Mar 28, 2017
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Can a Holocaust Film Predict Science’s Future?
by Doniphan Blair
'Our Holocaust Vacation''s DVD cover, back in 2007, when DVD covers still existed. illo: D. Blair / photo N. Blair
WHEN MY BROTHER NICHOLAS AND I
Our Holocaust Vacation
” in 2007, we thought we had simply made an innovative documentary (we hoped) about our mother’s historical experiences in the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz and other camps, and our family's contemporary experiences as we traveled together across Eastern Europe.
Little did I imagine, amidst such intense personal exploration, that my research and our film would uncover something much bigger: an alternative, more female side of the Holocaust, what can be called the “Women’s Side of War,” and, even more astounding, an alternative, more female side of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.
Also on board for "Our Holocaust Vacation" was my father, my brother’s wife and my daughter, who was the same age during the filming as her grandmother during the war: 16. Our objective was to see where, and hear how, she had endured what had long been unspoken in our family as well as society at large (see the film’s trailer
, or the one hour version
It was intense: for my mother, Tonia, as she relieved events where they happened, or when our research unearthed, in a Polish mayor's office, the “death list” with the names of her parents, bother and sister; for my daughter, Irena, who learned and grew an amazing amount but was also 16, with all the attitude that can involve; for my brother, Nicholas, who was torn between being a professional, shooting the film, and absorbing what he was seeing, since he was visiting Poland for the first time; and for myself.
I had been thinking about the Holocaust since I first heard whispers about it, probably around the age of five. Making the movie 35 years later, after a decade-and-a-half of taking courses, going to conferences, reading and research, I was hoping to go beyond the fear, guilt and rage.
The family walks with Jewish stars through Freiberg, near Dresden, Germany, where Tonia Rotkopf Blair (cntr) was a slave laborer in an airplane factory. photo N. Blair
The more I looked into my mother’s story—how she worked as a nurse in the ghetto hospital with almost no supplies; how she and her friends kept hope alive with almost nothing but words; how she survived Auschwitz, work camps and crammed cattle-cars as a timid teenager afraid to speak up, let alone struggle for every scrap—the more I realized her survival was NOT just a lucky roll of the dice, as some survivors say. Although that was part of it, more important was the Woman’s Side of War, where people help and encourage each other, protect the innocent and make gestures of love, large and small, Platonic and romantic.
Meanwhile, I could not help but study the Nazis, notice their frequent mentions of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and realize that it was central to their ideology. Over-simplified as “survival of the fittest,” it allowed them to rationalize their eliminationist anti-Semitism, mass murder and militarism, in general. In 1990, I finally went to a bookstore, bought a 1941 edition of “The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” (1859), and read it. This is my take-away:
Rotkopf Blair working as nurse in the maternity ward of a displaced persons camp, near Landsberg-Am-Lech, Germany, 1946, her hair still not yet grown in. photo unknown
In addition to "Origin", Darwin wrote a second big book, albeit 12 years later and largely obscured by the first, called “The Descent of Man through Selection by Sex” (1871). Fortunately, my used copy of Darwin included both books and, when I got bogged down in the former, I moved on to the latter. It covers the choosing of mates and mating rituals among animals and even romance among humans, or what can be called “survival of the lovingest.”
What the Nazis, as well as most people, didn’t realize is that Darwin's famous discoveries about survival only have value when associated with reproduction. If the being has no offspring, then its survival is moot, evolutionarily speaking, no matter how powerful it might be.
As I interviewed my mother in the 1980s and early-‘90s, I slowly began to realize that her experiences, while not Hollywood-style ordeals—she didn’t try to escape, grab food, stab a Nazi etc., were also valid, especially since they weren’t mentioned in any of the films or books I was looking at. They concerned women and sometimes men helping and caring for each other, providing hope and even romance—from dates at the ghetto cemetery to a fellow work camp inmate rolling her an apple. Once, the family of her ghetto boyfriend even provided a "candle-lit dinner," replete with dessert, a cake fashioned from scraps.
Traveling through Germany, Poland and Austria in 1996 to scout the movie (it was shot in 1997), I discussed the Women’s Side of War with a lot of people, although mostly women. They confirmed the possibility that it was extensive, if still very hidden, and they were enthusiastic about a movie exploring its issues.
With German men, or other-nationalitied men living in Germany, however, I often couldn’t begin to broach the Holocaust, let alone the Women's Side of War, before they started getting defensive. “We have no need for trauma therapy,” one of the former told me, adding, along with a chopping motion at his neck, “we’ve had it up to here with Holocaust education.” “Why are YOU so obsessed with the Holocaust?” A Brit married to German asked me. “You Americans had your Vietnam and killed millions—millions!”
