And the list goes on.
In "Schindler's List" Steven Spielberg has given us a film about an army of men "going round taking names." Translating Thomas Keneally's book to the big screen, Spielberg evokes not only the murderous rage of the Holocaust but also--and perhaps even more terrifying--the cold methodical precision with which a nation of clerks sat down and wrote the names of the living into the book of the dead.
"Schindler's List" is a tale about keeping lists and the monstrous evil of reducing human beings to statistics. In this story about papers, permits, and badges, Nazi officials set out to destroy a race of people by reducing them to columns in a ledger.
The film is a slow descent into hell, punctuated by soldiers and civil servants calling out names, stamping passes, and forming lines. At each roll call Jews are stripped of some parcel: their occupations, their property, their children, their lives. In the end, a sea of farmers, doctors, and teachers is reduced to either skeletal inmates or--horribly--a thin layer of ash falling on mountains of suitcases, eyeglasses, and teeth.
Unbelievably, the Nazi list makers carry out their crimes with naked indifference. They sip coffee and listen to Mozart while civilians are shot on street comers and cattle cars are loaded for Auschwitz. An army of clerks strains over the tiniest details of camp rosters and train schedules without noticing or caring that they are reading out the names of husbands and wives, counting musicians and nurses, and shipping grandchildren off to death camps. For these bureaucrats the execution of millions of Jews is simply a matter of thorough paperwork, a question of keeping track of rows of names and columns of numbers.
Ironically the Nazis' own lists backfire on them. In their efforts to reduce the Jews to statistics, it is the list makers who become something inhuman, even monstrous. Their obsession with assigning badges to everyone else results in their being branded with the most heinous arm band of all, the swastika.
For while the Nazis hoped these lists would purge their race of all impurities and imperfections, their ledgers actually disfigure them by cutting them off from the lifeblood of the human community. In the end they lose the only quality that makes persons truly human: compassion. And so the list makers, too, have become skeletal inmates in a prison of their own making.
Into this death camp littered with passes and ledgers comes an entirely different sort of list maker, a Jewish accountant by the name of Itzhak Stern who tries, in the midst of all this bureaucratic madness, to rescue every possible life from the coming onslaught. Forging papers, falsifying documents, offering bribes Stern scurries about working furiously to pull as many men, women, and children as possible out of harm's way.
Unlike the Nazis' ledgers, Stern's "books" are like family photo albums in which people are remembered as mothers and sons, grandparents and nieces--human beings with names, faces, stories, and dreams. Stern will not reduce these individuals to numbers or columns, and so, on small scraps of paper, he keeps his own little lists. While the Nazis are loading countless numbers into cattle cars, Stem is running about, pulling people out of fines, helping couples and families into small lifeboats, hoping against hope to find an ark.
If not an ark, Stern finds at least a safe harbor for many of Krakow's Jews by securing jobs for them in the factory of one Oskar Schindler, a German Czech who has come to war-torn Poland to make a financial killing. Schindler needs a gifted accountant like Stern to administer his factory, to oversee production, to balance the books, and to keep track of bribe payments. At the same time Stern uses his position to bring as many Jews as possible into the shop, hoping to keep them out of concentration camps by having them declared "essential to the war effort." In time, however, the relationship between these two men leads to something neither of them could have anticipated, an incredible kind of list.
Oskar Schindler, failed businessman, war profiteer, womanizer, and confidence man, has come to Poland with his own ledger, a financial one. In the midst of hell he has come to make a profit, and he seems willing to do almost anything to improve his numbers. Schmoozing the Gestapo over champagne, bribing Nazi officials with black-market chocolates, extorting Jewish merchants in the ghetto, and exploiting slave labor are all part of a day's work for Schindler.
When he surveys the landscape, this businessman does not see Germans, Poles, or Jews. He does not even see people--only opportunities or threats to his money-making scheme. For Schindler measures people by how they will make him rich, and he measures himself by how rich he has become. This is his list, the only ledger that means anything to him, at least at the start.
But Schindler has chosen an accountant who will introduce him to another set of books, an accountant who will force this war profiteer to take an entirely different inventory of himself and others. Over time Schindler develops a deepening respect and gratitude for Stern's impressive business talents as well as a budding regard for the man himself.
This regard offers Stern a window through which he can introduce his employer to the faces and plights of the factory's "essential workers." He forces Schindler to see these people, not just as items in a profit column but as human beings.
At first the German recoils from these encounters, admitting that he knows what Stern is doing in the factory but demanding that he be left out of such madness. The Jews are not his problem. He is in Krakow to make money.
