After Rich Iott: Playing Nazis and Writing Like Survivors

Rich Iott dressed as a member of the Waffen SS

Rich Iott, second from right, in a Nazi SS Waffen uniform

There was a gasp of disbelief when it became known that Rich Iott, a Republican candidate for Congress in Ohio, enjoyed dressing up as a member of the Waffen/SS as part of historical reenactments of World War II battles. Mr. Iott’s subsequent defense of his hobby and appreciation of the over-achieving German military has not done him any favors. Nor has his counter-attack on Eric Cantor, the current Minority Whip and the highest-ranking Jewish Republican member of Congress, helped much. In the process of digging his hole ever-deeper, Mr. Iott explained his admiration for the soldiers he recreates by saying, “They were doing what they thought was right for their country. And they were going out and fighting what they thought was a bigger, you know, a bigger evil.”

When he says that, Iott is engaging in a naïve, if amoral, act of radical empathy. In Iott’s mind, his German alter-ego, Reinhard Pferdmann is a tragic character, who fought valiantly for what he believed—conveniently ignoring that part of what he believed-in was an ideology of racial purity that legitimized the murder of millions.

Moral idiocy aside, Iott is achieving what many of us seek in literature – a vicarious experience that allows us a measure of understanding of another’s life and experiences. It is the particular life and experiences in question that make Iott’s activity a perversion of imagination. The legacy of the Holocaust makes such a life unworthy of memorializing in a manner lacking explicit condemnation.

What about when those life experiences include surviving the Holocaust? There we run into the opposite problem, where the importance of the lives lost makes memorializing them either in a fictional or a non-fictional setting a sacred and fraught act. There rightly are no “historical reenactments” of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising or the march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald. Likewise, to read a work of Holocaust fiction or memoir actively discourages empathy because it is generally accepted that one who was not there cannot truly understand the experience of surviving the Holocaust. Ruth Franklin’s new book, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford University Press) takes a look at this complex issue which she’ll be discussing on Tuesday, October 19 at the Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival. The program will feature an introduction by Leon Wieseltier, the Literary Editor at The New Republic.

Scandals involving fake Holocaust memoirs (Fragments and Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years) are despicable frauds, not only because they serve the pernicious ends of Holocaust deniers, but because they have made the requirement of fidelity to historical and biographical facts obscure the role imagination plays in transcendent literature. In fact, the lack of artifice in seminal works like Elie Wiesel’s Night, have long set the standard for other Holocaust-themed works. While Rich Iott labors under a surplus of misguided and selective imagination, Holocaust literature risks a paucity of it. Franklin would argue that fidelity to true imaginations (as opposed to Iott’s frivolous ones) is as great a responsibility as fidelity to the facts (which Iott selectively ignores).

In her thorough survey of the major memoirs and novels about the Holocaust, Franklin identifies the essential contributions the best of these works makes to the perpetuation of the Holocaust narrative. She covers the writers you would expect like Wiesel and Primo Levi, but she also spends significant time on lesser-known and equally worthy authors like Imre Kertesz. While Franklin is an advocate for the power of imagination, she is particularly hard on authors of the “Second Generation” whom she accuses of “identity theft.” Likewise, she sees promise in the “Third Generation” of writers like Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer who by not having to deal directly with the Holocaust, have been able to shed new light from oblique angles. She also spends significant time on Thomas Keneally’s “non-fiction novel”  Schindler’s Ark and its adaptation into Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List.

And why should you care? Because memory is preserved in many different ways. To be critical of the selective memory of World War II war reenactors only does half a job. We should be equally rigorous in how the legacy of World War II reads on the pages of our books.

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Reacting to Elie Wiesel’s Reaction to “Imagining Madoff”

by Francine Zorn Trachtenberg

Theater J has been in the crosshairs of the press in the past few weeks, the subject of a controversy between a playwright and a world citizen, with an artistic director caught in the middle.  The crux of the matter is two-pronged:  whether or not a public figure can be the subject of a work of fiction without his consent; and whether or not a community theater should ever bow to pressure in making artistic decisions.  Two heady issues, indeed, are on the table.  Let’s look at them one at a time.

