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Truth and fiction : the Holocaust on stage and screen
By Ronald Harwood

Born in South-Africa in 1934, Ronald Harwood moved to London in 1951 to pursue a career in the theater. After attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, he joined the Shakespeare Company of Sir Donald Wolfit, one of the last 'actor-manager' of Great-Britain. From 1953 to 1958, Harwood became the personal dresser of Sir Donald. He would later draw from this experience in his play 'The Dresser' and write a biography 'Sir Donald Wolfit CBE: His life and work in the Unfashionable Theatre'.

In 1960, he started a new career as a writer and would prove to be quite prolific, penning plays, novels and non-fiction books. He also worked often as a screenwriter but he seldom wrote original material directly for the screen, rather acting as an adapter sometimes of his own work.

One of the recurring themes in Harwood's work is his fascination for the stage, its artists and artisans as displayed in the aforementionned 'The Dresser', his plays 'After the Lions' (about Sarah Bernard) ,'Another time' (about a gifted piano player), 'Quartet' (about aging opera singers) and his non-fiction book 'All the world's a stage', a general history of theater. Harwood also has a strong interest in the WWII period, as highlighted by the films 'Operation daybreak', 'The Statement', 'The Pianist', and his play turned to film 'Taking sides'. Based on true stories, the two last films feature once again musicians as their main characters.

Made Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1974 and Commander of the British Empire in 1999, Harwood was president of the international PEN Club from 1993 to 1997 after presiding the British section during the four previous years.

I want to begin with a story that may help put into focus the aspirations of playwrights, screenwriters and directors when they come to dramatise, in whatever medium, aspects of the tragedy that befell European Jewry during the Second World War. And this story is not about the Holocaust but about the Soviet Gulag.
In the early 1970s I adapted for the screen Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The novel was published during a brief relaxation of censorship shortly after Nikita Krushchev came to power. It was the first time a work of fiction about the Gulag had emerged from the Soviet Union and its impact was devastating, especially on communist sympathisers in the West, those fellow-travellers who had been apologists for Stalin’s terror. The result was that Krushchev immediately reintroduced censorship.

The novel describes, without complaint, twenty-four hours in the hero’s life, a day of relentless cold, of back-breaking work under cruel guards and an inhuman system. And it is a masterpiece because what it describes is a good day in his life, as if in those circumstances such a day were possible.
The film was made in freezing conditions in northern Norway, in Röros, a small town on the same latitude as Nome, Alaska, where we built an exact replica of a Soviet prison camp. The film had Sir Tom Courtenay in the title role and was directed by a British based Finnish director, the late Casper Wrede. Shortly afterwards, Solzhenitsyn published his first volume of The Gulag Archipelago and was savagely attacked in the Soviet press. On February 12th, 1974, he was arrested, charged with treason and on the following day sent into exile.

Before settling in the United States, he negotiated with several European governments in the hope, it is said, of finding a tax deal that would treat his vast foreign earnings lightly. Among the cities he visited was Oslo. It so happened that opposite the hotel in which he was staying there was a cinema showing Ivan Denisovich. One afternoon he slipped across the street and saw the film. Afterwards he wrote the director a note in pencil. He had some criticisms, chiefly that the film wasn’t funny enough, which rather baffled us since we had never seen much to laugh at in the book. But he also paid us a great compliment. He used what might be thought to be a supremely arrogant phrase. He said, ‘You have been true to truth.’ Those words have stayed with me these past thirty years.
I say supremely arrogant, because of course he was implying that the truth to which we had been true was his truth, the truth of his novel, of his own experience as embracing and embodying undeniable historical facts.

Well, as we all know there is no such thing as undeniable historical facts. All history is subject to dispute. Revisionism has always been a fashionable way for an historian to make a reputation and a living. From the story of Creation in the Book of Genesis to the recent invasion of Iraq, history is disputed, interpreted, misinterpreted, falsified and ignored. Even the most conscientious and honest researchers are prone to error. Witnesses, especially eyewitnesses, are accused of faulty memories, of being self-serving, vengeful and often naive. All of which tends not to illuminate the past but to obfuscate it, to make it more and more difficult to penetrate the events under investigation.

