“Despite the current attempts to whitewash U.S. history, ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity is the predominant feature of the U.S. experience.” – Charles Musser
Almost from their inception, motion pictures have dealt with the question of cultural assimilation. This was certainly true in America where many of the country’s film industry founders were themselves either immigrants or the children of immigrants, in particular Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jews.
In “Racism in German and American Cinema of the Twenties” Yale University’s renowned film historian and documentarian Charles Musser examines this issue by comparing and contrasting two related films: “The Ancient Law” (1923, Germany) and “The Jazz Singer” (1927, USA). While “The Ancient Law” is largely forgotten by today’s audiences, “The Jazz Singer” achieved lasting fame for being the first (partially) talking picture and lasting notoriety for star Al Jolson’s performance in blackface, deemed racist by modern sensibilities.
In E. A. Dupont’s “The Ancient Law,” the Orthodox Jew Baruch Mayer leaves a shtetl in Galicia for Vienna. Mayer pursues a career as a stage actor, much to the consternation of his conservative parents. Released four years later, Alan Crosland’s “The Jazz Singer” was based in part on a hit play but was also a loose adaptation of the earlier film. Baruch Mayer becomes Al Jolson’s Jakie Rabinowitz, who runs away from his strict cantor father to pursue a career as a cabaret singer after changing his name to Jack Robin. “The Jazz Singer” was an immediate hit and made Jolson a star overnight. Musser’s research refutes the commonly-held notion that Jolson was himself a racist, citing his and the film’s popularity with African American audiences at the time. Jolson was considered a friend by the African American community who advocated hiring black actors for stage roles, and his blackface performances were seen as positive portrayals by the very people we assume were offended.
Further, Musser argues that the depictions of the assimilation process in both films were essentially optimistic. In each case the protagonist is able to maintain or reclaim their cultural identity in spite of prevailing attitudes, and to cross the line between two uneasily co-existing cultures without the necessity of fully assimilating into either. Both films are also idealistic in the sense that they downplay the toxicity of racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia. Nevertheless, they (sadly) retain their relevance in the modern world.
Watch — Racism in German and American Cinema of the Twenties: From The Ancient Law to The Jazz Singer with Charles Musser – Holocaust Living History Workshop
Jewish History scholar Marion Kaplan was a co-editor of the landmark essay collection, “When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany.” Published in 1984, this book established gender studies – heretofore neglected – as a vital component of Holocaust research, exploring the “double jeopardy” experienced in pre-war and wartime Nazi Germany by women who were also Jews.
A central thesis which emerged was the recognition that women experienced fascism differently than their male counterparts and companions, as evidenced by their reactions to pogroms and other anti-Jewish activities undertaken by the Nazi state. Frequently it was women who first and most persistently raised the alarm in their communities about Hitler’s plans for the Jews; the men, especially those in the professional class, were reluctant to forsake their hard-earned status and possessions, trusting instead that the German populace wouldn’t allow extreme ill-treatment of Jews who, in many cases, had lived among them for generations. By contrast women were not established in those professions, and therefore were less motivated by material considerations than by their family’s safety.
In her lecture Professor Kaplan conducts an historical survey of the research leading to, and resulting from, the book’s publication, describing the early workshops that were inspired by the feminist movement and drew together survivors and scholars. These workshops raised critical questions about the lives of German Jewish women in the periods both preceding and following the Nazis’ rise to power, and suggested further avenues of inquiry. In the decades since then, the range of gender perspectives in Holocaust studies have broadened and deepened; for example, they now include the stories of women who “passed” in Nazi Berlin (i.e., hid their Jewishness in order to survive), such as Marie Jalowicz, and of same-sex couples such as Lilly Wust and Felice Schragenheim, whose story is told in “Aimee and Jaguar: A Love Story, Berlin, 1943.” In particular the experiences of Jalowicz and others who, like her, “hid in plain sight” raise complex questions about morality in the face of the harsh sexual politics of survival in wartime Berlin, especially as they pertained to women. Faced with such conditions, what is the ‘moral’ choice?
Kaplan concludes her talk with a discussion of new and promising areas of research, and the synergy between modern women’s studies and Holocaust studies as each seeks to expand its understanding of gender politics in the context of historical trends and imperatives.
Watch — When Biology Became Destiny: How Historians Interpret Gender in the Holocaust – Holocaust Living History Workshop