Germans During WWII: History’s Greatest Riddle

David Fisher
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Auschwitz concentration camp.
Auschwitz concentration camp.Credit: SUB/AP
David Fisher

My father was angry with himself for having acted obediently when he and all the other Jews in his town were taken to the trains leading to Auschwitz. “What was the point of that discipline?” he asked. I took this question as a commandment for my life, and with support from the HOT cable service’s Channel 8, I made the movie “The Round Number,” which has infuriated many good Jews.

My father worked far from home. He would leave every Sunday and return on the weekend. We lacked for nothing, except him.

When I grew up, I realized that he couldn’t stand children’s crying. The tears of his younger brother, Moshe David, on the train to Auschwitz drove him insane. He could overcome this sound only through the noise of the bulldozers he worked with, or sometimes through cantorial music that he played on a gramophone.

When I was a boy, he took me to the office of the government company he worked for. “One out of every four [workers] is unnecessary,” he told me, “but I can’t say that out loud because they’ll accuse me of subversion.” He no longer wanted to be obedient, but it was in his blood.

Admittedly, this isn’t a glorious intellectual legacy like the ones that Profs. Dina Porat and Sergio Della Pergola will leave their children. But it’s a commandment I’m not willing to give up. Therefore, I will search for other institutions to burst with a pin, and once again, you’ll call me to order. Because my father taught me that the establishment knows how to support itself, and only itself.

David Fisher. 'There is pressure from the establishment and Holocaust survivors to preserve the symbols that have been set.'Credit: Hadas Parush

My father grew vegetables on a moshav in the 1950s. An Agriculture Ministry official was the only person allowed to bring the produce to market, and the payment to the growers was minuscule.

When my father got fed up, he defiantly walked out through the moshav’s gate. The sentry, whose hands were soft and had never held a hoe, tried to prevent him from leaving. My father, a short man, jumped up and slapped him.

How do I know this? Because my father told me. And why am I telling you? Because I’m proud of him. And when should we be proud of violence? I don’t have an answer. But I know I’m jealous and proud of my father.

Before my film was screened, Porat praised the thoroughness of my work in an email she sent. Who doesn’t like praise? And after the first screening, she proposed organizing a conference around the film at Tel Aviv University. She went on the radio and praised my work and said the number of pages of testimony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial comes to 4.8 million. That’s reasonable.

I have no argument with the numbers. I have no interest in changing the number six million. I have no pretensions of finding the exact number myself. I only have one question – how was this number set, and how did it become entrenched?

Discussion about this number is the only way to protect the memory of those who were murdered. It’s not important to defend the number itself. The number itself is part of the establishment that deserves to be popped with a pin.

Physicist Isidor Rabi, who won the Nobel Prize (in 1944), said his mother never asked him what he had learned that day. Instead, she asked him, “Did you ask a good question today?” I loved this, and I adopted it.

Indeed, Prof. Hanna Yablonka put it well in the film when she said, “You’re turning the exclamation points that have become embedded in Israeli society into question marks.” And as Dr. Joel Rappel said, “If you don’t ask, the deniers will come and ask.”

It seems to me that there’s no better shield against Holocaust denial than explaining that the number six million isn’t precise, but for this very reason, it’s also not important. The deniers won’t beat us. Because even if the number was smaller, that doesn’t make the Germans any better. And if the number was bigger, that doesn’t make the Germans any worse.

As Elie Wiesel famously said, “Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims,” thereby motivating me to dedicate my next film to him.

And for all the people who think they have the key to understanding the Holocaust, please tell me this: How did the Germans, who listened to Wagner in the evenings and read Goethe on Sundays, eat their cereal in the morning and then go to work to kill some more Jews? Until answered, all these scholars should be trying to solve this greatest human riddle in history.

On my first trip to Germany in 1978, I wandered around like a zombie. I was 22 years old. I looked at the Germans, thinking, “This one’s a Nazi, that one’s a Nazi and that one’s a Nazi.” I couldn’t help feeling anxious and disgusted.

Since then, I’ve restrained my urge to have revenge and sublimated it into art. I thereby also acquired some thoughtful German friends with whom I have quite a lot in common, especially once I realized that we too – Jews in Israel and everywhere else – could let this monster inside us out and treat other people as if they weren’t worth spitting on. So how are we any different?

Nevertheless, the magnitude of the evil, the wickedness, the destruction, the malice, the torments and abuse perpetrated the Nazis and their helpers remains the big riddle to me. Every film I make is an attempt to get a little closer to understanding who they were, but also who we are.

When I read the article that Porat and Della Pergola wrote for Haaretz (February 7), I finally understood the term “incommensurability.” And that isn’t a typo. I mean that even when there’s no contradiction between what one person does (making a documentary film) and what another does (historical research), there’s also no room to compare the two, because creative work and academic research have no standards in common.

Finally, I’d like to add a word of apology to all the people I have interviewed over the years who didn’t make it into the film. There are quite a few of them, and they were all outstanding – including Della Pergola.

David Fisher is the director and producer of the film “The Round Number.”

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