A Boring Evening At Home
by Gerda Weissmann Klein
Published by Leading Authorities
168 pages, 2004
Schindler's List - DVD
directed by Steven Spielberg
Matters of Death and Life
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
When the documentary film about the World War II experiences of Gerda Weissmann Klein, One Survivor Remembers, won the Oscar in 1996, she accepted the award with a speech that silenced both the star-studded and anonymous audiences. She spoke of the immeasurable value of a boring evening at home, of time spent with loved ones, of the kind of scene she could only dare to imagine during the years that she was confined to a concentration camp. She said that if we had simply that -- that boring evening -- then we were all winners.
It was a speech that took only a few moments to give, but as Weissmann Klein gave it in her whispery voice, the orchestra started and then stopped, not daring to play her off; nor did it play us into commercial afterwards. In those few moments, Gerda mesmerized the world just as she mesmerizes the groups she so often speaks to, recalling her experiences not as a prisoner, not as a victim, but as a survivor.
I have heard Gerda Klein speak several times, and there is no experience like it. She is self-effacing, even modest, yet completely aware of the wonder that is her life. Before an audience, she is light personified. When she tells her stories, accounts of the most personal kind of miracles, her tone tells you that she herself can't believe what has happened to her.
The early part of Weissmann Klein's life is chronicled in her bestselling memoir All But My Life. In a new book of essays, A Boring Evening At Home, she skips through time, drawing emotional parallels between disparate events, both personal and public. Her feelings about September 11. Her experiences counseling the students at Columbine High School. Memories of time spent with her Uncle Leopold in Paris. A meeting with a woman in Amsterdam who, she would learn, knew Anne Frank and spent time with her in Auschwitz. Her memories of her late husband and hero, Kurt. And so much more.
To read these pieces is a lot like hearing Weissmann Klein speak. Her style is light and fluid, like clear, fresh riverwater; a pleasantly structured stream-of-consciousness. Like a master solver of puzzles, she connects moments in her life, noting dates and seasons, new feelings that conjure old ones, ironic parallels that only a writer's mind would see.
What emerges is a woman who has seen the very worst of life as well as some of the very best. Among the best is this: Weissmann Klein is a woman who found physical and emotional salvation in the arms of a man who was first her rescuer, then her husband and companion for more than 50 years. Kurt was a German who emigrated to America, then returned to Germany to fight with the American Army. He rescued the young Gerda Weissmann at the end of the war, in Czechoslovakia, among a group of desperately ill women. Even so close to death, she wanted the soldier to know that the women with her were Jews. His reply, "So am I," changed both of their lives forever. Within a year they were married in Paris and settled in Buffalo, New York, where they built a life together with three children. Weissmann Klein learned English and became a writer. The success of All But My Life brought her to the attention of lucky groups of people worldwide, one stunningly powerful speech at a time.
Reading A Boring Evening At Home is a transforming experience. And once you've finished it, you will find your own boring evenings at home ones of extraordinary emotion, unforgettable imagery and contagious energy.
One of the many things I learned in the book concerned Kurt; I didn't know that after the war he arranged for the safe passage of Oskar Schindler to the American zone. Schindler, you likely remember, saved more than 1000 Jews by putting them to work in his enamelware factory in Krakow. His story was the subject of Schindler's List, the book by Thomas Keneally that was skillfully adapted into the 1993 film of the same name.
I am tempted to say that the publication of Weissmann Klein's new book and the appearance of Steven Spielberg's film on DVD in the same month is an interesting coincidence, a small bit of cultural poetry. But I am not sure Gerda would agree, for remarkable events like this have marked her whole life, illuminating parallels previously unseen.
I remember that after Weissmann Klein's Oscar win, she appeared on Oprah with Spielberg, and now their fates have intersected once more.
To finally have Schindler's List on DVD is a major event for those who care deeply for film. It is the last of the director's works to appear in this archival format for all to share for decades to come. At a time when DVDs are filled with making-of documentaries and other extras, this package reveals nothing about what happened behind the scenes. Instead, the producers have opted to shine a light on the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, the organization Spielberg established to encourage Holocaust survivors to record their stories on video in an expanding archive. The disc includes a 12-minute look at the Foundation and its work gathering the stories of 52,000 survivors, archiving and cross-referencing the stories and using them as educational tools throughout the world.
The disc also includes an 80-minute documentary, Voices from the List, in which surviving members of Schindler's actual list speak about their experiences with him and during the war in general.
Both works are moving because of the raw power of looking into the eyes of these men and women as they tell their stories, as memory overwhelms them, as you realize they are a special group of people whose lives were forever altered by the acts of the Nazis. They are the living result of bigotry and racism, and their emotional loss is as great as their subsequent lives are heroic. They didn't just survive the war and its atrocities; they survived to live lives of love, raising children and grandchildren in the name of those who died those 60-some years ago.
If anything, these films enhance the already profound experience of Schindler's List itself. A great deal has been written about the film in the 10 years since its release. Liam Neeson brings Oskar Schindler to full, blazing life, embracing all of the man's gregariousness, generosity and passion. Neeson is foiled first by Ben Kingsley as Schindler's quiet accountant Izchak Stern and then by Ralph Fiennes as the grossly under-equipped camp Commandant Amon Goeth. Janusz Kaminski's black-and-white cinematography is startling in its ability to peel down to the film's emotional honesty, and the picture is lifted into an untapped spiritual realm by John Williams's wondrous score. Schindler's List is a film for the ages, defined not just by its quality or by the filmmakers behind it, but by its success at bringing to life one of the darkest periods of our collective history.
This is a strange time. There are days when the world seems to be in the process of being torn apart by those who would have things their own way, for whom the idea of pluralism is all but alien. Fundamentalists of every religious and political stripe are doing a good job of showing what can happen when intolerance rules the day.
How appropriate then, that at a time like this, how right it is that that Gerda Weissmann Klein's A Boring Evening At Home and Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List unflinchingly show us what intolerance can do. How thankful we should be that they are here to tell us it how it really was. | April 2004
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. At night he works on another novel and a screenplay. Days, he writes advertising copy in Lawrenceville, NJ, where he lives with his wife and sons.