There is a further problem for the analyst of historical truth which I can best illustrate, immodestly, of course, by quoting from my play, Taking Sides, which concerns the denazification of the German conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler. A young American intelligence officer, in trying to placate a distressed witness, says to her, ‘We’re just trying to find out the truth.’ To which she replies, ‘How can you find out the truth? There’s no such thing. Who’s truth? The victors? The vanquished? The victims? The dead? Whose truth?’ Now, I don’t happen to agree with her, but nevertheless that is what she says. I don’t agree with her because I think it is possible to reveal the truth yet not necessarily through accounts written by historians, however brilliant or worthy, or by searching the archives for hitherto undiscovered facts. The truth, I believe – and here is a genuine paradox – can best be revealed through fiction. Because, to return to Solzhenitsyn, it is the individual artist’s truth that allows us to accept the validity of the past.

My personal understanding of history has been immeasurably enriched by novels and plays and films. I suspect it may be the same for a great many people. For me, the most vivid insight into the Russia of the early 19th century was derived from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. My understanding of the declining years of the Austro-Hungarian empire came from The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth. My consciousness was first made aware of the evil of apartheid in the country of my birth by Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country. To imagine Vienna in 1945, it is difficult for me not to be bombarded with images of Carol Reid’s and Graham Greene’s film The Third Man. The list is endless and I haven’t even touched on the momentous achievements of Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens or William Shakespeare.

And so it has been, I believe, with the Holocaust. In the sixty odd years following the Second World War, with the advent of television and the cinema as the truly popular art forms, there have been countless plays and films that have dealt, in one way or another, with the industrial slaughter of the Jews. Among the most memorable for me were The Diary of Anne Frank, both as a play and a film, Judgement at Nuremburg with Spencer Tracy, Ghetto by Joshua Sobel, Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and recently, Conspiracy, starring Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich, dealing brilliantly, I thought, with the Wannsee Conference where the Final Solution was discussed and decided. Each time such a work reaches the public the truth is proclaimed.

It is self-evidently impossible to tell the whole story of the Holocaust. But all the works I have mentioned have one thing in common: they focus on a particular character, episode or event and strive to discover the essence of what happened and by so doing contribute to the whole. They are epic tales if you accept my definition of an epic as one man or woman standing for many: Anne Frank, for example, standing for all the children lost, Schindler for those who saved Jews , Heydrich for those who murdered them. By using this epic form they are able to express an accurate and vivid emotional experience. And because the makers were conscientious and serious they were, in that particular way, and in no other, true to the experience, true to the characters involved, true to the events they chose to dramatise. In short, they were true to the truth. Their truth. In dramatisations of events concerning any historical subject, but especially the Holocaust, the individual artist has come to be trusted as a prism, and it is his or her integrity which is the filter. We trust the artist to tell us the truth.

To best explain this contention I must turn to my own understanding of how the process works or, at least, how my process works, how I have approached these highly sensitive issues. I was perhaps foolhardy to accuse Solzhenitsyn of arrogance. I have no doubt that you will now level the same charge against me.
It has been my lot to work over the years on several subjects concerning the Holocaust. I say ‘my lot’ because I have come to the conclusion that my preoccupation with this horrific period in Jewish history is something of a burden, an obsession, and I have tried to analyse why this should be.
I was 5 years old when war was declared on Nazi Germany. My home was in Cape Town, where I was born, and I remember vividly the excitement of being a child during that time: the convoys carrying British and Commonwealth troops on their way to the Far East, the BBC news bulletins and, of course, Winston Churchill’s speeches.

My father, an emigrant from Lithuania, was in his early 40’s then, and had a lame left hand. Yet one evening he came home in military uniform, having enlisted that afternoon in the South African army. He had apparently passed his medical. My mother said, ‘What did the doctor say when you showed him your bad hand?’ ‘I didn’t show it to him,’ he replied. ‘He didn’t ask, so I didn’t show it.’ A belief in a just cause and the growing awareness of a great battle being fought against a barbaric enemy of the Jews informed my daily life. But in 1945, when the Nazi atrocities were revealed, I was taken with other Jewish schoolchildren to see the newsreels of Belsen and Auschwitz. Those dreadful images - the skeletons passing for human beings, the bulldozers shifting mounds of corpses into mass graves - have haunted me ever since. And I remember, too, a photographic essay in Life magazine, showing the bodies of the Nazi war criminals after they’d been hanged at Nuremburg. I can’t deny the sense of satisfaction I felt at the sight of them.

