The Storytellers: Protecting the Truth

March 22, 2017

by Mary Wald

A neighbor once asked me how I knew that the Holocaust actually happened. I was able to point out that a mutual friend of ours, Irene, had lived as a child under Nazi occupation in Amsterdam. Her father died in a concentration camp for harboring Jews. She had carried messages for the resistance in the handlebars of her bicycle to other resistance fighters in town. She was there when the survivors of the camps arrived back in Amsterdam on buses, walking skeletons still in their striped uniforms.

But Irene was 11 years old when the Nazis invaded Amsterdam. Today she is 83. The men and women who stumbled off those buses have passed now. Meanwhile, white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers have started running campaigns of anti-Semitic fliers, rallies and even speaking engagements on 63 college campuses in the United States. As time marches on, it becomes easier to forget; easier to ignore the lessons of history. Easier to deny.

It would be easier to forget, that is, if it weren’t for the storytellers; the filmmakers and novelists who weave the facts of something as horrific as a genocide into a tapestry of experience, humanity, courage and love. A good story makes you more than a reader. It makes you a participant in an episode of history. It spurs you to love, to fear, to lose and to win along with its characters. And once immersed, the experience never leaves you.

Elie Wiesel was the Holocaust’s master storyteller. It is why the neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers expend considerable energy to discredit him. But they can’t. La Nuit, or Night in English, just one of his 137 books, has been translated into 30 languages. It has sold more than 8 million copies in the US alone. No matter who, no matter where, when you open the first chapter, you are riveted. The book’s impact will never be able to be dampened.

It’s not just stories about the Holocaust. If you are old enough, you certainly learned more about the American Indians and their treatment at the hands of the white man from Little Big Man than you ever learned in school. If you’re not old enough for that one, you may have had the “white man tames savages” bubble shattered by Dancing with Wolves. Those lucky enough to have seen Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence, which unearths the story of Australia’s “lost generation,” know more about the treatment of the Aborigines in Australia than most Australians. And once you learn about the lost generation from the faces of young children being torn from their parents (a scene that reportedly had even the camera crew sobbing), it doesn’t go away.

Armenians know all about rewriting history and denial. Many Armenians in the US today have grown up wondering why they have no grandparents, or very few aunts and uncles. They heard stories. First-hand stories. Stories of how, between 1915 and 1922, 80% of the Armenians in their homeland were slaughtered. They sat in the safety of their living rooms in the West and talked to their relatives about rivers full of bodies, about mass starvation, about marches with no food and no clothes, through the desert with no water. Those who had grandparents heard how many of them arrived in the US as children, survivors of atrocity. They know.

There is a reason why more than 100,000 Armenians marched to the Turkish consulate in Los Angeles  to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the genocide of the Armenian people two years ago. Turkey, and many powerful Western governments, have yet to acknowledge that it even happened.

Enter the storytellers. The first and most prominent was Franz Werfel, an Austrian novelist and son of a Jewish merchant in Prague. In 1933 Werfel’s novels were burned in Germany by the Nazis. That same year he completed The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a story of 5000 Armenians in what is now Southern Turkey, defending themselves against the onslaught of Turkish troops. Basing the story on the horrors he had witnessed while serving in the Austro-Hungarian Army in Damascus, in an almost eerie foreshadowing, Werfel was putting deportations, concentration camps and massacres of the Armenians to paper just as Nazi troops were approaching his homeland.

MGM bought the production rights to The Forty Days of Musa Dagh and went into preproduction in 1934, casting Clark Gable to star. The Turkish government launched a press attack with anti-Semitic overtones. They threatened a boycott of not only American films in Turkey but of all Jewish products. MGM caved and stopped production.

But a good story is hard to kill. Today we are still talking about the book. I ordered my copy yesterday from Amazon. Eighty years after it was written.

Filmmaker Terry George probably leads the pack today in bringing atrocity home through film. It’s hard to think of the Rwanda genocide today without remembering Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda. If you’ve ever seen In the Name of the Father, just try thinking about the Troubles in Northern Ireland without remembering Daniel Day-Lewis seeing his father arrive in prison.

George is taking on the Armenian genocide with a new film, The Promise, starring Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac. From the trailer it promises to be another Terry George story that will leave the story of the Armenian genocide imprinted in your heart.

Denial, or even the more subtle version of “planting doubts,” whether about Armenian, Jewish or other genocides, is a perpetuation of the kind of racism and hatred used to foment the genocide in the first place. As the South Africans taught us so brilliantly with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, fully closing the chapter and walking forward into a new more humane day requires first acknowledging what was in that chapter, even staring it in the face. Thankfully, when governments fail to do so, the storytellers keep the truth and the lessons of history alive for us to do so.