From Skokie to Charlottesville, with Eli Adler

Jack Adler, at 88, is not only a living Holocaust survivor, but he is an active and vital human being, replete with humanity, warmth and a sense of humor. I am scheduled to meet with him in the coming days. This piece however is about Eli, the son.

Jack brought Eli to my attention, when I requested an interview with him after hearing him on NPR in Colorado. I should, he suggested, see his son’s movie about the events and drama surrounding the Nazi Party’s attempts to march in Skokie, Illinois in the 1970’s. It is, in fact called “Surviving Skokie”. It is also a film about Jack’s experiences in Poland, and his experiences as a returnee—for both his own personal journey and to help with the “March of the Living” that commemorates, remembers and honors those who perished in the Holocaust.

I wound up meeting Eli in Saul’s, a well-known Jewish deli in Berkeley, a place perfect for me on my visit to family and for Eli who lives in the Bay area. I wanted to meet him in any case, but it had become more pressing in light of the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Eli is showing the movie at an upcoming film festival there the weekend of November 18th, creating a chance for viewers to reflect on similarities, differences, issues of free speech and the damage that can be done on purpose by some of its uses and users.

When Eli saw the goings on in Charlottesville, he felt discouraged; he had felt we had progressed more in terms of national conscience, consciousness—tolerance in general. When you meet Eli, you realize his experiences in his making of his own movie were both passionate and very personal. He states: “There was a story in me waiting to come out”. The film was made by 2015, having taken the years from 2009 for it to be completed, helped immensely by the editing and co-producing of Blair Gerskow. What made the film most poignant for Eli had to do, understandably with his Dad, who seemed finally ready to face a trip back to Poland and his roots, and also ready to ask Eli to be his companion.

Seeing the film—particularly the parts about the Nazis in Skokie—makes clear the extent of the trauma that can come to people having already faced the brutality of the oppression and violence of the Holocaust, by being exposed to Nazi regalia a second time, when they thought they were safe, at least on the outside. It also brings up the provocative and thorny debates about free speech in general.

It may be fairly common for those of us in America considering ourselves as progressive, to be completely in favor of free speech no matter the content. At the same time I realize that I feel comforted by the fact that Germany made it illegal since 1960 to publically deny the Holocaust or denigrating its significance. So, I ask myself: what gives?

While viewing “Surviving Skokie” and considering Charlotte (as well as white rallies that target refugees, or other minorities), the rallies of the 70’s can seem extreme. And yet in today’s world, they are not really. It seemed to some of us, at least in the United States, during the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s, impossible for Nazism to rise again. It would have been politically incorrect and even impossible for people to say out loud how much they hated Black people and/or Jews, and/or other minorities. Today the masks of propriety have become undone.

Today is different, even though I for one realize that our white exceptionalism, the stories Americans tell ourselves/themselves about how great it used to be in the olden days, and the fact that there has been no reparation for our genocides, are serious impediments to a real democracy. There is cooperation and compromise in democracy, people’s opinions and votes counting. This means we have to be able to think things through without the interference from other nations or false news given by politicians who tell us everyone else is lying except for them.

It seems to me that as much as the importance of freedom of speech there is the urgency for the right of expression, which is used not merely to harness the passions of crowd madness, but through which views can be shared. I do realize that this opinion may be very minority and even flawed, but I can’t see the impact of propagandistic mesmerizing as being a good thing for society.

I have a question about our obligation to begin seeing egregious abuses of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein as what they are representing, bullying by big strong people who are using terror as their weapon. Terror, big or small, influences everything in a life and imbues it with constant fear. What is there here—thinking of people who use power to speak and intimidate without allowing the opportunity for a response of integrity-- that really has to do with free speech. It seems more like a form of violence that is raping people—either by leading to the physical violence of molestation—or the blackmail and inducing of paralysis in the recipient.

Eli Adler is giving us yet another opportunity to be part of this conversation, through seeing “Surviving Skokie” and weighing in with emotional reactions as well as more cerebral or academic arguments. Even here, I would suggest that we might be obligated, thought not yet by law, to give space to each other to be counted. If we demonize and humiliate only, we are committing acts of violence.

Mr. Adler is happy to make his film available to people who want to see it. Please feel free to find him at www.survivingskokiemovie.com .

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