The war defined my childhood, the Holocaust my adolescence. That synthesis has dominated much of my creative life ever since, which is why I have come to realize that I do not look for the themes I write about: they look for me. So it was in the mid 1990s I happened to be up in Manchester, minding my own business, directing one of my own plays, when my wife came up to join me. She had brought a book that she thought might interest me.
The book was called Berlin Days, 1946-48 by George Clare, the author of Last Waltz in Vienna. In this memoir he recounts his time spent as a young British intelligence officer immediately after the war in Germany. Papers concerning the conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, happened to pass across his desk before he was obliged to hand them over to the American authorities in whose zone Furtwängler’s activities fell . But Clare described clearly and in some detail the case against the conductor.

As I read it, a play was born in me. Not the exact shape or form but the drama itself. I can’t explain it any more clearly than that, except to speculate that my obsessions instantly recognised the value of Furtwängler’s story because the ambiguity of his case was immediately intriguing. And – here is my arrogance coming into play – an instinctive belief that my own understanding of the truth could shed light on Furtwängler’s dilemma.

He was never a member of the Nazi party but was Hitler’s favourite conductor and had been honoured by both Hermann Göring and Josef Göbbels. He made anti-Semitic remarks but saved many Jewish musicians, albeit only the most talented. The ethical choices facing him, an individual artist in a totalitarian regime, spoke directly to me. Perhaps it also had something to do with another obsession, my upbringing in South Africa under another totalitarian regime.

Much had been written about Furtwängler’s behaviour during the Nazi period. I set about reading various accounts, including his own writings, and most importantly the official biography, The Devil’s Music Master, by Sam H. Shirakawa. It was in this book that I found a reference to an American intelligence group who were assigned to building the case against Furtwängler. According to the conductor’s widow, Elizabeth, the only witness to these events, her husband was questioned relentlessly by these Americans and he suffered depression as a result.
I tried to discover records of these interviews in archives in Germany and the United States but nothing could be found. It was then I decided that this investigation would serve admirably as the setting for the play. By doing so, I would be able to avoid the drama-documentary form and write what I hoped would be a valid piece for the theatre in its own right.

The fact that there were no records allowed me to invent the investigative group, especially Furtwängler’s chief protagonist, an American Major who would brutally, some would say too brutally, hound the conductor for what were believed to be his Nazi sympathies.
Now, you may well ask how could I be true to truth by inventing characters who may or may not have existed? There were, of course, clues here and there. One, was a notion that the Americans were determined to make examples of men and women prominent in public life, the law, medicine, the arts. They wanted to establish the concept of collective German guilt and this was very much the policy pursued by General John McClure who was in charge of the Allied Information Control Service. It was said that the policy in fact originated with General Eisenhower.

And so I created Major Steve Arnold who had been an Insurance Claims investigator before the war. He came to me harsh, foul-mouthed, fierce and disrespectful. American critics took great exception to him when the play reached New York. They thought the American should have been more of an intellectual and less of a Philistine. But I wanted to show the great divide that was emerging culturally between the old world and the new. And even when I pointed out in interviews that while all the other characters in the play talk of music, art and culture, the American major was the only one who talks of the dead because he had smelled the burning flesh of the crematoria and witnessed the bulldozing of the corpses into mass graves, the memory of which has haunted him ever since. The point, I said, is that the Major is human though not cultured, anti-Nazi without being left wing or, in their terms, liberal. The argument fell on deaf ears. Americans are sensitive souls and sometimes imagine criticism where none is intended. I’m not sure that today they would be quite so sensitive or take a similar view. And anyway now I would be able to refute their criticism more easily.

The reason being not only because of recent events but also because I have since discovered, from letters written to me by former American intelligence officers, the actual interrogators of Furtwängler were much more savage and primitive than my Major. They were mostly farm boys from Milwaukee and chosen because they spoke German, or a sort of German, and had little or no interest in European culture. Or any other culture, for that matter. So, one could say, again arrogantly, that life imitates art.