A new play has been written by Deb Margolin titled, “Imaging Madoff.”   Madoff is of course the infamous Bernie Madoff, a.k.a. gonif of the Western World, who duped his friends as well as strangers, stole billions of dollars and upset the financial network of hundreds of families, foundations and social organizations around the world.  His escapades have come to symbolize chicanery and evil.  His misplaced sense of entitlement ruined lives, set back programs and epitomizes the phrase, “it is a shanda fur die goy”  – he is a Jew who did something embarrassing and wrong in front of non-Jews. 

The setting of the Margolin play is a fictional (made-up, never happened, imagined) encounter between Madoff and Elie Wiesel.  Mr. Wiesel, of course, is the most famous writer, thinker and spokesperson for understanding the Holocaust.  He has won the Nobel Prize.  He is a survivor.  He is the symbol of righteous indignation about all that is evil in the world and how to make wrong right.  He and Madoff are opposites, the extreme edges of morality. 

Ari Roth, the Washington DCJCC’s artistic director of Theater J read the play, liked it and placed it at the beginning of next season’s lineup.  Like almost everything Theater J presents, this play, Roth believed, would get people thinking and talking.  Theater J is known for its provocative productions. 

Ms. Margolin sent her script to Elie Wiesel.  She is proud of her work.  She believed her pairing of good vs. evil – Wiesel vs. Madoff – showed the Nobel Laureate in good light.  Mr. Wiesel, however, though a writer of fiction himself, took her play literally not figuratively and said in a letter back to Margolin, “This is not me.”  And then, with all the melodrama of the movie Casablanca, he went to say, “I am shocked, appalled and offended…”

Theater J and the playwright were stunned by Wiesel’s response.  The condemnation of this work and its pending public production is coming from a man who is the paragon of freedom, a man who in a concentration camp understood that his thoughts were always free from oppression.

There are a handful of public figures in the 20th century who life work commands the respect bestowed up Wiesel, including Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Menachem Mendel Schneerson and Mother Teresa.  These are individuals whose courage and/or ethical standing puts them in a category above most women and men.  If any one of them asked any one of us to look carefully at something, we would do so.  Their requests command respect. 

Elie Wiesel said, “I formally oppose it [the play] being performed any time in any venue.”  Strong words.  He got everyone’s attention.  He stopped production in its tracks.  For a brief moment, he left everyone speechless.  And then, in a whispering voice people said, “Wiesel said ‘no’ to the play.”  (In full disclosure, no specific person said that specific phrase – it is a made-up sentence to make a point).

What now should the theater and its artistic director do?

Ari Roth is not known as a shrinking violet.  He likes plays that are edgy.  He likes plays that arouse strong feelings and he likes the audience to ponder deep questions.   He is articulate and eloquent in his explanation of choices for Theater J.  He is not one to cut and run.  He enjoys debate, is good at confronting controversy and gets his “opponents” to hone their arguments and he can stand his ground with almost anyone. 

Why offend a paragon of virtue?  Ari Roth had to make a very difficult choice.  Should artistic freedom trump personal objection?  He had to step back from the rim of controversy and ponder if perhaps it isn’t the time to go forward with this particular play.   Roth is quoted as saying about Wiesel, “He’s had in our minds an overreaction,” and Roth is probably right.  Wiesel overreacted and the Washington DCJCC, rather than meeting him at the barricades of indignation, thought it best to let cooler heads prevail and move on to other plays. 

Does this mean Theater J has capitulated?  No it does not. 

Elie Wiesel will be 82 on his next birthday; his life is long and he has witnessed much, far too much at times.  After winning the Nobel Prize he established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity whose “mission, rooted in the memory of the Holocaust, is to combat indifference, intolerance and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding and equality.”   The endowment funds supporting Wiesel’s foundation were decimated by Bernie Madoff; over night millions of dollars were lost.  Dreams disappeared.  Wiesel is once again pushing the rock up the hill.  The imagery is biblical. 

Ari Roth and Theater J and the Washington DCJCC decided that Elie Wiesel was allowed a little wiggle room.  Wiesel over-reacted.  No need for the rest of us to do the same. 

Ms. Trachtenberg is a past-president of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. She is a former Senior Vice President at WETA and adjunct faculty member at the George Washington University’s art department, teaching the history of photography.

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