Wendy Lower (The Bat Segundo Show #526)

Wendy Lower is most recently the author of Hitler’s Furies, a nonfiction finalist for this year’s National Book Awards, which will be awarded on Wednesday night.

Author: Wendy Lower


Subjects Discussed: Marriage and genocide, the hausfrau who shot at Jews from the balcony, Liesel Willhaus, Hitler’s “baby machine” speech in 1934, Nazi ideology and gender roles, Volksgemeinschaft, Erna Petri, societal cues and massacring children, the fluidity of women’s personality in 1930s Germany, women in higher education restricted from participation, women who advanced up the social ladder, the League of German Girls, upward mobility among German women existing before the Nazi regime, Michael Wildt, looking at history through mundane everyday activities, Leni Riefenstahl’s rally footage, organized marches as rituals, looking at the motives for people who participated in these marches, concentrating on the half million women in the Eastern territories where communities of violence flourished, the Red Swastika Sisters, women serving as nurses, Annette Schücking, women listening to men boasting of massacres and being forced to comfort them, Nazis socializing by looking down at the inferior to affirm their superiority, Claudia Koonz’s Mothers in the Fatherland, women’s complicity in Nazi crimes, secretaries and bosses organizing massacres together, complicity in the workplace, shooting people from balconies, differing ideas about Vera Wohlauf, Christopher Browning’s claim of men feeling uncomfortable by Wohlauf’s presence because it made them feel shameful, Goldhagen’s ideas of men proud of their acts, genocide as men’s work, Browning’s Ordinary Men, German women using their pregnant condition to reduce their perceived culpability, the question of whether being close to the Miedzyrzec Aktion makes you an accomplice to atrocities, terrorizing by attendance, defining women’s culpability in relation to men, Gertrude Segel and Felix Landau, why it’s taken so long to consider women as part of the Nazi regime, how focusing on killing centers shifts the dialogue away from exploring violence within the general population during the Holocaust, how the German and Austrian courts excluded witness testimony after the war, how many women committing atrocities were allowed to return to regular life, cruelty focused on eroticized forms by the courts, the 500 women vs. the 20,00 men who stood trial after the war, low conviction rates, the Lemberg Trial, appearance stereotypes, the curious case of Johanna Altvater Zelle (aka Fräulein Hanna), how masculine appearances of women “explained” barbaric behavior, the natural Germanic ideal and its role in Nazi crimes (and subsequent exoneration), Nazi cowgirl types, Karl May, Nazi ideas of the wild west, German women telling journalists, scholars, and historians exactly what they wanted to hear (and how scholars have sorted out the truth from the hyperbole), the choices that women had under the Nazi regime, euthanasia programs, duty prevailing over morality, executed women, Nazi Empire Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine, resistance figure Maria Kondratenko, women who took advantage of the Nazi idea that women were intellectually inferior, why gender matters in looking at the Holocaust, the Black Misha, how secretaries were responsible for the administrative part of the Holocaust, workplace relationships and Nazi socialization, Nazi consumer culture, German women who were raped, and questioning the narrative of innocence.


Correspondent: Let’s discuss the idea of genocide as men’s work under the Nazi regime. There was this duty to serve the Reich and anyone who was considered work-shy was sent to a concentration camp, of course, to be reeducated. Men were expected to go out and perform an Aktion, which meant of course massacring Jews. You have this idea of marriage, where a woman had to be fulfilled with domestic work while she was simultaneously subordinate to her husband. But then you have people like Liesel Willhaus. She would often shoot at Jewish slaves working on her villa from her second story balcony for the sport of it. So I’m wondering. To what degree were figures like Willhaus responding to Nazi societal cues and to what degree were they reacting to these gender roles that were associated with work?

Lower: You know, in a speech that Hitler gave in 1934 at one of the rallies, he was very explicit. He said that women are supposed to serve their Reich to propagate the race. As baby machines, as it were. He didn’t use that term. But that’s kind of how we’ve come to understand it. But he also mentioned using the term “fellow combatants,” which I refer to in my book. And I do that deliberately to show that there were two strands of thinking in Nazi ideology vis-à–vis women and gender roles. One was obviously predominantly racial: the drive to expand the German race. But that drive to expand the German race was about survival. And survival was about militarized operations and it was expansion of the living space and building of the empire. So you have women in the role of the expansion of the German population to fulfill these megalomaniac global ambitions of Hitler’s and also serving as fellow combatants. There you see this paradox, where you see the kind of femininity of the hausfrau, of the mother, of the wife. But they also are mobilized in these campaigns. And the uniform culture, for instance, that is very a clear theme in my book, when these young women like Liesel Willhaus aspire to seek careers through the party and better themselves. They’re swept up in this fervor when they’re mobilized to go to the Eastern territories. She was sent to the Ukraine in this case. So there’s social mobility that is possible in the Volksgemeinschaft. But it has both this traditional feminine role as well as this very militaristic revolutionary experiment.

Correspondent: I guess what I’m trying to unravel here — I mean, I looked also to Erna Petri. She comes to the East in June 1942, observing her husband Horst beating and sexually assaulting servants shortly after arriving in Thuringia. By the summer of 1943, she’s already not only an accomplished hausfrau hostess, but she invites six starving Jewish children in and she shoots them in the back of the head. She had heard other Nazis saying that this was the best way to dispose of them. And the thing that fascinates me, and I’m hoping to hear you unravel, is how this kind of societal cue of “This is the best way to shoot a child” — how is that tied into what it was to be a hausfrau hostess or be this woman who, as you put it earlier, Hitler called a baby machine?

Lower: Yeah. The Nazi experiment tested all kinds of boundaries of matrimony, femininity, child rearing. These are all coming out, I think, in these individual cases that I delve into in a way, in which I’m putting faces on this lost generation of women and straightening out these different examples of those who went east. And you’ve focused on the worst cases. And the killer Erna Petri is probably the most extreme case in the book that really is the most shocking. But we see even in her case that she starts out as an ordinary farmgirl, a farmer’s daughter from a town near Erfurt, near Weimar, and attaches herself to a rising star in the SS movement, is then sent east with him to one of these plantations. And they’re kind of lording over this estate. So they have a lot of unsupervised power over the laborers on the estate. And you mentioned Jewish boys who fled the boxcar that was headed to Sobibor in ’43. And she slipped in and out of multiple roles at any given moment. She was both self-aware of being part of this revolution and wanting to assert herself, to prove herself. But then she had been socialized in traditional ways of how one should behave as a hausfrau, as a mother. And these are coming together. There’s a perversion that takes place here of these gender roles that are instrumentalized in the genocide. So you have a lot of tension in this history between racial ideals, gendered stereotypes, and this extreme violence that comes together. In the Eastern territories in particular.