In separate conversations with their wives, a psychologist/peace activist and an up-and-coming Berlin artist, respectively, I was told, “I think my husband was an SS man in his previous life,” and “My father was FUCKING Nazi!” The latter was delivered with such a pained look that, in addition to realizing she meant it literally, I began to understand how hard it must have been growing up German.
Another German woman, a doctor specializing in children, told me she started refusing—when she was eight—her father’s request to go to the store to buy his anti-Semitic newspaper. When I saw two young women teachers cheerfully escorting to the Berlin Zoo their class of 15 mentally-disabled children, whom the Nazis would have escorted to the gas chambers 55 years earlier, I sat down on a park bench and sobbed, in sorrow over what had happened and in joy at Germany’s incredible transformation, notably accelerated by its women.
Doniphan Blair filming Tonia Rotkopf Blair in Auschwitz. photo N. Blair
As it happened, “Our Holocaust Vacation”, completed in 2007, was rejected by every single Jewish film festival. It was accepted, however, by a few other festivals and the NETA Program, based in Columbia, South Carolina, which acquires free content for Public Television stations. They promoted and facilitated its broadcast over six years, usually around Holocaust Remembrance Day at the end of April.
It played over 500 times, on over 70 Public Television stations across the country, making it one of their more successful releases, according to NETA. Indeed, it achieved almost full-market penetration, meaning it was available for view by almost everyone in the United States, although only a hundred thousand to a million plus may have availed themselves. It garnered dozens of viewer responses, from inquires if my mother knew a certain person to one heartfelt poem. Many friends and relatives reported seeing it while channel surfing, sometimes at an off-hour, other times in prime time.
Many people noted the freshness of my mother’s testimony, the naturalness of the family relations—especially when my daughter and I were fighting—and the occasional irreverent humor. So why was it rejected by the Jewish festivals?
My first thought was it might be the title, “Our Holocaust Vacation”. A couple of older viewers had complained it was too jarring and one festival selection committee wrote to say that for the first 20 minutes they were on the edge of their seats waiting for the seig-hieling to start, undoubtedly due to their misreading of the title as "Our Vacation FROM the Holocaust". From frame one, however, as well as in the actual title, the film is about a family going on a vacation AND researching the Holocaust.
Then I thought it might be the small, low-rez cameras, which allowed us to be guerrilla filmmakers, although the sound and camera work, by my New York cinematographer brother, were super-pro. Or the self-documentation, like having my brother step out from behind the camera to give his impressions on being in Auschwitz for the first time.
Irena Blair at midnight in a barrack in Auschwitz, in one of 'Our Holocaust Vacation'''s many performance pieces/re-enactments. photo N. Blair
Another culprit could have been the half-a-dozen performance pieces. At one point, we sewed Jewish stars and wore them while walking through the German town of Freiberg, near Dresden, where my mother had been a slave laborer building Messerschmitt fighters. In another, we handed out 150 loaves of bread in the town square of Plzen, Czech Republic, to honor its residents who fed my mother and her compatriots a hot meal 52 years earlier. But that didn't make sense since those “re-enactments” produced great images.
Given the progressive nature of Jewish film festivals, it seemed unlikely that using low-rez cameras, self-reflective shots or performance pieces were the reason. Even if “Our Holocaust Vacation” was not a masterpiece, it was certainly pretty exciting, as you see by glancing at the two-minute
, and surely at least one festival should have accepted it, if only for a Sunday morning screening. Finally, I realized the problem:
My mother had flirted with a German pilot in the airplane factory AND we made that the movie’s climax.
“We will not fund a film about fraternizing with the enemy,” I recalled the director of a San Francisco Jewish cultural institution, himself a child survivor, almost spitting at me, after I provided him a rough cut of the film and asked for funding assistance. Later, when I questioned the director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival about their rejection, she said she’d get back to me shortly. When she didn’t and I met her in an elevator six months later and asked her again, she almost hissed, “I'm very busy,” and raced out.
Admittedly, the Women’s Side of War is a potent topic. It contradicts the patriarchal view, the feminist view and the survivor view that the Holocaust was an entirely male-made nightmare; that those fraternizing with the enemy are whores; that innocent women forced to fraternize by grotesquely unequal power structures have no agency; that survival was based solely on luck—again no volition; that the entire cataclysm was one enormous mass of evil and violence with no giving, grace or romance EVER, anywhere—but especially among the enemy.
