by Allan Fish
(UK 2013 300m) DVD2
Paranoia confirmed by history
p/d Ella Bahaire, Tim Kirby w Simon Schama ed Sean Mackenzie m Arvshalom Caspi
presented by Simon Schama
One may think, in this so-called enlightened age of ours, that there may be no need for a historical overview of the children of Yahweh. We know of the Holocaust, of the horror of its conception and execution and the neglect of its being allowed to happen by Allies who could summon up no more than quiet sympathy for their plight. Yet when it was announced, I remember thinking to myself that this series would set the cat amongst the faux liberal pigeons. We like to think that we have learned from the calamity, constantly reminded by countless books, the great documentary works of Claude Lanzmann and Laurence Rees, and in the still physical form of the ghostly death camps by the Sola river.
A couple of episodes into the series and I looked at the rating for the show on that reliable gauge of opinion of pre-judged opinion, the IMDb. Sure enough, the average rating was 4.7 out of 10. Give that some context; Caligula gets 5.1! So into the individual voting we go, and what comes up; ratings of 8, 9 and 10, a couple at 6, but then a whopping near 50% at 1. Depressing does not begin to cover it.
What’s perhaps most remarkable to many, but exactly what I expected from Schama, is that there is no dwelling on the Holocaust. What more could be said about it anyway? In its place we get a brief overview of what happened to some Lithuanian Jews in 1942, before Heydrich put Hitler’s vile plans on the table at Wannsee. And as a descendant of immigrants from that self-same backwater of Eastern Europe, one can feel the emotion in his voice as he adds “I need to tell you.”
Naturally, given Schama’s heritage it could hardly fail to be personal, and that it took him so long to be persuaded to do it speaks as loudly as his typically impassioned, authoritative narration. If one imagines an accusatory digit being pointed at history in the early episodes dealing with the extended diaspora of the Jews through medieval and 18th and 19th century Europe, it’s not without just cause and is nonetheless countered by a sense of despair not just for what happened and continues to happen, but for what might have been. A might have been first dashed in the Age of Reason against a backlash of revolutionary nationalism, then by the ideologies of National Socialism and then again through manipulation by world powers so that a dreamed promise of peace between Arabs and Jews in Palestine would be lost in the wind like the ashes of the countless victims to Nazi atrocity.
There was always going to be a stumbling block in the narrative, of course. Detail the history of the Roman Empire and one can reach a cut off, either in the late 5th century sacking of Rome by the Barbarians or in the incorporation of the Roman ideal in Byzantium. But how to finish a story that isn’t finished, that’s still being played out either side of twenty foot walls in partitioned Israel? As Schama himself says, “it doesn’t end.” So what else is left but to at least try to remember that the candles in the menorah are never totally extinguished? That’s what this Story is about, not a detailed history of the Jewish wanderings and persecutions – which would have been impossible in just five one hour instalments – but a personal look at the moments and the people where the spirit exemplified in those menorah flames have both burned at their brightest and been most sorely tested. As an impassioned storyteller Schama is at his peak, but also at his most despairing in the face of extremism on both sides that has led to a perpetual stalemate. The historian in him, who rightly adopts an admirably balanced view in the final episode, doubtless sighing within at the intransigent stupidity of it all; has it really come to this? One can almost sense him wanting to shake a fist at both parties and shout “have you learned nothing?”
You can agree with it or not, but it’s the kind of personal treatise that has become rare in our increasingly conservative media. Far more than just a five verse rendition of ‘how do you solve a problem like Judea?’, it’s a testament to a heritage and people too long treated like lepers by extremist Christians and Moslems alike who have conveniently forgotten the teachings of their prophets.
NB: I had to note with an ironic smile that Schama’s series found itself placed in competition with Downton Abbey in the schedule, a series correctly branded ‘cultural necrophilia’ by Schama in the past.