Correspondent: But would you say that a particular gender role encouraged, “Hey, since this is the best way to dispose of a Jewish child, I will quite naturally fall into this because of the state.” I’ll later get into the fascinating postwar trials, in which a lot of these women got away. But I am curious, first and foremost, how many of these roles amalgamated into something where — is it even possible to unravel? It is even possible to isolate what could cause someone in one year to go to this state of being a hausfrau hostess who thinks nothing of shooting a child in the back of the head?

Lower: I think that these transformations were not — it’s a very fluid situation. They’re kind of moving back and forth. And this is after some intense socialization in the ’30s. So Erna Petri is born in 1920. In the 1920s, she was very young. But this was kind of the heyday of the explosion of women’s activity in politics. They gained the vote. So you have the politicization of women. And then boom. She’s coming of age in the ’30s in that kind of atmosphere. But it’s being shaped by this genocidal Nazi regime, which is highly ideological. And she said even in her testimony that the indoctrination of the ’30s was her motive, that she had been taught to hate Jews. And so she’s learning things along the way as well. And there’s a lot of leeway. There’s a lot of room for maneuvering too that we see in her behavior and many women like her, which was exciting for them and empowering. They were acting out. They didn’t assume that this regime was going to come to a screeching halt and be defeated. They just saw career tracks opening up. Bright futures in front of them. And especially someone like Petri and some of the wives of these SS men. They had entered into this new nobility under Himmler. And that was another level of being part of a community. And their actions, of course, because of the emphasis on this racial community. Volksgemeinschaft is a German term. People’s community. One could act out individually, but also understand one’s actions within this society. So later on for instance, not to jump too far ahead, someone like Erna Petri and many male perpetrators who find in their testimony these kinds of defense rationales in the courtroom, I don’t know how deep they went in terms of their own psychology, in which they literally state, “I feel myself.” They use the reflexive case in German. “I don’t feel myself to be guilty.” They don’t appreciate the individual responsibility and culpability because of the pervasiveness of this social experiment, being part of a national revolution and how unity and duty were so heavily stressed more than, say, morality.

Correspondent: Hitler, as you say — this whole “baby machine.” I want to go with this further. Basically, he said that a mother of multiple children was more beneficial to the Nazi regime than a woman lawyer. There were quotas in place preventing women from obtaining these degrees in higher education and political office. You point to upward mobility in this book as one of the big reasons why these women left villages and they saw jobs. Vera Wohlauf, she advanced up the social ladder through this office encounter and by marrying this wealthy merchant. So you didn’t have a lot of choices. But there were ways around this. How much of these ambitions emerged from, say, the League of German Girls, which was the girl answer to the Hitler Youth, and how did disregarding and humiliating Jews in the pre-Kristallnacht period lead to this alternative empowerment for women? It’s extraordinarily strange and I’m just trying to isolate certain aspects of this.

Lower: When I talk about the socialization during the Nazi regime, let me break that down. So, for instance, the League of German Girls was compulsory after the mid-’30s. So anyone — and with the boys as well obviously — after the age of ten, they had to be part of these youth movements. And they predominated and swallowed up all the other activities. I mean, the Nazi Party was really clever, insidiously so, in mobilizing the youth. They didn’t need to shut down the churches as such. They would just hold a lot of party meetings in these youth programs on Sunday morning. So people couldn’t go to church. Or they, of course, infiltrated the entire education system. The textbooks were completely rewritten. So each of these professional groups were somehow restructured along party lines as a one party system. Now in the beginning, thousands of German women — ordinary German women; Jewish women among them — who had been very active politically in the 1920s in the Communist movement, in the Social Democratic Party, the Catholic Center Party, other parties that the Nazis were destroying basically in ’33 as they consolidated their dictatorship — these women, especially the Communists, were sought out, arrested, and many were killed. And German women were also victims of sterilization policies. About 200,000. So within the German female population, already an early part of the ’30s, those who might be resistant to these policies are being weeded out, terrorized, incarcerated, and so forth. And so some like the individuals in my book — Erna Petri, Vera — they’re not part of that. They’ve survived that and they’ve triumphed. And now they’ve got this bright future ahead of them. And they can get out of there. Liesel Willhaus was the daughter of a foreman in a czar land. Worked on a chicken farm. And those who were not the killers in my book — the witnesses and bystanders — were similar demographics. They didn’t have educations beyond grammar school. They had secretarial training or nursing. Obviously nursing training was essential for the war effort. That particular career path was opened up. So this is how the socialization happens and what it means in terms of how women’s lives and their futures shift into these different directions under the regime.

The Bat Segundo Show #526: Wendy Lower (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Agnieszka Holland

Agnieszka Holland appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #433. She is most recently the director of In Darkness, which has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award and opens in limited release on Febraury 10, 2012.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Fumbling in the dark for the Zippo.

Guest: Agnieszka Holland

Subjects Discussed: Creating cinematic environments, how to design a sewer system for a Holocaust movie, the sewer as metaphor, the difficulty of locating the right sewer, Polish sewers, technical limitations on location, managing 60 to 70 people in a tight location, the differences between canalization sewers and sanitation sewers, finding sewer experts, Montreal, Phantasm, Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal, The Third Man, cinematographic efforts to avoid the beauty of the sewers, darkness as a false beauty, avoiding candles, directing actors in real darkness, making a movie which containing numerous languages, linguistic training and actors, ovepreparing actors, the Balak Polish dialect, working with Ed Harris, importing Method acting ideas into the Polish acting community, Jennifer Jason Leigh, finding the right actors, Polish theatrical training, Holocaust fatigue, developing behavioral quirks to overcome tropes, the Downfall meme, Olivier Olivier, Holland’s experience with identity emerging as a theme in her films, Zelig, being identified as the “literary culture” director during the 1990s, Total Eclipse, The Secret Garden as Holland’s favorite book as a kid, being faithful to Henry James, Washington Square vs. The Heiress, and efforts to determine why David Simon paired Holland up with Richard Price-penned scripts on The Wire.


