Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Sharbat Gula (Sharbat Gula, an Afghan woman of Pashtun ethnicity, as she appeared on an 1985 National Geographic cover; photo by Steve McCurry)


When I was a few days old, I was diagnosed with asthma. Less than two weeks later, I broke out in severe eczema around my eyes. Eventually my mother was advised to tie down my hands with cotton rags to keep me from scratching the outbreak. Yeah, who knows what that decision did to my developing brain -- maybe nothing, maybe a lot. Oh well.

I kept having eczema flare-ups throughout my childhood, mostly on my hands and thighs (still do), and I learned to Not Scratch the hard way: Multiple infections and episode of impetigo. My mother, a follow of Edgar Caycee and also a serious reader of various Indian religious beliefs, decided to teach me Mind Over Matter. When I was wheezing, we practiced breathing exercises. When I was strung out on epinephrine, drug of choice for asthma in those days, I learned to read as distraction that might lead to calm and/or sleep. And I learned to notice the itching without surrendering to my body's obvious solution.

These lessons turned out to be useful in a heartbreaking variety of ways -- ignoring hunger, for instance. Or other forms of dissociation I don't want to discuss here. Over time, I learned that outright dissociation should be reserved only for the most dire of circumstances, because usually the physical and emotional cost is not worth it. I learned there's a goodness to existence even in pain, even in terror, even in despair. It's good to have a body and to be solidly rooted in that body. This is, in a way, the basis of the Christian myth: That Jesus could not help g*d comprehend human reality unless he experienced our physical reality. Incarnation means, literally, being in a body (inside the meat). It's a GOOD thing.

After my left knee was replaced, I was the talk of my rehabilitation wing because I took not a single pain medication the week I was there, but I also did not shirk any of the exercises or physical rigors. For one thing, the pain felt at working an 18 inch fresh wound closed by staples or trying to persuade massively torn ligaments into function was not as bad as what I'd been living with for a year. But the main trick was, I'd just had a near-death experience and I was pretty thrilled to be awake again.

I continue to live with daily pain. For several years, I've used Celebrex to counteract the stiffness and inflammation. It's been six weeks since I had that prescription refilled, and at this point I may not return to it because of possible side effects. I also have tramadol which I never take. Most days, I know how to talk myself into motion which eases locked joints and starts blood flowing. I know how to talk myself sweetly into sleep, and to stay asleep as I change body position every ten minutes or so -- a necessity with my fucked joints.

But Monday was a bad day. A cold front blew in Sunday late and I didn't notice until I'd been sitting at my computer, lost in writing, long enough to get chilled. I got a fever, and fevers make the joint crap much worse. Aspirin didn't do anything, so I went to bed, where I got warm but by that time the flare was raging. If I went to sleep, I woke up half an hour later in stiff pain. The metal knee was particularly aggravating. I pushed fluids, Thought About England, and let the day drip away.

That night, PBS ran two long specials which I taped, because I was still hoping for sleep. Later, around 3 a.m., I gave up and began watching the first of them, the beginning of a series called The Story of India by one of my favorite historians, Michael Wood. I'll talk more about this program and the questions it raised in another essay. Tonight I want to respond to Cinema's Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood, a documentary by Karen Thomas which "traces the experiences of the Jews who fled Nazi Germany and took refuge in Hollywood, and examines their impact on both the German and the American cinemas."

During the 1920s, Germany had the best movie makers in the world. This golden age of cinema (producing work like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and M) centered around UFA, the national movie production company, which was dominated by Jewish directors, cinematographers, writers, composers, and actors. The Jewish population of Germany was around 1%, but Jews were 5% of the population of Berlin, where UFA was located. They were secular, educated, progressive, and considered themselves quintessentially German.

When Hitler rose to power and "overnight there were Nazis everywhere" as one interviewee put it in the documentary, most Jews thought the negative focus on them would pass eventually. (A tragic miscalculation.) However, Goebbels led an assault on Jewish presence in the film industry, and the rapid loss of jobs forced many German Jews to leave the country. Some had already gone to America because of career offers. Many fled to Paris or Vienna. Their bank accounts were frozen, and they went from relative financial security to complete uncertainty. One woman in the documentary, Lupita Kohner, tells of smuggling money from Germany to exiles in other European countries concealed in her knitting wool.

Eventually, anyone who could tried to get to America. Former German Jewish film people already in Hollywood began the European Film Fund, in which anyone employed contributed 1% of their monthly income to assisting in the immigration and establishment of other German Jews to the U.S. Once Hitler invaded Poland, the American response was to put further limitation on Jewish refugees, demanding they demonstrate financial support before they were allowed into the country. The EFF worked tirelessly to cut through the red tape, saving countless lives. Marlene Dietrich was particularly active in this effort.