It was important to me that I did not misrepresent Wilhelm Furtwängler. I was determined to be as fair to his defence as I was to the prosecution of the case against him. I used the responses he gave during his denazification proceedings as the basis for almost everything he says in my play. I put into his mouth only one speech that is invented, and that is when he asks Major Arnold what sort of world he wants in the future – a world that is only rooted in materialism or one that can embrace the power of art, music especially, that Furtwängler describes as speaking directly to the human spirit. ‘If you honestly believe the only reality is the physical world,’ Furtwängler says, ‘you will have nothing left but feculence more foul-smelling than that which pervades your nights.’
And because I have a personal aversion to propaganda plays, I was determined not to manipulate the audience into deciding the rights and wrongs of the conductor’s behaviour. I wanted people to make up their own minds which is why I called the play Taking Sides.
When it came to making the film of the play, for which I also wrote the screenplay, subtle but important changes were bound to take place. In any adaptation to the screen there are dangers which lurk in the shadows of the director’s mind and, eventually, in the editing process.

There is a phrase often used in relation especially to adapting plays to the screen. The phrase is ‘opening out’. It is meant to suggest exciting locations or the dramatisation perhaps of scenes only talked about in the play. Often, the result is simply the breaking up of long dialogue exchanges into several rooms or fields so that one hopes the audience doesn’t become too quickly bored with what the characters are saying. It is, of course, one of the main differences between the theatre and the cinema. In the theatre, it is no accident that the place where you sit is called an auditorium, which means precisely a place where you listen. Language is the key to the theatre. In the cinema, however, you are obliged to look, to view gigantic images projected on to an enormous screen. And this difference in adaptation, between language and image, is an ever-present conflict.

I was fortunate to have as the director of the film, Istvan Szabo, who had won an Academy Award for Mephisto which had a similar theme to Taking Sides. Mephisto also concerns the behaviour of an artist during the Nazi period, in this case an actor. Furthermore, Szabo, an Hungarian, had lived most of his life under Communism so he was well-equipped to understand and interpret the conflicts dramatised in my play.
This process of ‘opening out’ I prefer to call ‘opening in’ because the cinema allows one to concentrate on emotion that is difficult to express in words. Spencer Tracey once said that the film camera photographs thoughts and this is an advantage that should be pursued when turning a play into a movie. We were also able to show in the film the newsreel footage of Belsen, the images that haunt the American major, played in the film by Harvey Keitel. We could see Furtwängler conducting, a particularly difficult task for the actor, Stellan Skarsgaard, who in real life can barely keep time. We were able to dramatise, by cutting between the music of Beethoven and the music of Glenn Miller, the divide between the cultures of the Old and New Worlds. And, in the main, we were able to keep in tact the long interrogation scenes in which Furtwängler is questioned and bullied and does his best to defend himself.

But Szabo’s perception of the truth, although he never stated it openly, differed a little from mine. He was less able, I think, to keep a scrupulous balance between the Major and the maestro. Szabo had come across a piece of archive footage in which Furtwängler is seen shaking hands with Göbbels and then taking out his handkerchief to wipe his hands. Szabo was intrigued by this image and, at the end of the film, shows it repeatedly, so that Furtwängler seems to be wiping an infection from his palm. And in so doing the balance is tilted slightly against Furtwängler.

There are, I believe, two rules that can be applied to all dramatisations dealing with the Holocaust. The first one, the one to which I have just referred, is manipulation. Manipulation must be ruthlessly avoided simply because manipulation obviously is in itself a distortion of the truth. And because the events speak loudly enough for themselves. I do not for a moment suggest that Szabo was bent on manipulating the audience, but the film maker in him was captivated by a riveting visual image that he found irresistible. And I am still not sure that my desire to show the Belsen footage was not in some way manipulative, too.
The second rule, and perhaps the more important, and one that I and those with whom I have worked, follow scrupulously, is that sentimentality must also be mercilessly shunned because the events are burdened with genuine suffering and therefore capable of provoking genuine feeling.

Sentimentality is a particular vice of some American film makers. The reason is the demand by American producers for what is called the ‘up ending’ or having the audience leave the cinema with ‘the feel good’ factor. It is the reason why films so seldom present a genuine tragic experience. Aristotle believed that catharsis, which can be taken to mean purification as by a purgative, was the inevitable result of witnessing tragedy in the theatre. He believed that it was one of the ways by which human beings can be purged of stress and inner conflict. The cinema repeatedly fails to allow catharsis to take place because the desire for the up ending and the feel good factor results in manipulation, sentimentality and therefore in gross falsification.