Correspondent: This actually came up in a conversation I had a few weeks ago with the Australian novelist Elliot Perlman. We were talking about the notion of Holocaust fatigue and how some books or films that deal with the Holocaust have to now face this dilemma. I was looking at some of the reviews and some of the write-ups of this film and I noticed, for example, that A.O. Scott suggested that “the Holocaust movie has become a genre in its own right.” And in Tablet, you have Daphne Merkin suggesting that “the audience for Holocaust films is even smaller than the audience for Ukranian imports.” But on the other hand, I think one of the things I appreciated about this film, and also Europa Europa, is that you have characters who are committing adultery, who are shooting up, who are masturbating, and as a result you have behavioral quirks that almost defy these labels. So what do you do, when you’re making a Holocaust narrative of any kind, to get away from these tropes? Does it really come down to these behavioral quirks or what?

Holland: Well, you know, I think that the Holocaust is such an important event in the human history, the border point of the humanity, that I don’t think it will disappear as a subject. Even for the next generation. I think what happens really — it was too many of pretty superficial and not very good treatments of this period and of this subject, which change it to some kind of the moralistic sentimental kitsch and I think really — yeah, this kind of treatment, people have enough. It means, in the first, it was educationally important and work up some kind of knowledge and curiosity. But after, it became some kind of cliche. For me, it’s important that it’s not like, that you cannot label this as the Holocaust. It is not really Holocaust film or it’s not the film of the Polish/Jewish relationship. It’s a film about the human condition and the particular circumstances. And what you know of the human nature is able to give, to deliver the best and the worst. And that is the universal question which you can also translate to another sensitivity and another times. I think personally that the only thing which is important: if it’s artistically successful and if it’s honest. Humanly speaking and psychologically speaking and historically speaking. If it’s dishonest or bad, it’s bad. If it’s really powerful and goes straight to the heart of the people, you know, yes. I think that we, of course, had the ambition to shot into the heart of the people and the brain comes later, you know? And if after it wakes up the reflection, what it was, how it was possible, when was my nation in that, how I will act in those circumstances, that is a bonus.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, I agree with you. But on the other hand, you as a filmmaker are competing with, for example, the Downfall meme on the Internet. Where they take that scene and put different subtitles with Hitler. “Hitler has learned this.” As a result, any serious consideration of the Holocaust now has to compete with these caricatures. Although, oddly enough, I guess you were sort of ahead of the trend with the Hitler who’s in Europa Europa.

Holland: Right.

Correspondent: But how do you deal with this? Does it really come down to creating subcultures? Behavioral quirks along these lines that defy all tropes?

Holland: Well, you know, it’s where we are today. And anyway, you know, the Internet. And you think of the artifacts and the pieces of art on the Internet and the cut-and-glue, you know, kind. It exists. You cannot do anything about it. And of course, you can answer the question, “How long the regular dramatic narrative will survive?” And if it will change to something different. Some kind of interactive games or something like that. I don’t know. By now, it still exists and you still can touch a pretty amazing amount of people with that.

Correspondent: I was always curious. I’ve been wanting to ask you this. Why are you so interested in frauds and swindlers and those who have secret identities or who are pretending to be somebody else? I mean, even in this film, you’ve got con men. There’s the pretense with the cash. Olivier Olivier — is the boy real or not? Things like that. Is this, I suppose, the result of growing up in pre-Solidarity Poland? This natural curiosity? Or is it just good for narrative?

Holland: Probably. Probably. In Polish Jewish family also, where, you know, I had to change those hearts depending upon who I am talking to. So in some way, part is my own experience. And being woman in a man’s world. And in general, I think that the people are wearing the masks all the time. So that is like the basic human problem. Who we are really in the depth of our identity and what we pretend if that real identity really exists or is just the function of the circumstances. If it’s something like the true, true, you know, true myself — someplace — and the rest is just some kind of the appearances, the true myself doesn’t exist. Everything is appearances. The question is asked in Europa Europa in a very vivid way. Because the guy had been like the Zelig — changing identities, depending.

Correspondent: And very flute-based as well.

Holland: Right. And in Europa Europa, it was paradoxical. It was that his identity was his circumcised penis. If he wasn’t circumcised, probably he will become someone else totally. And that he had to remember.

Correspondent: No greater physicality than that. (laughs)

The Bat Segundo Show #433: Agnieszka Holland (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Elliot Perlman

Elliot Perlman appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #429. He is most recently the author of The Street Sweeper.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Collecting the dregs of his spatulate ambitions.

Author: Elliot Perlman

Subjects Discussed: Perlman living across the street from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, whether an author has to reside in a place to write about it, why some Australians consider the US and the UK to be part of the same neighborhood, how to make New York your friend, smoking outside of a hospital, the Mayor of East 77th and York, the improbable idea of characters in their thirties listening to Jonathan Schwartz, Kafka’s Statue of Liberty sword, rental rates and gentrification, writing an “anything you want” book that takes on such a wide social canvas, knowing the endings of Seven Types of Ambiguity and The Street Sweeper, how research enriches the writing process, whether a novelist can entirely avoid coincidences and convenient run-ins, being “a child of the 19th century,” It’s a Wonderful Life, cutting art from the past some appreciative slack, cynicism vs. efforts by fiction to feel and grapple with the world, sincerity and postmodernism, writing something you believe in, fiction interpreted as too didactic, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, how certain types of postmodernism masks sloppy thinking, conducting vigorous research and gravitating to the visceral, novelists as professional liars, the obligation to get serious historical details right, finding comfort in Auschwitz by going there six times, the ground beneath one’s feet as a starting point, “memory as a willful dog,” Daniel Schachter’s The Seven Sins of Memory, positive people who don’t learn from the past, avoiding Holocaust book fatigue, Godwin’s law, people who think they know about the Holocaust but really don’t, the Musselmann state, Auschwitz being half the size of Manhattan, Ricky Gervais sending up the Holocaust, Perlman’s family background, moral efforts to rid ourselves of superstitions, the American civil rights movement, the fictitious Henry Border vs. the real David Boder, the adjective-verb ratio, being inspired an episode of This American Life, whether it’s fair to speculate on what real historical figures are thinking, how to respect historical figures in fiction, interviewing Illinois psychiatrists and Boder’s students, the Voices of the Holocaust project, characters who steal objects as a narrative bookend, failed teachers who perform irrational acts in Perlman’s fiction, the inevitability of parallel characters, how to live without hurting people, hurting other characters as an effective dramatic device, Ern Malley’s idea: “the emotions are not skilled workers,” heightened anxiety, Morningside Heights, inventing a fictive construct instead of confronting an emotional reality, real and fictional voices serving as narrative counterpoints, obsessing with the jet black hair aesthetic of a student, and not being able to tell everybody’s story.


