film Library your family established in memory of your parents.

When my father died, I wanted to establish some memorial in the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library. I took him there several times when my parents were visiting. He loved books and would always say when I picked him up, “That’s a wonderful library.” My sons, however, felt strongly that the education of the future would be electronic and that we should instead provide a library for discs. So that is what we established. After my mother died, we then added to what we had previously established and it became the Helen and Sidney Levine Film Library.

What do you want your children and grandchildren to understand about the role of film in dealing with the powerful emotional issues of the Holocaust?

I want them to understand the importance of always being informed and of feeling a sense of responsibility for those who are less fortunate.

Actually both of their families are very involved today in causes that seek to attain that objective. When they were little, I always made a point of taking them into the voting booth with me and said, “You must vote.'” We must remember that Hitler was elected! And that the Third Reich initially only wanted to make Germany Judenrein (clear of Jews). It was only when Hitler realized that the rest of the world didn’t want the Jews either, that they began building the camps and brought in the ovens. I also took my sons to Israel as soon as I was earning enough money to make the trip. They are very much aware of how important Israel is to all of us and how much was sacrificed to establish the country and make it the homeland that it is.

What are the most meaningful or well-directed and written Holocaust films?

“Shoah,” one of the earliest, and certainly “Schindler’s List,” both of which provided many people with their first images of Holocaust scenes. I have two lasting memories of these films.

During the intermission for “Shoah,” I went into the ladies room, where a woman was vomiting. On one of my trips to Israel, I decided to visit Schindler’s grave. To my shock and amazement, absolutely no one, employees or visitors, knew who Oskar Schindler was. I spent the better part of a day under a blistering sun searching and was rewarded when I found a grave with the barely visible words, Oskar Schindler, in the midst of weeds as tall as I was and not a single stone to indicate that someone had visited. I did search until I found a stone, which I placed on his grave.

“The Believer” is another film that I found to be very important. I intended it to be in my book but I wrote so much that I would not want to leave out that I decided to let it go and perhaps make it a book by itself. I loved “Fragmentary Pieces” and consider “Music Box” to be important to the study of perpetrators.

What are the least successful?

“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “The Reader.” I loved what I took to be the meaning of the former, “He who destroys other people’s children will ultimately destroy his own.” The notion that this little boy (in “Striped Pajamas) was not only free to live in the concentration camp but wear pressed “pajamas” and play in the field with the commandant’s son was absurd. And this poor illiterate woman (in “The Reader”) who let Jewish women burn because she did not think she could control them on the outside and also didn’t seem to think there was any way she could learn to read was too flawed.

You discuss the use of “Humor and the Holocaust” in such films as “Life is Beautiful” and others. Is humor an appropriate way to deal with a subject of such overpowering sadness?

In regard to “Humor and the Holocaust,” I don’t really consider the three films I wrote about or “Schindler’s List” to be comedies. I understand them as “tragicomedies,” which produce tears as well as smiles. When Guido (in “Life is Beautiful”) tells his son that if the boy didn’t like the train ride to the concentration camp, Guido will return the ticket and they will go home on another train, you may laugh at the absurdity but you cry as well because you know where they will go. And Jacob (in “Jacob the Liar”) never really “lied.” He simply told people what they needed to hear to restore their hope and stop the wave of suicides. I say in the book that the “humor” stems from a reversal of power from the perpetrators to the victims, but – in the end – the victims lose “life, limb or both” because they never really had the power. In the meantime, the audience gets a few laughs and tells others that the film is funny and everyone gets some exposure to the Holocaust.

How does your professional expertise as a psychoanalyst influence your interpretation of Holocaust films?

As a psychoanalyst, I am, of course, always drawn to the characters in the films and try to understand their motivation and what led to them becoming the people they are or are not.

I get very excited when I find the connection between the actions, thoughts and feelings of people and the formative experiences in their lives.

Plans are underway for a reading and book-signing event at the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library, in cooperation with the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center. Details will be announced when those plans have been finalized.