Intensifying the emotion of characters, making the victims too noble or the villains too inhuman, the use of lush music to accompany scenes, even, dare I say it, to introduce a young girl in a red dress as a motif to intensify loss, are to my sensibilities, best described as schmaltz and should be resisted.
This lack of sentimentality was especially evident when I first read The Pianist, the book by Wladislaw Szpilman. He wrote of his suffering but as if it had happened to someone else. Szpilman simply described the terror without comment, without reference to his suffering or courage, without saying, ‘Wasn’t this appalling?’ or ‘Wasn’t I lucky?’ And why I found it so interesting was because, years before, researching Ivan Denisovich, I had been obliged to read several accounts written by survivors of the Gulag, accounts which had been smuggled out to the West. All of them, without exception, were little more than complaints, railing against the fate that had condemned each author to such horror. Solzhenitsyn’s novel was entirely without complaint and, as I said, described a good day in Ivan Denisovich’s life. So it was in The Pianist. Szpilman kept his distance from his own suffering.

There was another element in Szpilman’s book that spoke directly to me and that was the appearance near the end of the German officer, Captain Wim Hosenfeld, who saved Szpilman’s life. I will return to him and the reasons for my response to his presence in the story.
The Pianist sought me out as a direct result of my play, Taking Sides. In the spring of 2000 Roman Polanski saw the excellent Paris production with Michel Bouquet as Furtwängler and Claude Brasseur as the Major. Since the play is about music and Nazis, Polanski thought I might be the man to write the screenplay of The Pianist.

I knew nothing about the book, had not even heard of it although it had had some success when first published.
The Pianist describes Wladyslaw Szpilman’s gruesome experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto, from which he managed to escape. Once outside the ghetto, he was sheltered by courageous Poles until he was forced to fend for himself alone. He suffered hunger and illness. He did not know what was going on in the world outside, did not realise that he was almost alone in the ruined city. And then, when weak and desperate, a German officer befriended him, brought him food and helped him to survive until he was liberated. I read the book in one sitting, telephoned Polanski and said yes. I may even have said, ‘Yes, please.’
It was known that Polanski had turned down an offer from Stephen Spielberg to direct Schindler’s List which is set in the Cracow ghetto from which Polanski himself had escaped at the age of six. His parents and sister were taken off to the camps. (His father and sister survived but not his mother.) His reasons for rejecting Spielberg’s offer were that the events would have been too close to him, the people too familiar. He had known most of them and some were still alive. But The Pianist offered a means of expressing his own feelings about the horror of his appalling childhood.

We met in Paris where he lives and, to my astonishment, in no time at all, discovered that we agreed on the form and content of the film. I discovered in the course of our first conversation that he kept his distance from the past and when he recounted one or two of his memories it was as an observer not a participant which accorded precisely with Szpilman’s own amazing objectivity.
He decided we should go to Warsaw, mainly because he wanted us to look at sickening archive footage shot by the Nazis, and to inspect the place where the Jews had been walled in and then sent to their annihilation. On three successive days we sat in a viewing theatre to watch the grainy black and white record of the brutal destruction of Warsaw’s Jews, most of it never shown to the public at large. They were a deeply depressing few days. but we were, without being wholly aware of it, beginning the process of creating our own truth to which we would have to be true. Looking back, I suspect the archive footage was of more value to Polanski than to me because when he and the production designer, Alan Starski, came to reproduce the ghetto they were able to do so with ruthless accuracy.
I returned to London and began the writing the screenplay.

I was determined to preserve the author’s approach as observer. But, with Polanski’s agreement, I was also determined not to use a voice-over, not to have Szpilman as narrator. This, of course, presented problems. Szpilman is alone for much of the story. He has no one to confide in. So the emotional content had to emerge from the action without any help from us. In due course, I delivered the screenplay. To work on the final shooting script Polanski and I repaired to a house near Rambouillet where for four weeks we worked every day from 10 till 6. We’d act out scenes aloud and when he wasn’t sure I understood exactly what he wanted, he’d draw the location or the prop or the camera angle. He is a gifted artist so his sketches were enormously helpful. When a problem arose and I’d make a suggestion that wasn’t to his liking, he’d react as though I’d insulted his wife. “You crazy? That’s terrible!” he’d cry. “Let’s have a coffee.” And when I suggested something of which he did approve, he would be equally extreme: “That’s great, my God, that’s great. Let’s have a coffee!” We drank a lot of coffee.
In retrospect, I see now that we were not simply finalising a technical document, but trying to ensure that there was no falsehood or bogus emotion in our account of Szpilman’s story. You would be hard pressed to find two less sentimental men than Polanski and me and any hint of it we both instantly recognised and excised.