Doniphan Blair continued to wear a Jewish star around Germany; here at the Berlin train station, where the reaction was studied indifference combined with extreme fascination. photo Irena Blair
In such a psychologically predetermined climate, why did we make our mother’s chaste relations with a German pilot the emotional climax of “Our Holocaust Vacation”?
Shouldn’t we have selected when she witnessed the beloved head doctor of her hospital being shot point blank for refusing to relinquish the children or the children that they seized being thrown into trucks like bales of hay; or when she was in Auschwitz, eating nothing for three weeks, having her 19th birthday and thinking about throwing herself on the electric fence; or at the airplane factory, when the commanding Unterscharführer (SS captain) squeezed her breasts, horribly humiliating but also meaning he suspected her of being pregnant and would send her back to Auschwitz; or when he discovered her sneaking a sip of water and beat her?
Our reasoning was simple: When my mother recalled the “Pilot Affair,” it was the ONLY time in our entire three-week shoot she cracked a SINGLE tear! Evidently that normative human interaction with a young man, who reached over a great wall of hate—he, too, could have been punished for fraternizing with the enemy—opened a flood of feelings: about her lost youth, about how a young man noticed her—even in those appalling circumstances (not to mention outfit), about the shared humanity of all peoples, and about romanticism.
“All along they had young Luftwaffe—meaning young pilots in their grey uniforms—and I couldn’t help it but I admired how handsome they were,” my mother recalled (minute 42:26 in the film). She was working in an airplane factory with a fuselage every hundred and fifty feet or so and the air full of aluminum dust and the loud banging of air guns. “I don’t know how I knew but they were [being] trained to know something about the airplane.”
“One day he calls to my master,” her supervisor, also a decent German, evidently being punished by the Nazis for some infraction, “saying, ‘Send her over, something fell into the wing.’ So I put my hand in and ‘found’ some tool. From then on, periodically, every other day, something got lost… I must say, I enjoyed the change of view. He couldn’t look at me, he couldn’t talk to me… Aside from the Unterscharführer, there were guards walking up and down.”
Rotkopf Blair tearing up after telling the 'Pilot Story' in the basement of the Freiberg, Germany, factory where it happened. photo N. Blair
Given all that, now that the pilot had gotten the cute Jewish girl over to his plane, how could he flirt with her?
“One time, I was helping him in some way, while he was on the other side [of the plane], looking away from me, and he said, ‘Hey, what a wonderful war! What a great war! Everyone is burned, burned, your mother, your father, your sister, your brother. Isn’t this a great war—what wonderful war!’”
During his sing-song performance, the pilot even got a little dance step going, which my mother demo-ed in the film, evidently to insure that she fully got his triple entendre. First of all, that he was being ironic and goofy. Second, that “they were [also] being killed and maimed and burned,” as she immediately realized. Indeed, the airplane factory was only 20 miles from Dresden, the city which was incinerated by Allied fire bombings—even though it was not a military target—a few weeks earlier on February 13, 1945. My mother had seen the flames from the factory window. Finally, if a guard caught him, the pilot could pretend he was just teasing her, as the guards often did. “You’ll be warm soon enough,” they would shout down to the prisoners freezing in the cattle cars.
The first entendre was primary, however. Indeed, that Luftwaffe pilot was such a crazed romantic he brought the object of his affection the most elevated romantic symbol available at that point world-wide: a pair of stockings. What in the world could a 19 year-old Jewish slave in a work camp do with a pair of stocking—which would mean severe punishment, if the female kapos discovered them? Tuck them in her buxom and let them remind her that:
Even in the middle of hell, even with a young man who has been indoctrinated to hate, and to hate Jews above all, there remained a higher power as yet undefeated. Although the Women’s Side of War is based on nursing and feeding, one of its secret super-powers is romance and encouragement. What could be more romantically encouraging than to have an enemy soldier look over and say, in his own inimitable fashion: “Hey baby, looking good, you can make it, come on, keep going, they haven’t killed all love yet.” Then came the “consummation:”
“One time there was an air raid [when the Germans would run to the shelters, allowing the slaves a moment of reprieve],” my mother remembered. “I go to the window, just freely looking out, and, all of sudden, I heard the steps. Then I felt a breath on my neck and the pilot was there. I could feel the warmth of his body. He put his hands on mine, near the elbow. It was an amazing feeling. It was completely erased that he was German. He was just a young man doing something clandestine, punishable by death. It was just a fantastic feeling.”
