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Schindler’s List

Comprehending the Holocaust One Name at a Time

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

The Impact of Black-and-White Film

In the face of an evil like the Holocaust, making a true connection with the victims can be overwhelming. Separating the victims from the numbers in order to comprehend the scope and horror of the Holocaust is nearly impossible. Museums, books, and pictures help to educate people, but more than six million Jews alone were slaughtered, which is a tremendously difficult reality to grasp emotionally and intellectually. The enormous number of victims and the many ways in which they were tortured and murdered are so vast that one could get lost in these statistical masses without ever really understanding the plight of individual victims. Only the victims themselves were truly able to feel the horror of the Holocaust. Steven Spielberg hoped to address this difficulty with Schindler’s List. Since it is easier for people to make connections on a personal rather than an abstract level, Spielberg tried to replace the vast numbers with specific faces and names. He tried to ensure that viewers would make personal connections with the characters in the film and thus begin to digest the events on a smaller scale.

Spielberg manages to convey the horror the Schindlerjuden faced by making the viewers feel as if they are participating in the events, not just watching. Viewers meet characters and follow their plights closely, developing a connection to these individual victims who are themselves representative of all Holocaust victims. This connection is Spielberg’s main goal in Schindler’s List. He wants the viewer to identify with the characters, to feel their pain and fear. This individualization forces viewers to confront the horror on a personal level and to realize that every victim had a story, loved ones, a home, a business, and a life. To look at the Jews of the Holocaust simply as a group or race dehumanizes them a second time, removing their individuality and uniqueness. The Nazis dehumanized Jews in the camps by tattooing numbers on their arms in order to identify them by number rather than name, and Spielberg makes an effort to recognize individuals’ names in his film.

Oskar Schindler himself embodies this idea of recognizing and caring for the individual. He is unable to stand by and watch his Jewish workers perish, for he makes a personal connection with them and does not want to see them killed. This relationship between Schindler and the Schindlerjuden parallels the connection the viewers make with the latter. In a sense, the viewer knows and cares about these people, wants them to survive, and feels triumphant when they do.

Spielberg personalizes the Nazis as well, however. The character of Amon Goeth allows an intimate glimpse into the mind of a Nazi officer corrupted by anti-Semitism. He shoots Jews from his balcony for target practice. He sees the Jewish people as a mass, not as individuals with thoughts and feelings. However, he is intoxicated by his Jewish maid, Helen Hirsch, and struggles with his conflicting feelings of attraction to Helen and pure hatred of Jews. Unlike Schindler, Goeth denies his connection to an individual. He cannot overcome his hatred, just as the Nazi Party in general could not overcome its wholesale hatred of Jews.

Spielberg carries the idea of individualism through to the powerful final scene in the film. Here, in full color, the real surviving Schindlerjuden appear. Lined up as far as the eye can see—many with their actor counterparts in the film—they place rocks on Oskar Schindler’s grave. Spielberg’s decision to show the actors accompanying the actual survivors serves two purposes. First, the scene drives home the point that the characters in the film are real people rather than just invented figures. Viewers can feel a great sense of satisfaction in seeing the actual survivors who triumphed over evil. Second, Spielberg is sending a message to all those who doubt the reality of the Holocaust that human proof of the tragedy exists and that what happened can never be erased. Witnesses to the horror are still alive to tell their tales and to make sure we never forget.

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