In search of our own truth, for much of the time as I’ve said, Polanski was dredging his own memories for details and incidents. There was one in particular I remember. I had accurately reproduced the moment in the book when a Jewish policeman saves Szpilman from boarding a cattle truck bound for Treblinka. Szpilman describes himself running from the scene. “No!” Polanski said. “I’ll tell you what happened to me, it’ll be better.” Apparently, he, too, was saved in a similar manner but when he’d been pulled out from the crowd and started to run, his saviour hissed, “Walk! Don’t run!” And so we changed it. In the film Szpilman walks slowly towards the gates while the Germans herd his family and all the others into the trucks. I knew it was a reality I personally could not have invented.

Despite the subject matter we laughed a lot, making dreadful jokes in bad taste about Jews, Poles and Germans. It was the only way to get through. A month to the day later, we finished. Once back in Paris, he presented me with a gift: an espresso coffee machine.
It is not always so rewarding. A few years ago, after seeing the TV film of Conspiracy with Kenneth Branagh, produced by HBO, I had the idea to reconstruct the trial in which tonight’s distinguished chairman played such an important part. When David Irving sued for libelling him as a Holocaust denier among other things, he little suspected that her defence team would rake through almost every word he had written and published, almost every speech he had made, to prove that he was a liar, a falsifier and a fraud. I approached HBO and they agreed that I should proceed. With the generous help of , Dr Julius and his colleagues, including Richard Rampton QC, who led for the defence and the Judge, Sir Charles Grey, I reduced a million words of verbatim court proceedings to a manageable two hour format for television. In due course, I delivered the screenplay in which I had dramatised the key exchanges and arguments within the court room. HBO, however, decided they wanted more outside the court, backstage as it were, to show Dr Lipstadt’s anxieties as to whether or not she would win, to show Irving confident and calculating.

I resisted these suggestions because I believed that the tensions HBO wanted were tired and clichéd, but above all would manipulate, sentimentalise and, ultimately, undermine the truth. The arguments presented by the defence, the relentless cross-examination of David Irving by Richard Rampton, and finally the judgement delivered by Sir Charles Gray, were to me the essence of the drama and the injection of the old-fashioned dramatic devices demanded by HBO could only weaken it. My instincts told me that what would intrigue an audience was the court room battle and that a true catharsis would be achieved by hearing the Judge call Irving an active Holocaust denier, an anti-Semite and a racist, and saying, ‘Not only has he denied the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz and asserted that no Jew was gassed there, he has done so on frequent occasions and sometimes in the most offensive terms.’
I have to say, however, that HBO, one of the most successful makers of television films in the world will undoubtedly have better instincts than mine when it comes to knowing what audiences want. I withdrew and the film, as far as I know, will regrettably now not be made.
I rehearse this sad history because there comes a point when the conscientious effort to be true to truth is destabilized and so it becomes impossible to continue. In describing my own approach I am certain I am speaking for all who work on these themes. There is a vast conscientious effort by a huge number of people, from the director, the set and costume designers, the prop makers, the make-up artists, the casting directors, the actors, everyone involved, to be accurate each in their own department, so that what is finally produced on the screen or the stage is true to the truth. Anything less would be an insult to the subject matter and to the dead.

I like to think that I have followed the epic form in the plays and films I have written on the subject. The stories of Furtwängler and Szpilman, to take the two examples I have spoken of this evening, are, I hope, epic in that sense. Furtwängler stands for all those who wavered, who were cowardly and courageous, who believed in the greater good but also in their own self-preservation. And Szpilman stood for the survivors, men and women, like Polanski, too, who somehow managed to live through the horror and survived to tell the story.
There are curious side effects from working on these matters. For example, there are always experts and critics who know more than the film makers or the playwright. Theatre critics are particularly skilled at telling you what play they would have written on the subject if they could write plays which, of course, they can’t. Then there are the meetings with Holocaust survivors or their children who are either grateful or hostile. One case was particularly interesting to me. After The Pianist was shown in the United States an article appeared in The Wall Street Journal written by a son of Holocaust survivors, attacking the film for including the Poles who helped Szpilman and the German officer who eventually saved him. The writer’s main thrust was directed against the German officer whose presence in the film, the writer asserted, distorted history and was meat and drink to apologists and, indeed, to deniers. I was rather shocked by the reaction. In the first place, the incident was true. Neither Polanski nor I would have dared invent him. As it later transpired, Szpilman was not the only Jew saved by Captain Wim Hosenfeld. In the second place, he was one of the main reasons I was so captivated by the book. It seemed to me then, and does so now, that Hosenfeld’s courage and humanity sounded a note of reconciliation in which I believe passionately. I have the good fortune to have my plays and films taught in Holocaust studies in Germany where a great effort has been made to face its terrible past. I believe reconciliation to be absolutely essential if the history about which I and others have written is never to be repeated.