Rotkopf Blair walking with her granddaughter, Irena Blair, near where she lived as a child in Lodz, Poland—they are startled by swastika graffiti. photo N. Blair
“From then on he called me over many times. He didn’t talk to me but I felt an exciting feeling. I think my master may have known too because he had too many things constantly lost… Then he disappeared. I feel very sad now. I feel like crying. I don’t know if it is for the lost youth, for the lost time, for the pilot. It would have been interesting to find out what he read, how he thought, or if he knew who I was.”
Although the “Pilot Affair” apparently upset the Jewish film festival programmers, in point of fact, it demonstrated the central issue of all Holocaust films—that we are all humans here—except that, in “Our Holocaust Vacation”, those humans also included a German. Moreover, it illustrated that romantic activities were much more common than I had previously imagined.
As I traveled through Eastern Europe in 1996, 1997 and again in 2005, and continued my reading and researching with other survivors, often at survivor gatherings, large and small actions of love kept popping up. They included clandestine affairs among Jews but also with Germans; Germans helping Jews; even a German sneaking at night into a "death march" to snatch away his beloved.
There were also cases of Jewish women trading sex for survival, sometimes even ordered to do so by their families, to appease or pay off the men who were hiding them. But, at the end of the war, as the Soviet Army gang-raped their way to Berlin, at horrific levels only now being acknowledged, they generally left the Jewish women alone. In fact, although my mother and her female partner were romanced by the Russian truck drivers with whom they had caught a ride, when they refused their advances, they were abandoned by the side of the road, but not raped.
Given all this, I came to conclude that the Women's Side of War was an incredible and largely unexplored power—by the authorities, academics and festival programmers. Regular people, meanwhile, relied on it all the time.
Indeed, another excellent example of WSW appears a few minutes later in “Our Holocaust Vacation”. Although not “X-rated” like the “Pilot Affair", it shows people risking a lot to assist strangers and has even greater ramifications for indicating how Darwinism actually works. We made it the film's secondary, more uplifting climax.
The 'Bread Give-Away' in Plzen, Czech Republic, honored local people who provided a meal to Rotkopf Blair and her 2000 compatriots in April, 1944. photo N. Blair
A few weeks after the “Pilot Affair," my mother’s contingent of 2000 young women were marched to the trains, loaded onto cattle cars and shipped out, destination unknown. It turned out to be 240 miles south to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp, near Linz, Austria, which had a gas chamber.
While that train trip takes nine hours today, in March of 1944, as the Third Reich was collapsing to a few hundred mile-wide strip from Berlin to Vienna, it took my mother’s train almost two weeks. Along with conscripting boys and old men to fight, the Germans were finally prioritizing shipping soldiers to the front over Jews to the gas chambers. Outside of Plzen, Czech Republic, my mother’s train got shunted to a siding, where it sat for three days.
That night, stationmaster Antonin Pavlicek (1892-1960) heard the women crying and went to tell his friend, Antonin Wirth (1901-1976), who owned a large restaurant nearby. Together, they decided to act. Wirth quickly amassed about a ton of food, not easy at that time, and the volunteers to prepare and deliver it, including his daughter Yarka. Pavlicek bribed the German commanders with alcohol. At the last minute, the Germans balked, insisting only they could deliver the food—my mother could hear the arguing from inside her cattle car, but the Czechs, assuming they would steal it, stood their ground. Finally, the cattle car doors were unlocked and the smiling Czechs wheel-barrowed in enough bread and hot soup for everyone, their first meal in about a week.
“They gave me more than bread,” my mother told the officials, reporters and small crowd assembled in Plzen’s town square that summer 1997 day (minute 46:44). “They gave me the spirit, the hope, that maybe there is still goodness in life. Maybe there are other good people, not only evil and bad.”
I first heard the “Bread Story” as a child; it was one of my mother’s few G-rated war stories, which she deemed appropriate to tell my brother and I. From it, I remember developing a vision of going to Plzen someday and setting up on a corner with a large pot of soup.
Yarka Sourkova, the daughter of restaurant owner Antonin Wirth, was a young teen when she helped deliver a meal to a train-load of starving Jews. photo N. Blair
Decades later, those dreams became 150 loaves of specially-baked bread, packaged with a label explaining what we were doing and facilitated by a great guy named Roman, at the Plzen-American Institute, and Plzen’s mayor, who received the ceremonial first loaf.
“We are giving back the bread that the people of Plzen gave to us and to me personally,” my mother told the mayor, “it was the most wonderful food I ever ate in my life.” Publicity for the event also helped us find some of the good Samaritans who delivered the food including, the daughter of the restaurant owner, Yarka Sourkova.
