After movie, students are left with new awareness of old tragedy Lesson of History


The silence said it all: Hundreds of teen-agers, sitting absolutely still, lost for three hours in a horror half a century old.

Nearly 750 teen-agers, all students at the area's most privileged private high schools, had come to Towson Commons Thursday morning to watch "Schindler's List," Steven Spielberg's award-winning film about the Holocaust.

They arrived at the theater full of steam and wisecracks. They left silent, glassy-eyed, and tearful in the aftermath of the haunting story of Oskar Schindler, the German profiteer who saved hundreds of Jews from death in Nazi concentration camps.

The students saw families torn apart. They saw a culture dismantled. And they felt the randomness of evil as they watched humanity's worst nightmare unfold, an event a third of high school students believe may never have happened, according to a recent study.

"I was overwhelmed," said Brent McCallister, a senior at Roland Park Country School. "I passed a couple of my friends coming out and, although it might sound sort of cheesy, we were crying and hugging each other saying 'Thank God we're alive!' This movie makes me feel I should sit somewhere for a week and contemplate life and realize how incredible our lives are -- how incredible life, really, is."

"I believe seeing it is a good way to remember the atrocities and to guard against the return of such cruelty," said Djillali Zerhouni, a senior at Gilman. "The point of this whole thing is lost if we don't try to stop ethnic cleansing wherever it happens in the world."

Afterward, there was much to talk about at the workshops held at various schools by the trip's sponsor, the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies. Discussion leaders included Ron Shapiro, a prominent attorney; Peter Culman, managing director Center Stage; Rebecca Hoffberger, founder of the American Visionary Art Museum; Rabbi Shira Lander and Rosann Catalano of the institute, and Toby Pitts, a Merrill Lynch stock broker and institute board member who paid for the students' tickets.

Teen-agers and adults traded observations about the effects of apathy, the nature of hatred and how it could be humanly possible for someone to play Mozart on the piano and ignore the screams of Jewish women and children being murdered in the next room.

"Is this [ability to disconnect] just Hitler? In a sense doesn't that happen everywhere?" asked Marc Civin, a senior at Gilman. "The fact is that there are great injustices only two or three miles from here. And what does it matter to people?"

"In school we tend to learn everything with such detachment," pointed out Ms. McCallister. "This massacre or that massacre gets presented as numbers."

"I was never asked in history class or school about how some fact made me feel," noted Ms. Lander.

The students talked about scenes from the film that will haunt them: The random target shooting of camp workers; the chillingly empty moment when a Nazi camp director studies his own reflection; the scene when truck loads of children are separated forever from their mothers; the moment when it begins to "snow" with the ashes of burning bodies; the scene where the Nazis kill an old, one-armed man who takes such pride in his ability to shovel snow for them.

The discussions also touched upon things the movie didn't show, such as the rich traditions of Jewish history and culture in Europe before 1939.

"If kids just see 'Schindler's List' or the Holocaust Museum, they may come away with an image that enshrines the Jew as a victim," said Christopher Leighton, director of the institute. "They may have this dangerous stereotype, this caricature of the Jew as someone who is powerless over his or her own destiny and dependent upon the whims and good graces of some Gentile."

Mr. Pitts said the film presents Christians an opportunity to discuss how the teachings of the church have affected -- and continue to influence -- anti-Semitism.

"Whereas it would be very tough to draw a direct line to anti-Semitic teaching in the church and the Holocaust -- it's too complicated an issue to simplify like that -- there were a lot of God-fearing Christians who participated in that debacle," he said. "There were a lot of church-going people who scheduled the trains every day and packed those cattle cars."

The Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies has prepared a discussion guide about "Schindler's List" which is available for other groups. It hopes many schools will explore the movie's rich range of ethical topics.

For instance, the movie cuts to the heart of what it means to be a hero: Oskar Schindler is a self-indulgent, arrogant, womanizing profiteer as well as a courageous man.

"I think we have a very highly romanticized notion of the 'saint,' " said Dr. Leighton. "When most of us think about somebody who transforms the world and makes it better, we think of Mother Teresa or Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. We fail to recognize that if we wait until we achieve perfection, we'll be immobilized and incapable of doing much of anything."

And there's the matter of how each person should develop an ability to persuade and influence others.

"I think kids do well to ponder the people in their own lives who have had the power to transform them, either in the direction of good, or in the service of contempt," Dr. Leighton said. "It's important for them to think about how they use their power -- their charisma and their talents -- in their own relationships."

Many students, however, needed more time simply to contemplate the levels of brutality they had seen. Mandy London, a senior from Bryn Mawr, praised the emotional force of the movie, a force that made strangers leaving the theater feel like comrades at the end of a difficult journey.

"There aren't words to describe what I feel," said Ms. London, whose family has relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. "I think it's amazing that 700 of us could come together to see this."

"It's a little bit scary that a film can have that power, that it can seem so real and totally transport you," said Mr. Civin, the Gilman senior. "We know this story really happened, but what happens when, say, a documentary seems so real, but it's not. And it's saying something like the Holocaust didn't happen."

Students also talked about the film's portrayal of the frantic mess of destruction and its tidy conversion into paperwork. They discussed the various properties of order and chaos. They considered the nature of the threat that is posed by events that shake the status quo, that force people to abandon familiar routines.

"Seeing this movie and having this discussion has disrupted everyone's schedule and changed the curriculum that had been planned for today," said Ms. Lander. "But maybe that's another thing we learned. We have learned that the chaos which comes from being emotionally touched is a small price to pay."

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