Correspondent: Let’s talk about this research and the social canvas here. I mean, this book, it deal with the Holocaust. You have mid-20th century developments in American labor. You have a man who just got out of jail. You have the nature of history. You have the Great Migration. You have the academic world. You have the adjective-verb quotient ratio and wire recording involving Dr. Border — and I’ll get into that more in a bit. So it’s almost a kitchen sink book or perhaps, if you want to pay homage to [The Street Sweeper Chicago laborer] James Pearson, an “anything you want” book. I know that many of these elements came to you by serendipity. But I’m wondering how much you need to have these thematic connections worked out in advance. I mean, can you really deal with a novel when you have a scale that is this large — both with The Street Sweeper and Seven Types of Ambiguity? Were there any things that you threw out along the way?

Perlman: Oh yeah. Definitely. I know you hear a lot of writers say that they invent characters and characters grab them by the ear and take them along to the conclusion of the book. And I think that’s often true. But I think sometimes it’s not true. They say it. And perhaps it sounds romantic or in some way interesting. I’m not like that. I’m anxious and anal retentive — particularly with the last two books, The Street Sweeper and Seven Types of Ambiguity. I needed to know the books were going to end before I got too far into them. And pretty much at the beginning, I think even with Seven Types, I did. And I’m probably that way with pretty much everything I write, except maybe some short stories. The danger is that you spend years of your life writing these things and the end doesn’t satisfy you. And that would be a tragedy for me. And I’m not suggesting that the endings of those two books will satisfy everybody. But they need to satisfy me before I’m willing to commit. You know, what it’s really been — Seven Types of Ambiguity took almost four years to write. And The Street Sweeper took about five and a half years. So you want to be satisfied — at least I think — that it’s a story worth telling. So I do plan it out quite meticulously. And, of course, what happens is that it gets enriched by your research along the way. And there are certain things that don’t help you. So you’re disinclined to use them. But if there are certain things that do help you, well then obviously you grab it. And it might look like you’ve been building to that along the way. But it’s a combination of having the architecture or the spine of the thing worked out with certain key points that you’ve already researched. But then there are certain little things that you find serendipitously that can be incredibly helpful. And they go in. And it might look like you knew that all along when in fact you didn’t come to that a bit later.

Correspondent: Well, speaking of serendipity, I was curious about this. I mean, can you entirely avoid coincidences or convenient run-ins or contrivances with your method? Aren’t there certain strands where the bandage is not exactly neatly applied to the wound? How does this work?

Perlman: Well, you know, some people have said that I’ve used coincidence. I can’t even remember which book it was. And maybe it’s more than one book. I guess I try not to overdo it. But I have a little fondness for it. And maybe it’s because in certain senses I’m a child of the 19th century in terms of the stuff that was important to me as a young man growing up. And I try not to use it as much as it’s been used by some of my heroes. Because I don’t think in the 21st century a writer can probably get away with it in the same way as a filmmaker can probably couldn’t make something as beautifully sweet as It’s a Wonderful Life. As much as we all might love that movie, if somebody literally tries to make that now, it would probably not be revered anywhere near as much. Because society’s so different from the society that came to in which It’s a Wonderful Life was made.

Correspondent: How so? Is it because of sincerity?

Perlman: With It’s a Wonderful Life now, we’re cutting it some slack because of the time it was made. So we might cut, and I hope we do, so many of the 19th century greats some slack for coincidences that I might not be cut now. But having said that, I do use it a little bit. But whether I overuse it or not is probably for some readers to decide. I hope I don’t. I try not to.

Correspondent: You know, that’s a very crafty way of suggesting that contemporary fiction is perhaps not giving enough slack for depicting certain realities. Is that what you’re suggesting, Mr. Perlman?

Perlman: (laughs) I’m probably not being crafty. I’m probably being sleep-deprived and not expressing myself so eloquently. Look, I don’t know. I had the feeling — in the 90s at least — that we had become almost too cynical. A little too clever in the sense of: It’s all very well to delineate, even meticulously, what it is that you’re mulling over. What it is that you’re disenchanted by. But sooner or later, shouldn’t art remind us what we should really aspire to? And the danger with doing that is that you’re wearing your heart on your sleeve and you’re making yourself an easy target and super-hip, ultra literary people, they can be more interested and get more pleasure out of deriding the status quo and perhaps dreaming or aspiring to something better. And I’ll take the risk — whether it’s successful or not, I don’t know. Certainly in the three novels that I’ve written so far, and even some of the short stories, I’m trying to offer some hope. And I do that because that’s what I would like. I think that’s something that can be very helpful in art.

Correspondent: You know, Elliot, another way of phrasing this might just be this: I’m curious if, from the vantage point of Australia, you as a novelist were under siege with this wave that was against sincerity in fiction and against postmodernism in fiction. And that essentially the last two novels are partially a response to that. I mention this because I note that sometimes in your fiction, you’re very fond of saying “you” in a way that is rather curious. It’s not quite second person and it’s not quite omniscient. It’s somewhere in between. And I’m fascinated by that. There are also often these strange moemnts in your novels where you almost command the reader. And I can get into that. One thing I think of is: “Pay attention the small details. It is the mark of a professional.” That whole business with Adam Zignelik. And I’m curious if this has plagued you in any way or how this not quite omniscient but leaving room for taking room for perspective approach developed.

