As with most of you, exactly one year ago I started worrying that this bizarre “lockdown thing” might last one or maybe even — gasp! — two months, so I said to myself: “Self, you need to make a list of Netflix movies to watch in order to help get you through these awful few weeks.” I immediately knew which movie I would put at the top of my list: the only great movie with the word “list” in its title — Schindler’s List.
I believe that Charles Dickens would have been such a champion of this movie. Dickens’ heart would have especially ached for the plight of the children during the Holocaust. As a powerful advocate of the mistreated child, he would have been horrified by the Nazi’s wholesale destruction of so many young lives. Recently, numerous exhibits have focused on “The Children of the Holocaust.” Although it seems almost sacrilege for me to write this, I too— in a minuscule way — have felt in one sense like a child of the Holocaust.
Let me explain. I grew up in a traditional Jewish home in Indianapolis immediately following World War II. The Nazi atrocities were made real to me at a very early age because of my father’s family. My father had been born in Hungary but left when he was eleven in 1923. Although his immediate family was in America long before Hitler came to power, his more distant cousins and other relatives perished during the Nazi occupation of Hungary in 1944. Of our 102 family members there, 98 were killed. And so during the 1950s I vividly remember as a child attending many programs about the Holocaust, some of them featuring those horrific movies made by the troops who liberated the concentration camps. Since Indianapolis had a small Jewish population for a city its size, we would see the same Jewish families at all these lectures. My father once sardonically noted that the very people who needed to be educated to the Holocaust were never at these programs; only the Jewish population — who knew all too well what had happened — could be counted on for faithful attendance.
Of our four Hungarian relatives who survived, I want to introduce you to one — my remarkable cousin Armin Kolar. Here was a man whom Charles Dickens could have created. For in the purely evil world of the Nazis, his inimitable spirit not only triumphed but assured his survival. Armin was a most devoted husband and a doting father to his daughter. When the Nazis invaded Hungary, the three of them were loaded into a train whose destination was Auschwitz, the most nefarious concentration camp in Poland. By 1944 most Jews realized that they were being sent to their deaths. Families on the train were separated; Armin rode in one car with the old men; his wife and daughter were in another. As the train pulled out of the Hungarian station, Armin felt a razor blade in his pocket. A more selfish and pessimistic man might have thought of it as a method of suicide and thus an escape from the horrors that awaited him. But Armin would never have deserted his cherished wife and daughter. As the hellish train ride began, he decided to use the razor to shave off the scraggly beard and moustache he had grown during the previous weeks of Nazi occupation. It was a slow and painstaking process to attempt to shave with one dull razor on that claustrophobic and jarring train.
And it seemed a rather ludicrous act, given the graveness of his situation. But Armin told us later that he did it because if he were lucky enough to spot his beloved wife and daughter when they all left the train, he wanted them to see him one last time looking as dapper and fresh as possible. Perhaps, he thought, it would lift their spirits and make them smile. When the train finally pulled into the concentration camp after the horrific two-day ride, Armin was indeed a striking contrast to the other men in the car. The grime and stubble on their faces reflected the agony of the ride. But Armin’s countenance was both clean-shaven and refreshed.
Little did he realize that his barbering would save his life. For immediately upon exiting the train, Nazi doctors visually examined each person and, in a moment, decided if the victim were too old for hard labor and therefore should be sent into the gas chambers immediately. Armin was already in his late 50s but because of the shave he appeared much younger. He was spared. His close shave — as he would joke later — was indeed a close shave in both senses of the word.
The three of them were separated during their few months in the camp but, miraculously, they all survived. They had no Oscar Schindler to put them on his list of life, that register of workers’ names whose lives he helped save by creating new factory employees. But Armin’s indomitable personality protected him just as well. Perhaps we are to view that list of Oscar Schindler’s as a metaphor for the human spirit of goodness and self-sacrifice that has given succor to victims of persecution throughout history.
If so, then that list serves as a companion symbol to John Donne’s bell. You may remember that Donne, the seventeenth-century poet, once wrote concerning the tolling of the death knell: “And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” In that same inclusive spirit, we should not ask whose names were on Schindler’s list. For the list is not Schindler’s—it is ours. And as Dickens taught us in his novels, we must place all humanity on Our List and then, like Schindler, pay it every kind of service —except that of our lip.