Holocaust meets Hollywood: Premiere of The Book Thief

by | Dec 6, 2013 | Other News

I was honored to receive an invitation last month to the premiere of the film adaptation of Markus Zuzak’s award winning novel, The Book Thief, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. There would be a panel after the film including the author, director, and two of the actors. It was, to quote another wonderful film, an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Meyerhoff Theater in the USHMM was filled with approximately 300 people, ranging in age from student to survivor. The lights dimmed and for two hours we were mesmerized by the story of the young (gentile) Liesel Meminger, her adoptive parents, and the Jew they chose to hide from the Nazis.

At the end of the film, veteran newsman Marvin Kalb moderated a panel including the 38-year-old Zuzak, director Brian Percival, (Downton Abbey), Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush, and up and coming 13-year-old star, Sophie Nélisse.

As the non-Jewish Zuzak talked earnestly about growing up in Australia with parents who had immigrated from Germany and Austria in the 1950s, you could begin to see how such a young man could write such a deeply powerful story about the Holocaust. His parents had shared with him and his siblings some of the unbearably cruel things they remembered witnessing in their hometowns.

Geoffrey Rush, who is also not Jewish but has been called “an honorary Jew” for his roles as child prodigy David Helfgott in Shine and Mossad agent Ephraim in Munich, was intrigued by the story of Liesel and his character, Hans Huberman.

Hans had made a deathbed promise to a Jewish comrade during their service in the first World War, that he would be there for the man’s family if they ever needed him. When the moment arrived that his son needed help, Hans did not hesitate. He was a thoroughly Righteous Gentile, though it meant putting his family at risk. Rush was fascinated by the humanity (and lack thereof) that was part of each character in the film. Hans’ transformation from an underemployed painter into a Hero of Humanity was another tour de force performance in Rush’s distinguished career.

While seeing the movie could in itself be transformative, such as seeing Schindler’s List, Hotel Rwanda, or other powerful “message movies” about real tragic events, seeing it and participating in the panel discussion in a room with about 50 Holocaust survivors was unbelievably moving. Some of them likely went through experiences like Max, the Jewish character in the film. Their presence was validation of the importance of keeping stories alive. Even though this was fiction, they accepted it as worthy of them and their loved ones’ memories.

When the young French Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse talked innocently about her lack of knowledge about the Holocaust before auditioning for this film, and her deep understanding of it afterwards, I was reassured that the Holocaust Commission is doing exactly what it needs to do. We educate students, of all ages, that there are lessons to be learned from the Holocaust that we can all use to make the world a better place today. That is what I hope that this film, now open in wide release, will also do.

by Elena Barr Baum, Holocaust Commission director