Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Like you, perhaps, I've seen a good many films, exhibits, books, and other media about World War II and the Holocaust. The question on my mind upon encountering another one is, what does it have to say that's new? In a culture that's so saturated with stories, any story -- on this or any other topic -- has to justify itself, has to command the viewer's or listener's attention.
This week I was fortunate enough to see an extraordinary short documentary that, to me at least, more than justifies its 40 minutes. "Ingelore" is about the equally extraordinary life of a deaf Jewish woman of that name, born in Germany in 1924. Released in 2009 and made by Ingelore's son, Frank Stiefel, the film tells a moving story, and is itself a potent reminder of why such stories must still be told.
Lacking a common language (signed or spoken) with her parents, Ingelore is desperately lonely for the first years of her life. It is only when she goes to a school for the deaf that she learns some speech and lip reading, and meets other hearing-impaired children. As the Nazis take power, she is the target of taunts by her schoolmates, and later is raped by Nazi soldiers. Her parents manage to secure U.S. visas for themselves, and Ingelore would have been denied a visa, were it not for a stroke of luck. A U.S. official in Germany makes Ingelore's visa contingent on an informal hearing test. He turns his back to her and says a word, which she must then repeat back to him. Naturally, she cannot hear him, but she reads his lips, reflected in the glass of the framed picture hanging over his desk. With great relief, the family makes it to America -- Ingelore's account of the arrival into New York harbor is a tear-jerker, a reminder of what a potent symbol the Statue of Liberty was for people fleeing persecution and being processed at Ellis Island. When she learns she is pregnant by one of the soldiers who raped her, she gets an abortion. In time, she gets married, has a family, and is truly happy.
Spoiler alert! In the final scene, surrounded by her family at the Passover seder, the prayer is read, which says (depending on the English translation), whoever recounts the exodus of the Jews from Egypt deserves praise. Ingelore's remarkable trials, and her own personal exodus to the United States, is not just a heartening tale of triumph, but attached to a vital Jewish ritual.