Jewish and European

Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa

Agnieszka Holland’s 1990 film Europa Europa tells a powerful tale of World War II and the Holocaust, all the more awful for the absurdity it conveys.

Holocaust survivors: Solomon Perel (R).

While that would have been true at any juncture, the film’s impact was greatly magnified by the timing of its release, amid the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the confusion that was taking its place.

While most stories of the Holocaust rely heavily on the testimony of survivors, Europa Europa stands out because it is based on the memoir of Solomon “Solly” Perel, who passed away earlier this year.

Perel not only avoided the death camps, but served as an interpreter in the Wehrmacht, then spent the majority of the war masquerading as a Volksdeutscher, an ethnic German nicknamed “Jupp”, in a boarding school for Hitler Youth.

He was keenly aware of the persecution of the Jews, since his family had been forced to flee from Germany to Poland before the war.

Yet because Perel was separated from first his parents and then his older brother during the invasion in September 1939 and had no contact with his people after being sent to Germany, he did not realise the full extent of the Holocaust until it was over.

This undoubtedly made it much easier for him to discern the humanity in the Germans he encountered, even fanatical Nazis.

Within the context of the film, which condenses and rearranges Perel’s story to make it work better on screen, his unique situation elicits unusual forms of sympathy from the audience.

When Robert, a German soldier who tells Jupp he was an actor before the war, tries to assault him sexually, we expect the worst. Once he realises that Jupp is circumcised, however, he embraces the Jewish teenager and promises to help him keep his secret.

Although this is undoubtedly a self-serving gesture – as was the somewhat different real-life incident Perel relates in his memoir – the incidents that follow make it clear that Robert does come to care deeply about him as a person and that Jupp returns his affection, though not romantically.

In one of the film’s most striking sequences, we see a close-up of Jupp returning the dying Robert’s embrace, then an overhead shot of him next to the fallen soldier’s lifeless body, so overcome by grief that he can’t retreat with the rest of his Wehrmacht unit.

Later, after a public address announcement at the boarding school informs students that the Red Army has won the battle for Stalingrad, Jupp hugs a schoolmate who is disconsolate at the news.

While it’s possible to attribute behaviour like this to Stockholm Syndrome, Perel insisted that it wasn’t that simple.

He reconnected with his fellow Hitler Youth after his memoir was published and attended a reunion of his former Wehrmacht unit. Solomon Perel even reached out to neo-Nazis in the hopes that they might understand the wrongheadedness of their racial ideology.

“I was schizophrenic”, Perel told The Washington Post in an interview from 1992. “I saved Shlomo by playing it so well that he became an organic part of the Nazi world. He would yell ‘Heil Hitler’ wilfully, not as an act. He rejoiced at their victories. He mourned their defeats. And Shlomo the Jew was forgotten. Today the characters are reversed. Today Schlomo is the dominant one. And Jupp is pushed aside. But he still exists,” adding, “I love him because he saved my life.”

It’s no accident that Agnieszka Holland was drawn to Perel’s tale. Her father, a Communist before the war, was one of the few Poles of Jewish descent who survived the Holocaust and remained in the country. Her mother, like the vast majority of Poles, was Catholic. When she remarried after divorcing Holland’s father, her second husband was also a Jew.

Holland attended film school in Czechoslovakia and was imprisoned there for supporting the Prague Spring. Like other Polish filmmakers, she fled to France after the Polish government clamped down on dissent in the early 1980s in the wake of the Solidarity movement.

In short, she identified with Solomon Perel’s “schizophrenia” and wanted her audience to do the same.

This is why the decision to call the film Europa Europa is so important. While giving it the same title as Perel’s memoir I Was Hitler Youth Salomon (Ich war Hitlerjunge Salomon) surely would have attracted more attention, doing so would have constrained its allegorical potential.

The doubling that Perel experienced, torn between his Jewish and German identities, resembles not only the sort that Holland dealt with personally but the one that afflicted the entire continent in the years following World War II.

When Europa Europa came out in 1990, everybody wondered whether the two Europes of the postwar years could be reconciled. Would the divisions that had been reinforced after the defeat of Nazi Germany prove too deeply entrenched to overcome?

Over three decades later, we are no closer to answering these questions. For every example of the East moving West, there seems to be a counterexample of the West moving East.

While Holland’s native Poland is now a regional economic and political power and one of NATO’s staunchest defenders, it has also become more conservative and less democratic. Capitalism now reigns supreme but without many of the freedoms that were supposed to come with it.

The fact that Europa Europa was a German, French, and Polish co-production also looms large.

Whereas the Jewish population of France is actually bigger than it was before the start of World War II – though smaller as a percentage of the country’s total population – and even that of Germany numbers over 100,000, Poland’s remains tiny.

Of the roughly three million Jews who lived there in 1939, some three thousand remain. And that number has barely changed since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc.

While precious few Poles today have to contend with the kind of split that Holland had to navigate growing up, they still find themselves trying to reconcile the tension between East and West.

In his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein – who was torn between his Catholic upbringing and his Jewish heritage – discusses how the same thing can be seen radically differently. His famous example is a drawing that looks like a duck or a rabbit depending upon one’s orientation to it.

“I see two pictures, with the duck-rabbit surrounded by rabbits in one, by ducks in the other. I do not notice that they are the same,” he writes. “But what is different: my perception, my point of view?”

When people declare that they are suddenly able to see a duck, where before they could only see a rabbit, they communicate both “a new perception” and “the perception’s being unchanged”.

Europa Europa’s protagonist has a similarly ambiguous status. As Solly, he is seen for the Jew he actually is, whether in his native Germany, Poland, or the Soviet Union.

But as Jupp, he is seen as a German who, despite the mixed heritage that one of his instructors at boarding school describes, still demonstrates the proper Aryan traits.

Because we get to hear this young man’s thoughts in a voice-over, we know that, whereas almost everyone he encounters sees him as one or the other, he never fully loses sight of the fact that he is simultaneously both.

In Wittgenstein’s parlance, he sees himself as a duck-rabbit.

As Perel makes clear in his memoir, being able to perceive himself in this way was a crucial survival skill. But long after it ceased to be necessary, he could not rid himself of his double. Nor did he wish to do so.

This is one case where, if the story hadn’t happened, someone surely would have made it up. Because the schizophrenia of Solomon Perel plagues Europe to this day, on a number of levels.

While the continent’s Jewish population feels more secure than it did before World War II, Antisemitism has been growing for a while. Its inhabitants with a Muslim background deal with significant structural disadvantages and discrimination.

Even those Europeans whose race, ethnicity, and religion do not mark them as “other” continue to struggle with the choice that confronted Perel and his lightly fictionalised double over and over again.

When you are at the mercy of powers you cannot hope to defeat, surviving requires you to accentuate your mutability, helping them to see what you need them to see.

But this may well lead to an existential crisis when you look in the mirror.

Screenshot courtesy of Agnieszka Holland. All rights reserved.