Most of the grand old movie theaters are gone, victims of the ubiquitous closet-like darkrooms of the multi-plex.
Certainly, this is true of Lansing, Michigan. The remnants of the old Michigan Theater– The Strand— were long ago truncated into faceless office-space, it’s once opulent shopping “Arcade” left only to faint memory.
Back in the winter of 1945, though, it was the jewel of Downtown, with it’s towering neon marquee, and it’s ” Strand Arcade” an indoor hub of boutiques and little cafes. Deep at the end of it’s terrazzo-tiled hallway was the cavernous theater itself, which, if you must know, was showing The Bells of St. Mary’s, the endearing Ingrid Bergman – Bing Crosby flick about the shuttering of the neighborhood Catholic School.
Going to the movies in 1945 was rather like going to the convenience store today: You went pretty much constantly, and it was only a dime or fifteen cents, depending on the film, and another nickle or so for a bag of popcorn.
The Bells of Saint Mary’s was an odd choice, really, for my Mom and her mom to watch, but–what the heck. Most of the rest of the city was deep into Christmas Shopping, and my Mother (a newly-minted Michigan State College co-ed) was home for the evening now that classes were in recess for “Christmas Break”.
The Bells of Saint Mary… Christmas Shopping… Christmas Break. Oy Vey. My mom is Jewish.
So too, then, were her Mom and Dad: Jenniah Schneider and Josef Boym… My Gramma and Grampa. Of course, in late December of 1945, all of that grand-stuff was some twenty years in the future, and so, on this particular day, it was just my Mom and her mom in the Strand Arcade theater in downtown Lansing.
There was the usual fare: the Colgate Sports Reel, and News from Tinseltown. Back in the day, you weren’t assaulted by 40 minutes of trailers for movies you’ll never see. Oh, there were some, to be certain. But, they shared time with Tom and Jerry, and the Fox Movietone News Reel.
The war had been over for a couple of months by then, and the soldiers were coming home in dribs and drabs.
And the first pictures of the foul underbelly of Nazi Germany were leaking out.
Here, some 70 years after the end of the war, the grainy images of the death-camps are almost cliched. The neural pathways into our rutted national psyche are deep indeed. Steven Spielberg has made nearly a cottage industry out of replicating them: The piles of rotting corpses, the box-cars, the inmates in filthy striped woolen tunics, the barbed wire. The ovens. In the winter of 1945, though, it was all new. Shockingly new.
And yet, not so.
Jenniah –my mom’s mom– spent nine months of her young life in 1905 hiding under a neighbor’s porch in Odessa, Ukraine (consider the foul horror of that for a 10-year-old girl). Some 2-3000 Jews in the city would be murdered that spring and summer, for no particular reason. Oh, there had long ago been an attempt to pin the murder of a Tsar some decades ago on “The Jews”, but, the outright barbarism of these latest Tsarist pogroms held no rational connection to that event. Jews were burned at the stake, their babies torn to pieces. They were shot, bludgeoned, what have you…
…the corpses were lined up, stacked like cord-wood…
…and my Grandmother, some 40 years on, sat in the darkened theater, watching the Newsreels, as these latest sallow corpses of European Jewry slid down foul sluices into mass graves. She watched transfixed in horror at the piles of gold teeth, the mountains of eyeglasses, and always: the oven. She then sat rocking, quietly crying in the dark, her 18-year-old daughter –my mother– trying helplessly to comfort her, trying the heal the unhealable.
“weitikdik, weitikdik” too painful, too painful, she sobbed, and then lapsing into a quiet guttural my mother never did understand. And then in English: “Why do they hate us so? Why? Why?”
Of course, there is no answer to that simple, searing queary.
In 1945, the Jews were hated as part of the world diaspora for slithering into countries and cultures, and then thriving in them: They should go live in their own country! was the cry of hatred in those days. So, my Grampa collected “Pennies of Palestine”, in an attempt to do just that: Buy land in British Palestine for the Jews to call their own.
…and now the hatred of the Jews is for the opposite reason: Why should the Jews have a country of their own?
It is said the words “Never Again” are emblazoned by the door at nearly every office or barrack of the IDF; this is becoming something of a forlorn hope, I fear. Jew-hatred is as irrational as it is deep-rooted, especially in the salons of Europe. Jews can be hated as easily for having a home as they can for NOT having one. They can be hated as easily for their wealth as they can for their poverty.
My grandmother wept bitterly in the dark of a Michigan theater for the irrational barbarism of a fallen world.
But, it was nothing new to her.
The only thing that’s kept the foul monster of murderous Jew Hatred at bay has been a virtuous, gentlemanly, powerful United States.
That United States has left the building. And the building is on fire…