Perlman: Well, you know, that particular example that you brought up, Edward, is actually — well, I guess it’s a device really. It’s Adam, who’s a historian at Columbia. An insecure untenured historian who is certain that his time at Columbia is just about up and he hasn’t written anything new in five years. And he is delivering a lecture to his undergraduate students. So when he says things like “Pay attention,” it’s the character talking to his students. You might also say, “Well, that’s the author talking to his readers.” It doesn’t need to be taken that way but, look, I suppose I can’t hide the fact that I feel certain things quite strongly. And it’s very difficult writing anything. You may as well write something you believe in and that matters to you, and clearly I guess I put my heart on my sleeve with my political views with all of the books. And in doing that, sometimes perhaps I can be overly prescriptive. I don’t think it would have bothered me as a reader. And that’s why I put it in there. I suppose if someone has particular views that are really antithetical to mine, diametrically opposed, then they’re going to be annoyed by what might appear finger waving. But at the very least, I did in the context of a character talking to other characters. Look at me. I’m trying to troll through my memory of all the negative things that have been said about me in an attempt to bend over backwards to help you. Isn’t that pathetic? It has been said that I can be didactic at times. Again, it’s a question of degree. And obviously, you and I defend that movement and it’s sent to editors. I think it’s not totally didactic. To some people, it will be, I guess.

Correspondent: Well, let me clarify. I think that the “What is history?” chapter is one of the most interesting points in the book. I mean, you have this situation where Adam is describing the personal tidbits of Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer befriending this black man over the Union Theological Seminary, and things like that. So in that moment, you do in fact write not in Adam’s words but those of the narrator, “Pay attention to the small details.” But I thought that it wasn’t necessarily a command. It was more of a cue to the readers. But it also made me think, “Well, hmmm, I wonder if he’s up to some larger game to encourage readers to look almost beyond the book.” To look at the sources you have in the back. Or whether this was some modest gesture to postmodernism where you basically just thought that the whole thing was kind of a wild game. Or it was possibly a genuine interest on your part over whether history could in fact predict the future. But it sounds to me that what you’re saying is that that was driven from a pure moment of emotional sincerity and that’s pretty much how you operate. And this may explain some of the things I’m observing from your book. These very visceral heightened moments couched in really unusual philosophical terms?

Perlman: Well, gee, I dig your questions. I didn’t mean to say that. Because you already decided to interview me. But you really do. And I hope that in my sleep-deprived state I’m able to do justice to them. I guess what I’m trying to do, I think, is marry a certain passion that makes you want to write in the first place. Because it is in some respects an irrational activity. I mean, you’re alone. You’re frequently not particularly physically comfortable. And you’re never going to be adequately financially rewarded for all the hours it takes you to produce the thing. So in a sense, it’s for the most part an antisocial thing to do. So it’s an irrational activity. So why are you doing it? You’re doing it because something in you, you’d feel worse if you didn’t do it. It’s a kind of a passion. And you really want to grab the reader and hold him or her and say, “Look at this. Look at this story. Look at the world.” At least as I see it. And yet you go and impose some kind of order on it. And that’s where the other side of me — I suppose the anal retentive side. The side that became a lawyer or maybe it was fostered and assisted and nurtured by being a lawyer. Anyway, leaving aside any attempts to psychoanalyze myself on a long distance call, it is a marriage of the two — the passion and the intent to impose some order over it. And in a sense, the structure of the book is where I’m definitely using more intellect than emotion. But then within the pockets, there is an attempt to really say to the reader, “Yeah. Look at this. I’m thinking about it. Would you like to think about it too? And I’ll try to express it as eloquently as I can to get you to see at least common things from the perspective I have.” When it’s a character who shares what could essentially be described as a series of views which constitutes my worldview, but often — particularly in Seven Types — I might not be writing about characters who definitely don’t share my views. But even then you try and give as much as you can, imbuing it with every bit of humanity you can garner to make the suggestion that often means that there is more that we have in common which separates us. And if we could just put aside so much of our preconceptions, we might get on a little better. But that runs the risk of making it sound like literature is a tool to social cohesion only. And it isn’t. It does many things. And that’s only one of the things it can do.

The Bat Segundo Show #429: Elliot Perlman (Download MP3)

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Sophie’s Choice (Modern Library #96)

(This is the fifth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Sheltering Sky)

In Alexandra Styron’s forthcoming book, Reading My Father, she describes liberating a galley of Sophie’s Choice, a presale unit freshly arrived at the family home, at the age of twelve. It was the spring of 1979. Her plan was to read the mint green paperback between classes. She felt it incumbent “to somehow validate the rumors of his greatness.” Young Alexandra discovers that the novel bores the tears out of her. “The difficult vocabulary and historical references kept eluding me,” she writes, “until finally I began to let them sail by, unchallenged.” Further, upon encountering her father’s libidinous passages, she then becomes embarrassed, wincing “at the liberal sprinkling of words like fucking and horny and lust.” (Here’s the full tally according to Amazon’s Look Inside! feature: “fucking” — 29 counts; “horny” — 4 counts; and “lust” — 20 counts. I am also informed that readers in need of steady doses of the mildly profane are likely to find a good deal more “fuck” and “fucking” in Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books. Miles Davis’s autobiography, published a decade after Sophie’s Choice, contains 672 uses of the word “fuck.” I think it’s safe to say that Styron was pushing the “fucking” boundaries no more and no less than any other writer around the time. Perhaps his striking tone says something about his ability to alarm.)

A good thirty-one years later, The Millions‘s Lydia Kiesling posted a Modern Library Revue installment on Sophie’s Choice. Kiesling, fourteen years older than Alexandra Styron when she first read Sophie’s Choice, wrote, “I’m not a prude; I think there should be sex in novels. However, while I’m not certain how it is best achieved on the page, I feel quite certain that ‘mossy cunt’ and ‘undulant swamp’ are not the ideal epithets. I mean, Jesus. Also, it’s just so cheesy — the release of her secrets, the release of his orgasms.” To be fair to Styron, he actually writes about “her moist mossy cunt’s undulant swamp.” Say what you like about Styron, but it takes a rare writer willing to go the distance like this. (Incidentally, “release” gets five counts in Sophie’s Choice according to Amazon and in neither explicit usage that Kiesling claims. In fact, at one point, “release” in the orgasmic context is declared “an odious word” by young Stingo, of whose randiness more anon, in one of his notebooks.) This prompted Emma Barton (not the actress who played Honey Mitchell on EastEnders) to leave a spirited comment in response: “You must have noticed there’s a new generation of us younger feminists coming up who don’t get our panties in such a twist over guys talking about their sexual thoughts, since we’re pretty open about our own sexual thoughts too.”

