I was on a bus heading towards the south of Poland when I first saw Schindler’s List (1993).
It was 10 years ago and I was nearing the end of a month-long trip through Europe, with about 30 other Aussies and Kiwis. On that particular day, we were about to do what we had done on our previous long driving days – watch a movie thematically aligned with our next adventure. On our way to Italy, we watched Roman Holiday. Now, on our way to Poland, the group voted enthusiastically to watch Schindler’s List.
I was the only one who said no. I really, really didn’t want to watch it.
As the film played on the tiny television screen above the bus’s front window, the usual rowdiness, loud voices and restless seat-swapping were replaced with silence. It felt like my breathing was suspended over those three long hours, and at the end, when the real-life survivors are shown placing stones atop the grave of Oskar Schindler, I quietly cried.
The next day we visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
I’m the sort of person who’s attracted to the same things that scare me. It explains why, despite having vertigo, I’ve climbed bridges, gone on hot air balloon rides and always seek out the biggest roller-coasters. It’s also why I’ve been reading about the Holocaust since I was in primary school, even though nothing has ever terrified me more.
I knew that being a Jewish Pole, it was only the luck of being born 50 years later that possibly separated me from such a fate. That random coincidence comes with guilt and fury that those who so cruelly suffered were not afforded the same luck.
I’ve seen the graphic images of skeletal, naked bodies piled roughly atop one another, a giant dirt pit being dug to push them into - all of which never failed to produce a shiver that was always too big for my spine. I’ve seen black and white photographs of hordes of women, children and men waiting at train stations, and knowing that in the moment that photo was taken, they had no idea what was waiting for them.
But I never wanted to watch Schindler’s List, or any other Holocaust film. The idea of seeing the film – even knowing that it was filled with actors, costumes, sets and scripted lines – felt like it would make the Holocaust more real than I could mentally handle. With the books, the websites and the photos, it’s still real but it’s in the past. In a movie, it’s happening all over again.
I think part of this extreme reaction is because I don’t actually know much about my family. I only found out a few years ago which part of Poland they were from and that my surname isn’t actually my real name - it was legally changed when my family arrived in Australia to sound "less Jewish".
Knowing my original name, I was able to do some basic research that confirmed my gut instinct – my extended family was indeed forced into Auschwitz. It’s a weird sensation, physically and mentally, to feel a sudden, almost tribal fear for people you’ve never met, and never even knew existed until recently. When I watched Schindler’s List, I couldn’t stop thinking about whether any of my family went through this. Was that them? Were they treated like worthless animals, herded and ruthlessly, thoughtlessly killed? Or did they get away? Did they live?
I have plenty of reasons to be grateful to be an Australian, but nothing intensifies that gratitude like seeing what the difference just 50 years has meant to people like me.
At Auschwitz-Birkenau, with the vivid and emotionally charged screening of Schindler’s List fresh in my head, my group was shown a gas chamber. Walking through, I was seeing two things – the dirty, crumbly building in front of me, with the door leading into a pitch-black room – and the scene in Schindler’s List where dozens of women are stripped naked and thrown into what they think is a gas chamber, but which ends up being a shower. That tension never left me in that room.
We exited through a door that led to a crematorium, where bodies were dumped into industrial ovens to be burnt to ash. Then we finally went through a door that led outside, and as the sunlight hit my face, I drew breath I hadn’t realised I’d been holding in.
In honour of its 25th anniversary, a remastered version of Schindler’s List has been released in theatres for a limited run. It seems especially timely to me, given the seemingly rising tide of hatred in the world. Anti-Semitism has been rising across Australia, Europe and the US, harshly punctuated by the slaughter of 11 Jewish Americans inside a Pittsburg synagogue in November last year.
“Individual hate is a terrible thing, but when collective hate organises and becomes industrialised, genocide follows,” Spielberg said late last year. “Hate needs to be taken seriously, more seriously today than in any other generation.”
You don’t have to be Jewish or have visited Auschwitz-Birkenau to feel sickening horror at the cruelty that happened there. Shadows of that cruelty are creeping up again, all across the world, including in our own country. Schindler’s List shows us what can happen to people who, for no fault of their own, are cast into those shadows.
And even 25 years later, it remains a movie that must be seen - not because it depicts the worst of humanity, but for the hope it ultimately provides. The idea that even in the face of mounting hopelessness, there are still people, even if they are small in number, who will rise above the hate and do something. And as Nazism and other forms of hate are being re-embraced, I’m looking for a sign of that hope. A sign of light in all the darkness.
The remastered version of Schindler’s List is screening at selected cinemas across Australia between 24 and 30 January.