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The Rhino Holocaust

By Josh Kun

APRIL 10, 2000:  If "there's no business like Shoah business," as Philip Roth had one of his characters proclaim in his novel Operation Shylock, then America is the Shoah Business Capital of the World. Since the '70s, American Jews in the entertainment world have become the most prolific and committed mass-culture commemorators and commercializers of the European genocide. The redramatizations offered by the 1979 NBC mini-series Holocaust started it all; since then we've had a Broadway Anne Frank, Robin Williams doing death-camp stand-up in Miramax's Jakob the Liar (an English-language remake of the '70s German original), a time-traveling Kirsten Dunst in The Devil's Arithmetic, and a whole slew of feature and documentary films geared for the more recently devised market of Jewish survivor testimony -- The Long Way Home, Enemies: A Love Story, and the granddaddy of them all, Schindler's List, which in black and white and a little red dress let real-life Jewish survivors share screen time with Hollywood make-believe.

You'd think it'd be a saturated market by now (or at least one that Spielberg had cornered), but along comes yet another attempt to conflate the Holocaust with Jewish-American identity, Voices of the Shoah: Remembrances of the Holocaust -- a four-CD "audio documentary" sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, stamped by the Anti-Defamation League, and released, of all places, through the Rhino Records division of Rhino Entertainment. My copy of the project's advance tapes landed in the mail after Rhino sent me MTV: The First 1000 Years and before The Best of Chic.

Discs one and two use more than 180 recorded interviews with Jewish survivors to cobble together a fragmented multi-narrative history that begins with pre-Holocaust life and the rise of Hitler and ends with post-liberation accounts of relocation. Discs three and four are more thematic and individualized and therefore more effective; they're also the most explicitly geared toward an American experience. We hear from Japanese-American soldiers arriving at Dachau, the story of a defiant US military rabbi, and, most incongruously, the self-righteous musings of survivor offspring Gary Schiller, an LA hematologist/oncologist (I'm not making this up; that's how he's introduced) who believes all Jews of all generations should identify as "the legacy of victims of the Holocaust."

All four discs are calmly and undramatically narrated by Elliott Gould. He begins by making sure we know the difference between the father of Monica and Ross on Friends and an authentic survivor ("All the voices you will hear, with the exception of my voice, are voices of those who lived through the experiences they describe") and ends with a salutation to the listener ("All the best").

Voices of the Shoah will doubtless do its part to help preserve the memory of the Holocaust, keep the past alive-and-teaching in the present, and further refute the willfully, and violently, blind claims of Holocaust deniers. In all these ways, it is important and valuable. Indeed, Claude Lanzmann (maker of the visual documentary Shoah) has claimed that when it comes to narrating the Holocaust, "the act of transmission is the only thing that matters."

But is it? What about how the narration gets transmitted? Like everything else in Shoahwood, Voices is caught in the tug of war between entertainment and documentation, between being an educational project that records history and experience (the accompanying 100-page book contains timelines, historical portraits, and a lengthy list of questions) and being one that is enjoyable to listen to, one that feels compelled to aestheticize that history and experience.

Instead of giving us single narrative accounts of selected survivors, Voices producer David Notowitz goes for an arty audio collage effect. Save for Gould's brief historical interludes, voices pile upon voices, stories weave into stories, until they all start to blur together. The stories are stirring and remarkably detailed, but most of the time you don't know who they belong to because only a few are audibly identified (all are credited in the book, but that's no help when you're listening).

Notowitz is a producer and editor for film and TV who worked on the music-rich survivor films The Last Klezmer and Carpati and made his debut with a documentary about Deadheads. Hence his penchant for laying the survivor voices over an unnecessary sound bed of mournful violins and soundstage effects that works like an audio version of an America's Most Wanted re-enactment: from footsteps on a staircase and crowd chatter to Nazi rifle fire and the slamming of human-cattle-car doors (I was waiting for the hiss of a gas chamber but I suppose that would be exploitative). The implication is inevitable, the result is cheapening: no matter how vital these survivor stories are, they're just not dramatic enough by themselves. And in Shoah biz, drama what matters most.


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