If Styron’s sexual effrontery is a matter to be settled by the old guard feminists, then we’re in luck. In her essay “Night Thoughts of a Media Watcher,” Gloria Steinem was to offer stronger sentiments. For Steinem, Sophie’s Choice was “like reading a case history by Freud in which he stoutly maintains a woman patient was not really raped by her father as a child, but just made up this story because she had hoped it would happen.” To put it mildly, I don’t think this gets at the complexity that Styron was attempting. But let’s carry on. Shortly after Steinem concedes the possibility that “Styron knew what he was doing,” she writes, “My first hope is that there was no real Sophie, that Styron just made her up completely. Like Freud’s women patients, however, she is just real and believable enough to break your heart; all the more so because she is recorded by someone who describes her but never understands her.” While it is true that Styron has drawn heavily from his personal experience for Stingo (especially for Sophie’s Choice‘s enthralling opening chapter), Steinem’s diagnosis presupposes that Styron wasn’t remarking in some way upon Stingo’s own (and Styron’s own) failure to understand her. Styron alludes to a real-life Sophie in a 1983 interview with Stephen Lewis, but not for the reasons that Steinem imputes:

It summed up the absolute totalitarian nature of this evil, which we really had not seen, certainly in civilized society, since history began to be recorded. It seized me so poignantly that I was compelled to write a book about it. I also connected it with something that had happened to me: I went to Brooklyn, in the late 1940s, and met a young — older than I was, but nonetheless young — woman who had been a survivor of Auschwitz, and who had a tattoo on her arm. Her name was Sophie.

So if absolute evil was Styron’s primary focus, how did we get from 29 uses of “fucking” to nebulous Freudian speculation to bright spirits duking it out in the comments at one of the Web’s best literary sites? Whatever it was that Styron was doing, in 2002, it was enough to get the California-based Norwalk-La Mirada High School District to remove Sophie’s Choice from its libraries after a single complaint. The objection? You guessed it. The sexual content. The ACLU intervened after students protested the distinct possibility that their very own First Amendment rights were being violated. The book was eventually returned to the stacks.

* * *

I think it’s remarkable that a brick-thick book from 1979 has continued to get so many people hot and bothered — especially since most novels written in the last decade don’t possess this power. (One cannot imagine people getting this worked up about Jonathan Franzen in 2043.) But now that I’ve finally read Styron’s masterpiece, I’m bewildered by much of the ballyhoo. The objections over the book’s sexual passages would suggest that all this exists independently from the book’s take on the Holocaust. It is almost as if the book’s opponents are incapable of reconciling the two strands, a grave oversight in light of the book’s presentation of tragic relativism, which I’ll get to in a bit. Of the four objections cited above, only Steinem makes a tenuous connection. And even then, she falls into the cliche of accusing Styron of some psychosexual fantasy — as if every impulse an author sets down involves unzipping the pants of the mind.

To get the hot stuff out of the way first, it cannot be stressed enough that we are dealing with Stingo, a young man who isn’t getting any during the postwar epoch, which comes a few decades before American culture has at long last grasped and permitted the reality of teenagers losing their virginity. As Stingo himself explains:

A lot in this way of bilious remembrance has been written about sex survivors of the fifties, much of it a legitimate lament. But the forties were really far worse, a particularly ghastly time for Eros, shakily bridging as they did the time between the puritanism of our forefathers and the arrival of public pornography. Sex itself was coming out of the closet, but there was universal distress over how to deal with it.

Here is a young man so lonely that we see him, in the book’s extraordinary opening chapter, fantasizing about “the Winston Hunnicutts, this vivid and gregarious young couple,” whom Stingo sees from his window in the rotting University Residence Club on West Eleventh Street. Yes, Stingo offers us extraordinary fantasies about the wife, using romantic language (“My lust was incredible…priapic, ravenous, yet under hair-trigger control”). But it is clear that Stingo’s fantasies also revolve around the Hunnicutts’ “enormous good fortune to inhabit a world populated by writers and poets and critics and other literary types.” To some degree, Styron’s fusion of sex with literary aspirations anticipates Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. And yet because Bolaño’s book carries the heft of multiple testimonies to sustain its illusion and Styron confines his interests to a singular first-person perspective, the former is permitted his posthumous genius while the latter is seen as a late middle-aged creep (also dead, by the way) getting his jollies through a young man’s perspective.

Never mind that Styron has taken care to include excerpts from Stingo’s notebooks, which contain prototypical revelations about Stingo’s life, along with wry commentary after these italicized passages: “I am a little mortified to discover that almost none of the above was apparently written with the faintest trace of irony (I actually was capable of ‘somewhat slightly’!”)”

If such provisos aren’t enough. Stingo, who is very aware of his prose style, is fond of embellishing his life story — even decades later — with seemingly robust, manly sentences. One such sentence reads: “I got up and made my way to the men’s room, weaving slightly, aglow at the edges of my skin with a penumbra of Rheingold, the jolly, astringent beer served at the Maple Court on draught.” Taken out of context, some of the phrasing (“aglow at the edges of my skin with a penumbra”) might be construed as awkward, yet Styron’s “edges of my skin” anticipates how the out-of-practice, out-of-time romantic phrase is no longer used among male writers today. Indeed, in recent years, “edges of my skin” has been used by such highly readable writers as Stephenie Meyer, Alice Sebold (in Lucky, no less), Aimee Bender, Lorrie Moore, and Justine Larbalestier. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a single male writer born after 1970 using such a phrase in contemporary fiction.

Stingo’s revelations serve purposes beyond the ostensibly tawdry. Styron is telegraphing a dying language, revealing modernist modes misconstrued today as overly melodramatic. Yet if they are so over-the-top, why then is Styron so willing to have Stingo explain himself? As Stingo notes late in the book, once he has at long last accomplished his effervescent goal (I have blanked out the name to avoid spoilers):

The varieties of sexual experience are, I suppose, so multifarious that it would be an exaggeration to say that _____ and I did that night everything that it is possible to do. But I’ll swear we came close, and one thing forever imprinted on our brain was our mutual inexhaustibility. I was inexhaustible because I was twenty-two, and a virgin, and was clasping in my arms at long last the goddess of my unending fantasies….For me it was less an initiation than a complete, well-rounded apprenticeship, or more, and _____, my loving instructess, never ceased whispering encouragement into my ear. It was as if through a living tableau, in which I myself was a participant, there were being acted out all the answers to the questions with which I had half maddened myself ever since I began secretly reading marriage manuals and sweated over the pages of Havelock Ellis and other sexual savants.

