The Genocide Before the Holocaust

A German TV documentary on the Jews in Europe that gives the sense the Holocaust was a continuation of history.

COLOGNE, Germany - A partial list of the things not included in the new television series "The Jews - Story of a Nation": pictures of Hitler (there are about two to three minutes in all about the Third Reich); the myth of Jewish genius as represented by Einstein and Freud; the myth of Jewish money as represented by the Rothschilds; Jewish humor and Jewish creative artists such as Bashevis-Singer, Woody Allen and Seinfeld; discussion of the State of Israel and the Palestinians; Jewish gangsters, or any bad Jews.

But what there is in this series, the first of its kind created in German, is exceptional frankness and a certain understanding of national psychology. After the first two installments, which deal with the periods of the Bible, the Mishna and the Talmud, the series becomes a detailed and precise exposition of what can be described as unjustified hatred and inhuman cruelty on the part of the Christian world toward the Jews of Europe.

The series is full of "docu-drama" reconstructions of historical events by actors. Viewers are spared the actual sight of blood in these scenes, but not the sight of Jews being led to torture or brought to the stake. In addition to the reconstructions, much effort has been made to find documents about the Inquisition, anti-Jewish legislation in Czarist Russia, and reports by cities in Germany of a decline in tax income due to the massacre of the Jews. The cumulative result is almost a pornography of evil, void of ideology.

Arte, which first broadcast the series, screened the installments in sequence so that the viewing experience causes an almost physical upset, with a constant fear about the coming scene. After about four hours of viewing, pictures of the Statue of Liberty and the port of New York provide a respite. German national television, ARD, will show one installment a week.

During the past seven years, Nina Koshofer initiated, wrote and directed the five installments of the series, 50 minutes each, whose production cost 1.5 million euros. Koshofer, 38, is not Jewish, but at the age of 11 she found out her grandfather had been removed in disgrace from the German army during World War II after the chance discovery that his father was a Jew (who was killed in Auschwitz).

In discussions after the public screenings of the series, the question of its failure to deal with the Holocaust came up. But in effect, the series seems to deal with the Holocaust, with its technical essence: the murder of the Jews in the Christian countries of Europe. One gets a sense the Nazi Holocaust was not a turning point in the plot, but its continuation.

Philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz used to explain the Jewish-Christian confrontation and his hatred of Christianity as stemming not from the story of Jesus' death and the betrayal by Judas Iscariot, but from something more profound. He talked about two religions that presumed to be the same religion, and therefore could not live together under one roof.

Koshofer does not presume to explain the psychological aspect that led the Christians to hate the Jews. "There is a matter of xenophobia. We find that the Jewish-European conflict began even before Christianity, with Jewish rejection of Greek culture. But we found in many churches, mainly in the East, a real ritual of the story of Judas Iscariot. So we cannot underestimate the hatred sown by the Holy Scriptures."

However, she emphasizes that the Christian world was not all of one mind. "We found many instances of bishops and popes who protected Jews. Sometimes for moral reasons, and sometimes because of vested interests. Even those who perpetrated the horrors did not operate only out of a religious background, but often because of vested interests."

But Koshofer does not spare the Christian theologians. According to the series, Martin Luther, who brought about the Reformation, actually demonstrated a certain sympathy for the Jews at the start of his career, saying they were not involved in the moral corruption of the Christians. But he later changed his view and called for the destruction of the Jews, the demolition of their homes and the theft of their property. In the 20th century, the Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels made direct use of these words of Luther.

The leftist French newspaper L'Humanite pointed out in its uncomplimentary criticism of the series that "the wagons traveling from one side of the screen to the other lend a feeling of a persecuted nation." The newspaper's critic felt the main thing missing was the place of Jews in social revolutions.

Koshofer admits that in the series she often tried to reconstruct feelings, something reflected in staging historical events. For example, in one of the installments the figure of Meshulam son of Kalonymus, who lived in the Middle Ages, is in fact a combination of two historical figures - Kalonymus son of Meshulam and Moshe son of Kalonymus. "Sometimes you have to simplify the story a little," explains Koshofer, "especially when it comes to a confusing story like that of the Kalonymus family, which produced many famous people - the historical sources confuse them."

In 1096 the Jews of France warned the Jews of Mainz in Germany - where the Kalonymuses were the most distinguished family - about Crusader knights who were massacring Jews. Moshe son of Kalonymus tried to organize a Jewish self-defense force. The Jews of Mainz, many of whom were known for their swordsmanship, surrendered to the numerical superiority of the Crusaders. The scene ends with the image of a Jewish fighter who is about to kill his wife and children for kiddush hashem - to sanctify God's name. The director insists on using a photo of a manuscript that describes the massacre in Mainz. The issue of kiddush hashem, which may seem controversial to modern eyes, is repeated a number of times in the series.

The installment that deals with the period of the Black Plague describes the tortures suffered by Jews so that they would confess they had poisoned the waters of Venice. Of dozens of Jews who were tortured, one gave in after his stomach was pierced with a white-hot iron, confessed to the baseless accusation, and thus dozens of Jews were convicted. In light of the death of one-third of the inhabitants of Europe during the plague, this confession led to slaughter all over the continent.

Koshofer says she has heard about the affair of Prof. Ariel Toaff, who claimed in his book that there was a kernel of truth in one of the blood libels, relying on testimony extracted by torture. She claims that during the years she spent working on the series, she did not come across a single factual detail likely to support Toaff's claims. When asked whether the book is provocation or foolishness, she shrugs her shoulders and refuses to answer.

Do any of the stories you came across make you particularly furious?

"The horrific acts of the Cossacks during the Chmielnitzki pogroms, maybe because this story was less familiar to me. The extent of this slaughter goes beyond anything that preceded it. The cruelty also surpasses what occurred before that." The Chmielnitzki pogroms were one of the places where the director chose not to tell the viewers the harshest facts like the stabbing of pregnant women and the removal of their fetuses, or the placing of kittens into the wombs of Jewish women so they would eat their way out.

People are liable to claim you are presumptuous, that you have no doctorate or exceptional academic background, so how do you deal with such a fraught subject?

"I don't think that a series like this can be created only by an outstanding intellectual. We are living in a generation that knows so little about Jews. Most of those who will be exposed to the series will be laymen for whom this will be their first encounter with Judaism."

The funding of the series came from the religious department of the government channel. Didn't they have any comments?

"Once they corrected a mistake, I showed a picture of Rome in connection with a certain pope and they pointed out that during that period he lived in France. But aside from that, no. They totally accepted the spirit of the series.

"I really did not plan to create a series about hatred and cruelty," says Koshofer, "I tried to balance between these things and many instances where one can find good neighborly relations between Jews and Christians. I sometimes walk down the street in Cologne and see the stolpersteine ("stumbling stones" - a project by a German artist who places plaques with the names of Jewish families who lived there at the entrances to homes -- RD). That is a monumental work. You understand from it what the fabric of life once was. What German culture has lost."