City Without Jews - a Warning

THE City Without Jews" was a 70-minute Austrian film sensation at this year's Vienna International Film Festival. Based on a novel of the same name by Jew-turned-Christian Hugo Bettauer, the film depicts what happens when the politicians and citizens of "the Republic of Utopia" decide that their own problems and failed plans are caused by Jewish influence. A smear campaign ensues. The Jews are attacked, their flourishing businesses and cultural life taken over, and they are deported, sent away on packed trains that slowly chug out of Utopia toward - what? A holocaust? That would be the assumption in a 1991 film. But, remarkably, "The City" was made in 1924 - a decade before the Anschluss that brought a time when Jews would be loaded onto trains in Vienna and sent to death camps. In the Bettauer film, the citizens of the City (Vienna) wake up to realize how important Jews are to their economy and culture. The film ends with the mayor saying to the first deportee to return from exile, "My Beloved Jew!" If only it had been so. Today the silent film, which had been thought lost until a copy turned up in an Amsterdam archive this summer, serves as both a literal and figurative warning. In 1924 the notion of a holocaust was unthinkable. The lies, hatreds, disaffections, and inhuman lusts for power that became fascism existed - but only in a few scattered cells. History now offers a profound lesson about what can happen if bigotry is not checked. Europe is emerging from the cold war. New possibilities exist. But hatreds have emerged - from Soviet republics to Yugoslavia. About 20 percent of Austrians in a recent survey don't want Jews in Austria. Some 53 percent want the Holocaust forgotten. Accordingly, Austrian TV plans to air "The City" this month. Bravo. But the warning of "The City Without Jews" shouldn't be taken only literally, or only for Europe. It speaks to thinking people everywhere - including the United States in what is being called an "uncertain time." Who would have thought a decade ago that a Nazi-sympathizer and former Ku Klux Klan leader like David Duke would win 55 percent of the white vote in a gubernatorial race? The number of reported church fires in Florida since April 1990 is now 48. Elements of hate feed off uncertainty. Fascism doe sn't have to wear a swastika. Are Americans exempt from manipulation? Tom Wolfe has said the difficulty writing fiction today is that it can't keep up with reality. Yet the problem in a time of uncertainty may be that people don't discern between fiction and reality. "The City Without Jews" is an eery fictional testament to what can happen if a people abdicate responsibility for discerning between truth and lies. The pattern of lies becomes harder to stop. Perhaps dissatisfaction with today's scattered loyalties and bottom-line thinking will create a new interest in honesty, integrity, and the principle of love found in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The alternative is an impoverished city.

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