Speaking as a man who was once twenty-two and sexually frustrated (as nearly every kid at that age is), I can assure all parties that Styron accurately describes what it means to sow one’s young oats.

If Sophie’s Choice were merely an itemization of Stingo’s sexual fantasies, then it would not have rightly earned its place in the Modern Library canon. I haven’t even brought up the indelible Nathan Landau, Sophie’s wildly exuberant and psychologically troubled Jewish paramour. He is inarguably worse than Stingo, prone to rages and boasting about cures for cancer, and abusive of Sophie and Stingo. Yet he shares much of Stingo’s autodidacticism. Indeed, it is Nathan’s curious amalgamation of knowledge (one might very well use the 21st century term “mashup”) that is the allure:

His range was astonishing and I had constantly to remind myself that I was talking to a scientist, a biologist (I kept thinking of a prodigy like Julian Huxley, whose essays I had read in college) — this man who possessed so many literary references and allusions, both classical and modern, and who within the space of an hour could, with no gratuitous strain, weave together Lytton Strachey, Alice in Wonderland, Martin Luther’s early celibacy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the mating habits of the Sumatran orangutan into a little jewel box of a beguiling lecture which facetiously but with a serious overtone explored the intertwined nature of sexual voyeurism and exhibitionism.

What’s especially interesting is how close this self-taught ideal mimics Stingo’s own narrative voice. The key tell here is “the intertwined nature of sexual voyeurism and exhibitionism,” which serves in parallel to Stingo’s own sexual exhibitionism. This is unconsummated for the most part, with even “a remarkably beautiful, sexually liberated, twenty-two-year-old Jewish Madonna lily named Leslie Lapidus” (later revealed to be involved in orgone therapy; Wilhelm Reich, of course, being one of the twentieth century’s great charlatans) just outside his grasp.

* * *

DG Myers has put forth the idea that Sophie’s Choice owes its historical importance not because of its literary quality, but as “a pioneering dissent on the Holocaust.” (While Myers’s 10,000 word essay is well worth reading, especially because Myers offers a very helpful overview of Styron’s developing thoughts on the Holocaust, Myers is curiously prudish about the novel’s sexuality.) I think he is right to observe that Sophie’s Choice is about “the ideological representation of the Holocaust,” with the origins of these thoughts to be found in Styron’s essay, “Auschwitz” (contained in This Quiet Dust). But Myers is wrong to suggest that Styron’s views on Jewish exclusivism — with the non-Jewish Sophie serving as Styron’s ecumenical exemplar — are invalidated by what Myers perceives to be a historical error. Myers cites Styron writing that Sophie “had suffered as much as any Jew,” but there is also this parenthetical (after Stingo has made efforts to reconcile Sophie’s life with George Steiner’s Language and Silence):

(It is surpassingly difficult for many Jews to see beyond the consecrated nature of the Nazis’ genocidal fury, and thus it seems to me less a flaw than a pardonable void in the moving meditation of Steiner, a Jew, that he makes only fleeting reference to the vast multitudes of non-Jews — the myriad Slavs and the Gypsies — who were swallowed up in the apparatus of the camps, perishing just as surely as the Jews, though sometimes only less methodically.)

Here, Styron dares to enter into the tricky realm of genocidal relativism by inclusion. Yet if Styron is going to quibble with Steiner, we must quibble with Styron by his own rules. Stingo has left out the pink triangles, the political prisoners, and numerous other laborers who perished in the camps. If Styron hopes to “sum up the absolute totalitarian nature of this evil,” it is quite possible that no book can truly contain it. On the other hand, when Styron writes of Stingo’s whereabouts on April 1, 1943, he is clearly showing the foolish nature of the comparative enterprise:

I was able to come up with the absurd fact that on that afternoon, as Sophie first set foot on the railroad platform in Auschwitz, it was a lovely spring day in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I was gorging myself on bananas.

Stingo is gorging himself on bananas because he needs three more pounds to meet the minimum weight requirement to join the Marines. And yet, at the time, Stingo

had not heard of Auschwitz, nor of any concentration camp, nor of the mass destruction of the European Jews, nor even much about the Nazis. For me the enemy in that global war was the Japanese, and my ignorance of the anguish hovering like a noxious gray smog over places with names like Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen was complete. But wasn’t this true for most Americans, indeed most human beings who dwelt beyond the perimeter of the Nazi horror?

In condemning Styron for his “historical error,” Myers correctly observes that none of the books and records that Stingo quotes is a firsthand source. And yet while Myers is right to point out that Sophie’s testimony to Stingo “secures the narrative authority of Sophie’s Choice,” he fails to observe that even Styron’s fictional firsthand source is suspect, suggesting that “the novel’s case against the Jewish interpretation of the Holocaust depends upon the claim that Jews are ignorant of the historical reality.” But if Stingo himself starts from a blank slate of ignorance, is not the purported case against predicated on an interpretation built atop gentile ignorance? The details here are as much about the lies and the omissions as they are about what is stated and filtered through Stingo. Of one of Sophie’s accounts, Stingo notes, “Her brief observation on the function of Auschwitz-Birkenau….is basically an accurate one, and she neither exaggerated nor underestimated the nature of her various diseases….Why, then, did she leave out certain elements and details that anyone might reasonably have expected her to include?” Later in the novel, Stingo declares, “Would I not forgive her, she said, now that I saw both the truth and her necessity for telling the lie?” Still later, a highly inebriated Sophie exclaims, “Jews! God, how I hate them! Oh, the lies I have told you, Stingo. Everything I told you about Cracow was a lie. All my childhood, all my life I really hated Jews. They deserved it, this hate, I hate them, dirty Jewish cochons!”

