2016-06-30
Oscar Week on Beliefnet continues with Peter Singer, the Princeton University ethicist whose controversial views on animal rights and euthanasia have stirred international debate on these topics. In his new book, "Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna," Singer takes a new turn as a writer, telling the story of his family's ruin by the Nazis. With the Holocaust much on his mind these days, Singer talked to Beliefnet's Rebecca Phillips about Roman Polanski's movie, "The Pianist."

"The Pianist" is adapted from the memoir of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish pianist, who, while living in the Warsaw Ghetto, manages to escape deportation to a concentration camp and later escapes the Ghetto and survives the war.


You saw "The Pianist" in Warsaw where the film is set. What was it like to see it there?
It's obviously very moving. It's a very powerful movie, and during the movie Warsaw gets essentially turned into a heap of rubble. You walk out of the cinema, and you're almost surprised to see that buildings are there around you--many of them new, but one or two have been restored. You get a vivid sense that this is part of the history of where you are.

What moved you about the story?
It shows the abyss to which people can sink and also, to some extent, the heights of heroism people can rise to. It also showed the chance elements in survival--how much it was a matter of luck whether you did or didn't survive.

There have been accounts of the Holocaust that dress it up in one way or another, put a particular slant on it. This didn't. It didn't try to show all Jews as heroes either, since there was obviously a lot of nasty, corrupt stuff going on in the ghetto. That's probably what it was like--that's what human nature is like under these circumstances.

How did the Polish audience react to it?
They were clearly moved. Most of the audience was too young to [remember the events], so to some extent they were learning their own history. There's been an intensive discussion there of Poles' role, particularly because of the book "Neighbors" [by Jan Tomasz Gross], in the killing of Jews. The movie shows accurately that some Poles called the police to take Jews away and others risked their lives to save them. Without Polish help, Szpilman could not have survived.

What would you say to those, including Elie Wiesel, who maintain that it's wrong to depict the Holocaust in film, because you can't possibly recreate the true horror?
In one sense that's a truism: you can't have the people in the cinema starving and fearful that if they don't salute the next general passing, they'll get punched in the head or shot. But we do want people to know something about this. Given the fact that there are people who go to movies and don't read books, I think [Holocaust movies] are a positive thing. Even if they don't know exactly what it was like, they'll know something about it.

Do you think it's fair to tell the story of someone who survived the Holocaust, as most movies about the Holocaust tend to do, considering how many died?
If he hadn't survived, he wouldn't have told his tale, and we wouldn't know what happened. In my own book, the central character doesn't survive, but because my grandmother did, we have an account of what happened to him.

What we get from "The Pianist" is that yes, Szpilman survived, but his entire family perished, and that's probably about what the odds were. No one could leave that film getting the impression that most people survived. I don't think there's anything wrong with telling the story through the eyes of someone who did survive.

You've just completed your own book about your family during the Holocaust. How did that affect how you saw the movie?
Their lives were very similar and different. It was different in the suddenness with which Nazism came to Poland. There wasn't time for people to leave. In my grandparents's case, there was a period, after the initial turbulence, after the Anschluss, when things had calmed down, when it seemed like perhaps Jews could live a quiet, restricted life in reasonable conditions under the Nazis.

But in the end, I guess my grandparents' experience was not that different. Thereisenstadt was not that different to the Warsaw Ghetto, I suppose. It was much smaller, but it was also very overcrowded, there was a lot of starvation, and people were being shipped out to their deaths.

When Szpilman thanks a German who helped him, the soldier replies, "Don't thank me, thank God you're still alive." Do you think your grandfather's religious views would have changed had he survived? Is this kind of faith possible after the Holocaust?
I don't think so. I guess my evidence is that my grandmother, who was religious, changed in the opposite direction. She didn't become an atheist, but she ceased to follow Jewish Orthodox law, she ceased to have a kosher diet. I quote her remark in the book: "If God lets a man as good as my husband die, I'm not going to follow his laws."

That can be interpreted quite literally, as saying there is a God but he let this man die, so I'm not going to follow his laws. Or it can be interpreted as skepticism about the existence of such a being. I tend to understand it in the latter way. I think my grandfather would have pointed to this atrocity and said, "How can one still believe that there is a benevolent, divine providence that rules the world?"

For you personally, do events like the Holocaust further confirm your view that there is no God?
I think they make it much more difficult to believe in at least the Judeo-Christian conception of God, yes.

Roman Polanski has said he didn't want to make a "typically Hollywood" Holocaust film. Do you think he succeeded in making "The Pianist" different from, say, "Schindler's List?"
I've read Szpilman's book, and Polanski's movie is not Hollywooded-up--there's no romantic lead in the story. Szpilman survives, but it's not the beautiful girl who saves him who he falls in love with, which might have been a sort of Hollywood ending. There was no attempt to produce the right sort of ending that audiences might like or warm to. There aren't really heroes in the story. There are people behave heroically, but they're not the central characters. The central character is not someone you'd regard as a hero--he's persistent.

And there's no particular sense of uplift beyond Szpilman's survival. It's actually somewhat depressing, in that the German officer [who helped Szpilman] was not able to be saved.

You say there's no major uplift. Did you find it a hopeful movie at all?
There aren't hopeful themes. There are reasons today to be hopeful--Poland has changed, Europe has changed. But one can only be cautiously hopeful. The things that happened in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda and so on were not so different.

Part of your reason for writing your book was to rectify somehow your grandfather's death, to let him live on. Did you sense Polanski had similar intentions?
I did want to do something for my grandfather to make his individual life in some way live again and be known, and to see him as just one individual amid that mind-numbing 6 million statistic. I think Polanski, although he uses Szpilman, is less focused on the individual as an individual and more as a vehicle for telling the story.

I don't see my book as a Holocaust book. It's true that my character dies in the Holocaust, and the last part of the book deals with the Holocaust. But I see it rather as a book about a particular person who lived through a period that went from an age of great stability, great peace, and great prosperity to a stage of barbarism.

Disability-rights groups have referred to you in the past as a "Nazi" for your view that parents of severely disabled children should be allowed to kill their children in infancy. How do you reconcile your philosophy, especially about selected infanticide, with your family's past?

Both my background and my philosophy show that accusation is very wide of the mark, and a very unpleasant smear. The Nazis murdered to further their vision of a world dominated by the Aryan race. My interests are concerned with the benefits of individuals, to enable individuals most affected to make their own decisions, whether it's voluntary euthanasia or allowing parents to make decisions for their severely disabled infants. It's always in the interest of the individual or the parents. It's never in the interests of some larger entity like the state or the Volk or the race or anything of that sort.

Why do you think the Holocaust still has such a hold on artistic imagination?
It wasn't that long ago. In doing the research on my grandparents, I talked to people who grew up in Vienna, who can tell you about Nazism coming to Vienna. They lived in very extraordinary times. Our times right now are dramatic enough, but still they do not overturn our whole conception of what humans are, and what civilization is. The descent of highly civilized nations like Germany and Austria into this kind of darkness must have overturned all these conceptions. I think that's why it has such a hold on our imagination.

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