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April 21, 2003

Sad Songs

Michael B. Oren has many complaints about Roman Polanski's film The Pianist, but what seems to bother him most is that its protagonist, Wladyslaw Szpilman, is just not his kind of Jew ("Schindler's Liszt," March 17). Nor mine, for that matter. But what of it? Szpilman was one of a dazzling variety among the millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust Hasidim and atheists, Zionists and communists, tone-deaf tailors and gifted musicians, heroes and cowards--and it is precisely this richness and diversity of the prewar European Jewish civilization that makes its loss so devastating and irreplaceable. Contrary to his protestations, Oren so dislikes Polanski's powerful and historically responsible film not because it in any way distorts the Holocaust (it does not!) but because it does not draw from it the precise nationalist morals of his own brand of Zionist historiography. Polanski has given us a dramatic true story from the Holocaust, not a historical documentary.

The last line of Oren's review informs the entire piece: "Is it really so difficult to represent the Jew as a full and free-willed human being, without diluting the horror?" No, but that would be a deeply distorted representation of most of the Holocaust's victims. There was nothing "full and free-willed" about the millions who walked obediently to the gas chambers. The Zionists understood this passivity to be the central, mortal defect of European Jewry long before the Holocaust, and Israel has thankfully bred generations of "full and free-willed" Jews. But Zionism's wisdom, while impressively prophetic in retrospection, in no way diminishes the human dignity of the Holocaust's victims, nor does it mandate a false reconstruction of the pre-Holocaust Jewish condition. Polanski's portrait of Szpilman is so very moving precisely on account of its simple honesty and accuracy. What many viewers have found most compelling about The Pianist is exactly what seems most to offend Oren: that Szpilman is not a hero of the Jews; that his Judaism is largely an accident of birth; that what he most wanted was not to die in a blaze of glorious Jewish resistance but just to keep his fingers warm so that he might live to play his piano again. Far from detracting from the lessons of the Holocaust, his story adds a universal dimension that even a Zionist like me found more moving than in any previous cinematic treatment of this theme.

Director, Jewish Studies Program
Drew University
Madison, New Jersey

Oren views The Pianist as a plot to improve Europe's image. But do viewers really go away thinking, "How wonderfully noble and generous those Poles were"? The viewer is more likely to believe that Szpilman survived the railway station and his encounter with Wilm Hosenfeld because he was incredibly lucky. And how is Szpilman a "Christ-like" figure? He does not die, he does not preach forgiveness or renounce vengeance, and he survives because he is lucky enough to have Gentile friends who appreciate his talents and protect him. Oren argues that Polanski believes that Nazi evil was an aberration that can be redeemed. Every film Polanski has made shows that he does not hold such a simple-minded view.

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

United State

Lawrence F. Kaplan is dangerously wrong in claiming that only a federal Iraq can be a democratic Iraq ("Federal Reserve," March 17). The danger of federalism in ethnically divided states is that regional parties will consider their states more legitimate than the national government. Therein lie the seeds of secessionism and democratic destruction. However, a centralized and rigid power-sharing arrangement, la Lebanon, is not the only alternative. An interim solution would be to hold an election as soon as possible in a single nationwide district (with some high threshold, say 10 percent, required for representation). Each region's election turnout could be used as a basis for subsequent subnational boundaries, thereby giving regional leaders an incentive to mobilize democratically within a unitary Iraq. Then, the national assembly would be the forum for negotiating devolution of authority. Modeled on the process by which Spain created regional governments for the Basques and others to sidestep violent secessionists, this mechanism would ensure that regional groups act within national-level institutions because their own future autonomy depends on their representation at the center and their ability to bargain with leaders of other regions. This is a slow track to federalism with better prospects for keeping Iraq together and democratic than any precipitous move to create states or cantons and hold regional elections.

Professor of Political Science
Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies
University of California
San Diego, California