But the “Bread Story” kept growing in my mind, from a personal miracle for my mother and her compatriots, to a proof of the Women’s Side of War, to something even larger. By the time I was deep in my Holocaust studies, in the early ‘90s, its unanswered questions were gnawing at me:
Why would the Germans allow such a thing, amidst all their evil? Hadn’t they been paying attention to the Darwinism their leaders were constantly spouting? Didn’t they realize that 2000 young woman, if allowed to live, could give birth to a mid-sized town in two decades? Instead of allowing the Czech Samaritans to serve soup, why didn’t they open the cattle cars, scream “Rause” a few times, drive the starved and frightened women to the middle of the rail yard and machine gun them?
It took me years of reading Darwin and studying the Nazis as well as the Women's Side of War to solve the mystery.
In their long experience committing atrocities, the Nazis learned that it is not hard to get indoctrinated 20 year-olds to kill elderly men and women: simply tell them they are “useless eaters" who are part of a enemy group. Similarly, 20 year-old soldiers can be convinced to kill children or middle-aged people, especially those who have been starved and stripped of all dignity. On the other hand, however, it is very hard to get them to kill 18 year-old women.
Tonia Rotkopf Blair, age 25, circa 1950, by which time she had crossed Europe, South America, North America and settled in New York City. photo S. Meyers
No matter how starved or badly dressed the young women, or, conversely, brainwashed the young men, the normal human drives of life are hard to exterminate in their entirety. Instead of killing the women, in fact, many of those men would prefer to have sex with them; some would want to protect them; a few would even ask for their hand—so-called “battlefield marriages,” which are surprisingly common, due to how the nearness of death heightens romanticism.
In fact, when one of my mother's compatriots would give birth, as happened fairly regularly in the work camp and once in the Plzen train yard, as Yarka Sourkova recalled in the movie, even the guards—especially the women guards—would crack a smile or express outright joy at the sight of life struggling to emerge, even in the large intestines of the beast.
In fact, gas chambers were invented by the Germans for this very reason: so that 20 year-old men could kill 18 year-old women at a distance, industrially, without having to look them in the eye or hear them pleading. Although, in the early part of the war, the SS Einsatzgruppen Divisions were doing a “decent” job of mass murdering Jews across Western Russia, using machine guns and mass graves, the Nazis themselves noticed—regardless of SS' Ein’s claim that “his SS boys could take it”— that their soldiers were no longer “fit” to return home and sexually select and marry German women.
Auschwitz was a human “particle accelerator,” bringing to the fore behaviors heretofore hidden by courtesy, laws, morals, etc. While it seemed like a race to the bottom and, therefore, the end of civilization, my mother’s experiences AND the scientific theory of “prisoner’s dilemma” prove that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” as Martin Luther King so brilliantly noted.
Prisoner’s Dilemma is a game theory thought experiment which concerns how prisoners will screw over their co-prisoners, as well as themselves in the long run, for short term gain. Nevertheless, over time, due to their innate humanity or merely making a mistake, they discover that cooperation is more beneficial and they start building on that—hence the beginning of, or return to, civilization.
At a memorial to the Jews outside of Plzen: (bck rw, lft) Vachel Blair, Jiri Sourkova, Varda's husband, Nicholas Blair, Tania Prybylski Blair; (frnt rw, lft) Yarka Sourkova, Tonia Rotkopf Blair, Varda, Irena Blair. photo D. Blair
Even under the extreme duress of the Holocaust, Darwinian natural selection, so-called “survival of the fittest,” is trumped by sexual selection, the even greater need to retain the fitness necessary to reproduce. So much so, it may eventually overturn the standard model of Darwinism espoused by evolution theorists like Richard Dawkins. Although Dawkins always adds the secondary rule, that natural selection must include sexual selection, his Darwinism is predicated on the formula “Evolution is natural selection” as noted in the first few pages of his “Selfish Gene” (1976).
Sexual selection is certainly why the Nazis didn’t mow down my mother and her compatriots in the Plzen train yard, although, the next day, they dispatched them by train to the Mauthausen concentration camp and its small gas chamber. Fortunately by the time they arrived, operations had stopped and, a few weeks later, the Americans liberated them.
While seemingly small victories in the context of the Holocaust's ocean of horror, the "Pilot Affair" and the "Bread Story" are proofs that it is time to move beyond the destructive definitions, suggestions and pressures of natural selection-only Darwinism and establish irrefutably that “Evolution is natural AND sexual selection.” In this manner, we would take into account the female side of Darwinism, of war and, of course, of everything else.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Mar 06, 2016 - 03:14 AM