And this brings me to the heart of the representations of the Holocaust on stage or screen. One would be foolish to claim that they are entertainments. So, what are the reasons for these plays and films?
Bringing to the stage and screen aspects of the Holocaust is one of the most powerful methods of informing and educating. But I am not so naive as to believe that people will really learn anything from them. The lessons of history, it seems, are seldom learned, however often and well they are taught. But that doesn’t mean we must not persevere. With the passage of time, succeeding generations, all over the world, are, in the main, ignorant of the massive suffering endured by European Jewry and these plays and films do, from time to time have the desired effect.
It is revealing that in 1979, between, January 22 and 27, the American TV drama series Holocaust was broadcast in four parts on Channel Three nationwide in Germany. It was supposed to be aired during prime time but at the request of Bavaria it was moved to a less favourable slot at 9 pm. Nevertheless, about 20 million people watched the broadcasts. It caused a sensation, throwing light on a hideous past that many older Germans did not want discussed. It was this series that led to a new open debate about how to deal with Germany's Nazi period. And that made educators rethink their approach to dealing with the Holocaust in schools where it is now taught.

And, unfortunately, it seems to me that the need for these dramatisations to inform and educate is more urgent now than ever.
From the vile propaganda that is spewed out daily in newspapers and on radio and television in the Middle East to the biased reporting in some quarters in the West, the text and sub-text is clear: if Israel, the only democracy in the region, ceases to exist, the troubles of the Middle East would disappear and terrorism would have lost its raison d’etre. These attacks on Israel are also a camouflage worn by anti-Semites when compelled to express their own innate anti-Semitism.
And anti--Semitism threatens not just Jews wherever they happen to live. If it is allowed to flourish it threatens all the standards by which decent, liberal, democratic societies should judge themselves.

There are shocking manifestations of these attitudes in this country and elsewhere. The man who sent suicide bombers into crowded urban areas is described in all the media as a spiritual leader. Well, so was Adolph Hitler. Leading newspapers and broadcasters here are patently opposed to Israel and, of course, commentators are at liberty to criticise the country. I myself am not always at ease with the policies of the present Israeli government but I never thought the day would come when I would have to defend publicly and privately Israel’s right to exist.

As writers and film makers we have the privilege of being able to make our views known through our work. Each time we draw attention to the Holocaust we are, I believe, educating, reminding, warning and proclaiming as loudly as we can our support for Israel’s continued existence.
I said earlier that I do not look for the themes about which I write, they look for me. I nurse the hope that those themes will either become less obsessive or go hunting elsewhere, perhaps to alight on new, younger writers and film makers. I long for other themes to find me and provide respite. But that, I know, may be a forlorn hope. I also long for films and plays about the Holocaust to become less and less necessary but that, too, I suspect is a forlorn hope.

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This is the full text of a lecture given to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London  www.jpr.org.uk  in April 2004 by Ronald Harwood CBE, playwright, winner of the 2003 Academy Award for the screenplay of The Pianist and Board member of the European Association for Jewish Culture. www.jewishcultureineurope.org   An abridged version was published in JPR News Summer 2004 we would like to thank  Lena Stanley-Clamp  Director, Public Activities for her cooperation in re-publishing this article on All About Jewish Theatre

Related Links:

  • All the world's a stage by Ronald Harwood
  • Szpilman’s Warsaw:The History behind The Pianist

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    There is currently 1 comment about this article:

    1.Am "official" biography!!! Indeed!!!
      Alex Stevens, Edinburgh Scotland    (9/2/2005)


  • Ronald Harwood

    Wladislaw Szpilman

    Taking Sides

    Conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler

    The Pianist

    The Pianist

    The Pianist

    The Pianist

    Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

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