But Stern has found his mark, and each wave of Nazi cruelty drives the burr deeper into Schindler's uneasy conscience. The German struggles to deny or ignore the mounting atrocities but with less and less success. As the Krakow ghetto is liquidated and endless waves of Jews are squeezed into concentration camps or loaded onto trains, Schindler finds the Nazis' lists increasingly repugnant and his own profiteering more and more distasteful.
Ultimately an unwilling Schindler finds himself forced to choose between lists that kill and a list that will save. And so it is that Oskar Schindler decides to take up the scraps of Stern's lists. With incredible cunning and bravery, Schindler fashions a new list, a list for which Schindler the businessman will pay with all of his wealth, a list that will become the passenger manifest of an ark delivering more than 1,100 Jews from the Nazi death camps.
The film is far more than a thriller about one man's courageous rescue of 1,1 00 people. In this story of the of the Holocaust, Spielberg and Keneally have given us both a cautionary tale about the human capacity for inhumanity to others and a lesson in how each of us might respond to this evil. "Schindler's List" is both a warning and a prayer.
It is a warning because Krakow and Auschwitz are not the only places where atrocities have been committed. Stories of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, death squads in Central America, and tribal purges in Rwanda remind us how widespread the malaise that sent SS troops into the ghetto really is.
It is also a warning because it reminds us that such naked violence is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the waterline floats a vast mass of biased attitudes and policies that compose 90 percent of the inhumanity shown to others. Standing behind every storm trooper in the camps were dozens of clerks and civil servants with all of their prejudices and bureaucratic machinery.
So even when explosive violence is rare, there is still a need to deal with all the inhumanity just beneath the surface. When women, minorities, and the poor continue to be shortchanged and disenfranchised in our schools, churches, and workplaces, we need to deal with the list makers and the lists with which people are targeted and oppressed for their race, color, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.
Indeed, the reason Spielberg and Keneally focus their attention on the army of clerks "going round taking names" is that keeping lists is so often at the heart of our inhumanity to others. Putting other people on lists allows us to reduce them to an abstraction and relieves us of the need to engage, understand, or respect them. Sometimes the people on these lists, such as blacks or Jews or gays, are categorized as criminals or deviants, justifying all sorts of violence against them.
At other times the lists describe groups of people, such as immigrants, welfare recipients, or the homeless, as problems, allowing their plight to be ignored. Either way, the lists seem to argue that such people are less than fully human.
And yet it's so hard to really stay awake and pay attention to people and so easy to start seeing the world and others through the shorthand of lists, types, and categories. As a teacher, I know the difficulty of paying careful attention to the women and men in my classes and the strain of really trying to listen to them as persons.
It's often so much easier to think of them as a group and have a short list of traits with which to describe all students. And when, as is often the case, political and economic issues are too challenging or ambiguous, how much easier it is to be able to cut through everything with a couple of labels about liberals or conservatives or democrats or republicans.
Instead of trying to figure out the complexities of an equitable welfare or health-care system, it can often be easier just to identify some groups as the root cause of all our problems. Maybe that's why the lists start--because we're tired, confused, and just a tad lazy.
Oskar Schindler's tale is not just a warning about lists. It is a prayer as well and reminds us that persons are also capable of extraordinary humanity even in the midst of extreme hardships and danger. And his story, as striking as it is, is not alone. The human story is filled with tales of people who refuse to ignore or deny the humanity of the stranger and were willing to pay a price to stand in solidarity with them.
On the day the Nazis ordered Danish Jews to put on arm bands, the Christian King of Denmark asked all the citizens of the country to wear the Star of David, and they complied. When the lepers of Hawaii were quarantined at Molokai, a Belgian priest named Damien went to serve among them as their brother leper.
Over the years the litany of our saints and do-gooders--Francis of Assisi, Vincent de Paul, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Oskar Schindler--have been made of people who looked into the eyes of the stranger and did not see an abstraction or an enemy but a neighbor.
Here are a few steps that are helpful in overcoming the lists that separate and kill. First, we can try to remember that life and its problems are often complex and difficult and that sound bites and scapegoats only seem to simplify things. Second, we can struggle to pay better attention to the actual people in our lives and occasionally monitor ourselves against slipping into stereotypes and categories. Third, we can try to break out of our established patterns of friendships and associations and hope to learn about and reach out to people we only know as statistics.
In all our communities there are places we can meet and learn about those who are different from us. Through churches, hospitals, outreach centers, and service organizations, we can get to know the people that our daily lives and routines have insulated us from.
Or we can join national and international groups working for oppressed, impoverished, or endangered people. (I recommend Amnesty International and Bread for the World.) They will saturate us with information about helping strangers. We can't do all of this, but each of us can put one stranger on our lists. As Stern tells Schindler, "He who saves a life saves the whole world."
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|Title Annotation:||avoiding thinking of people as statistics; motion picture 'Schindler's List'|
|Date:||Jul 1, 1994|
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