The result is not only that 800 German Jewish film folk were saved from almost certain death. Equally compelling is the influence these people had on what is now Hollywood and American cinema. A list of the names alone tells us much: Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Hedy Lamarr, Peter Lorre, Ernst Lubitsch, Henry Kosteer, Fred Zinnemann, Robert and Curt Siodmak, Frederick Hollander, Franz Waxman, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, responsible for some of the greatest work to emerge from Hollywood. Without these refugees, we wouldn't have High Noon, Harvey, Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard, From Here To Eternity, or dozens of other Oscar winners. Even more striking, we wouldn't have Casablanca, the ultimate example of the 160 anti-Nazi movies eventually made during the 1940s. Almost every day player and extra in Casablanca (ironically, even some playing Nazis), as well as most of the production crew and many in the main cast, were Jewish refugees from Hitler-occupied Europe. It gives a completely new feeling, knowing that, when watching scenes such as the singing of the Marseilles.

(Scene from Casablanca)

Two distinct elements of American film culture are a direct result of German Jewish import: Film noir and the horror genre. Film noir arose from 1920s German experimentation with light and shadow, plus its obsession with urban settings and gritty questions -- remember, Fritz Lang is who made Metropolis. And the horror film is where German film people who could not get secure contracts with major studios went to find work that would enable them to stay in America. It makes sense to me: From the ancient culture which brought you The Ten Plagues and Golems, we now present werewolves, vampires, Frankenstein, and atomic mutation! In Shriek-O-Vision.

The hurdles these emigres faced were enormous, and not all succeeded. Overcoming accents, learning to write in another language, and contending with America's refusal to face what was happening in Germany were daunting obstacles. In addition, Hollywood's anti-Semitic cinematography and scene designer unions refused to issue membership cards to the newcomers, which effectively shut them out of movie labor.

I particularly appreciated the thorough research done for this documentary. We are shown the immigration applications of many of these notables, and told who in their families were revealed to have been killed in concentration camps after the war. Every one of them lost family and friends. What effect must that have had on their art, their approach to story-telling, their narrative and message during the post-war period?

[Note: Not covered at all in this examination is the fact that some of these people were fleeing not only Nazi murder of Jews but also of lesbians and gays. I know it must have played some role in the decisions of Marlene Dietrich and Peter Lorre, their closeted homosexuality, and likely others.]

Many of the emigres came to claim a Jewish identity they had not felt before. As one filmmaker said (possibly Joe Pasternak), "I thought I was German. It was Hitler who made me a Jew."

This documentary premiered on television during a week when Israel is waging disproportionate war on Gaza and a Muslim family of eight (plus another Muslim who wasn't actually traveling with them) were kicked off a plane by AirTran for "suspicious activity" (which turns out to be having a family conversation while being Muslim). I've been gnawingly upset about both events, and I see a thread connecting all three: Injustice must not only be stopped, it must be reversed. Cleaned up. Wiped from our cultural response mechanisms.

The failure of the world to intervene when genocide was waged on six million Jews does not, in any way, excuse Israel's aggression. I'm not headed there. But it does influence everyone's ability to think clearly about the matter -- as our current generation's invasion of Iraq will undoubtedly render American values suspect until such time as we have made amends for our actions. Nor will I compare Israel's actions to that of Shoah: The term Holocaust should be reserved for systematic, intentional genocide, such as Turkey's attack on Armenians or white European theft of North American territory held by Native Americans.

The fact is, a subjugated, despised, and assaulted people often, when tides turn, become some version of very same monsters by whom they were once oppressed. Thus Viking and French conquest of the British Isles is a factor in later UK colonialism, imperialism, and promotion of slavery. Or, to bring it to present day, the self-perception that Mormons carry of being a stigmatized and threatened group gives them (in their own minds) the right to force their values on a neighboring state's population. Understanding this mechanism will be an essential step in developing practice which might actually undo the damage of past injustice.

Today's "Jude" in America are Muslims. And every single passenger on that delayed AirTran flight, every person who witnessed a family being treated like criminals because they are the acceptable target currently in our cultural xenophobia -- each of us damaged by this allowance of public hatred. I want more than an apology for the Irfans, I want that airline to pay massive fines, I want news coverage to explain why it was anti-American, I want the practice of racial profiling to stop immediately. And I want the new series airing this week, "Homeland Security", to be yanked as the propaganda that it is. Our security lies not in nationalism, not in "nation-building" (see how well it worked with Israel?), and not in defensive behavior. Our security lies in community, which is now global.