This is distressing and prejudicial language. And it certainly points to one interesting takeaway that Myers promulgates: “The only respect in which [the novel’s Jewish characters] remain Jewish at all is in their exclusivist response to the Holocaust.” But can Stingo as narrator be entirely trusted? Is not Sophie’s anti-Semitic outburst, the fissures widened by self-medicating swigs of rye, not pointing to the inherent ugliness within the Enlightenment liberal position?

Sophie’s Choice is many things, but the thrust here may be more emotional than intellectual. Cannot the Holocaust be both ecumenical, as Styron once proposed, and exclusively Jewish? If one is not Jewish, and one feels deep sadness and great contrition for these tremendous atrocities, then Jewish exclusivity presents no other option other than conversion. Thus, Stingo’s romantic language, tailored for crass sexuality, may very well be upholding the folly buried within.

Since Myers was too timorous to consider this angle, I’m going to suggest that Stingo’s sexual longings represent some wishful reconciliation between Jewish exclusivity and universal understanding. For the gentile denied exclusivity, there is the commingling of guilt with passion, even carnal passion. Yet as Leslie Fiedler observed in his take on Sophie’s Choice, “Even when Stingo manages to participate in the action, he proves incapable of influencing its outcome.” So if Myers believes that Styron “fails to understand the sense in which the Holocaust calls into question the left-liberal distaste for Jewish exclusivism,” it would appear that he did not read the following reflective passage near novel’s end, when Stingo is attempting to balance his youthful journal with his adult self:

Someday I will understand Auschwitz. This was a brave statement but innocently absurd. No one will understand Auschwitz. What I might have set down with more accuracy would have been: Someday I will write about Sophie’s life and death, and thereby help demonstrate how absolute evil is never extinguished from the world. Auschwitz itself remains inexplicable. The most profound statement yet made about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response.

Next: Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net!

(Image: Alfred Eisenstaedt)

NYFF: Nuremberg / Holocaust Survivor Ernest Michel

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

During Thursday’s press conference for Nuremberg — the only film of the Nuremberg trials commissioned by the United States Army (and subsequently banned from being shown in theaters by the U.S. government) — Holocaust survivor Ernest Michel began the proceedings with a short statement. Michel was the first Holocaust survivor to turn journalist and cover the war trials. What follows is a transcript and an audio file.

Richard Pena: Is there a statement that you wanted to start out with, Michel? I see that you have something there on your left.

Ernest Michel: Yes. But before looking at my notes – because I didn’t trust myself to speak without any notes – this is the second time I’ve seen this film. And I still do not believe that I survived what you saw on the screen. I can’t believe it.

I arrived in Nuremberg on November 20, 1945 to cover the Nuremberg War Crime Plan. I was not just a newsman. I was also a survivor. I went through all of that that you saw on the screen. And I cannot for the life of me understand what saved me and what made it possible for me to come back to life. Seven month before I arrived in Nuremberg. Seven month before I escaped from the last concentration camp. I spent all together five an a half years in the camps. First, forced labor camps. And later on, extermination camps.

I was twenty-two years old when I arrived in Nuremberg. I was kicked out of school at sixth grade because I was Jewish. Never been back to school again. I came to the United States five month before the open of the Nuremberg trial. How I got to the trial is another story and I won’t bore you with that.

I had no job. I had no training. I had no money. I had no family. I was all by myself. And here I was, in Nuremberg, as a special correspondent for the German news agency DANA. Not for American papers. Not for any other papers. For the – for German newspapers. And I sat there in the gallery. The press gallery. There was Edward R. Murrow. Walter Cronkite. Who I got to know. They interviewed me. They couldn’t understand how a survivor was sitting here as a reporter at the Nuremberg trials. I had to pinch myself. This was really me. And if I get a little nervous, a little shaky, I…I saw this for the second time. I don’t know whether I can take it to sit…to sit…to see it again.

The crimes committed during World War II were the height of anything drastic and horrible that could have ever imagined in…in mankind. This is what makes the Nuremberg trials such a unique event. It was the first time that leaders of an elected country — a Western country, Germany – were committed for the greatest crimes ever committed in history. Six million of us were killed. We were eighteen million Jews around the world before the war began. And we were twelve million afterwards. I don’t know if we will ever catch up and make up for what happened.

I insisted that my byline, which I wrote for all the German newspapers, insist that it be called Ernest Michel, Auschwitz Special Correspondent, Former Inmate of Auschwitz 104995. That’s a number I wear. And I wear it with pride.

When I come to the trial, twenty-five feet away from me, second or third row, sits Hermann Goering. I never met him with the exception of one time I may have time not to tell you about. But there I was reporting from the trial. And I was told to be objective. As I said, I had no education whatsoever. I had a brief training process by DANA in order to be able to know what to say, how not to say it. “Please be honest. Straight. Directly. You are not here as a survivor. You are here as a correspondent. To tell what is happening in front of you.” And this is what I did.

My articles appeared in all German newspapers. The defendants were not allowed to read any other newspaper. So everyday, in Nuremberg, they read Ernst Michel, Auschwitz Survivor 104995. I want them to know who was in Nuremberg reporting for the German newspapers.

I was the only survivor to cover while I started in November 1945 – on the 20th November. When [Robert H.] Jackson opened the sessions. And I left the trial in June 194[6]. I couldn’t take it anymore. And then I emigrated to the United States.

The only other film that was shown in Auschwitz was a Russian film.

Sandra Schulberg: You mean in Nuremberg. Shown in Nuremberg.

Michel: In Nuremberg. In Nuremberg. I’m glad you added that.

The only other film that was shown and made by the Russians when the Russian Armies – forgive me, you know, I’m getting a little shaky, but I can’t help it. This is – my family’s there. Was there. My friends, my future, my life, anything. And yet I’m here and I’m coming. Despite my hesitation in talking about it.

This film is the only film made by the United States. And as you probably know, I don’t know if it was explained to you, the American government did not permit this film to be shown. And it is a credit to you that you took your time, your many years, to make this film available. It must be shown so that what happened to me and my generation will never happen again at any time, at any place to anybody.

It was the first time in history that a country, a government, was taken to task. You saw it on the screen. For me, the only thing I can tell you, it was the great experience of my life. There has never been anything like it. There will have been never anything like it. And it is a credit to you that the world will now see what we filmed – our American Army filmed – in Nuremberg. It’s a sight that will never, hopefully never happen again.

NYFF 2010: Ernest Michel (Download MP3)

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