Learning the Holocaust's lessons. Sevareid and Wiesel in back-to-back specials
New York — Kristallnacht: The Journey From 1938-1988 PBS, tomorrow, 9-10 p.m. (check local listings for day and time). Anchor/host: Eric Sevareid. Writer: Warren Kozak. Director: Peter Chafer. Producer: Robert E. Frye for WETA, Washington, D.C. A Portrait of Elie Wiesel PBS, tomorrow, 10-11 p.m. (check local listings for day and time). Producer/director: Erwin Leiser. `MEMORY is a possibility for human beings to become more human, by linking his or her past to the past of countless other human beings..., a way for all human beings to redeem the past by linking that past to the future....'' Those are the words of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel in ``A Portrait of Elie Wiesel'' - a shattering series of recollections and observations airing on the Public Broadcasting Service on the 50th anniversary of ``Kristallnacht,'' the night in 1938 when the Nazis ordered the destruction of synagogues, the vandalizing of Jewish businesses, and the arrest of thousands of Jews throughout Germany and Austria. It was the beginning of the Holocaust.
On the same night PBS is also airing ``Kristallnacht: The Journey From 1938-1988'' - an outspokenly incisive documentary that analyzes the events of that tragic night and seeks to uncover any lingering influences of the attitudes that prompted it which may still exist in Germany and Austria today. `Kristallnacht'
Through the tormented eyes and memories of survivors, viewers will relive the horrors of the ``Crystal Night'' that set the Third Reich on a course toward the ``final solution.''
The documentary's eyewitness reports, archival photographs, audiotapes, home movies, and contemporary interviews capture the essence of the chilling events as well as the implications for the survivors, Jew and gentile alike.
There is much material on the activities of that day; in addition, producer Robert Frye telescopes the past 50 years into a horror-filled hour, making certain the current status of anti-Semitism in the world is noted. He also mentions the Waldheim controversy.
There is no attempt to soften the use of the past in helping to identify current dangers.
Some of the words of witnesses are pessimistic: The chief rabbi of Vienna observes sadly, ``Jews are accepted as victims by friend and foe alike. ... They are only really accepted when dead.''
But there are words of optimism as well. And if there is one overriding message in the film, it is: ``Forgive, but don't forget.''
Eric Sevareid, a figure sorely missed on network TV, meanders meaningfully through ``Kristallnacht'' like a voice of conscience, constantly reminding viewers what actually happened: Some 1,100 synagogues were destroyed, shops were vandalized, over 300 people were killed, and thousands were arrested and sent to ``work camps.''
There was nobody to stop them, Sevareid points out, as he reminds us: ``There are no limits to man's inhumanity to man - unless limits are imposed.'' Elie Wiesel
The man who is known throughout the world as a symbol of Holocaust survival wants the world to know that he regards himself, not mainly as a victim or a survivor, but as a witness.
In this prizewinning documentary, Mr. Wiesel, winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, looks into the camera and deep into the viewer's heart as he describes his journey from a shtetl in Sighet, Hungary, through the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald to France, Israel, and finally the United States, where he is now chairman of the US Holocaust Memorial Council.
The film relies mostly on the haunting voice and expressive eyes of Wiesel, but intersperses still pictures from archives and family photo albums as well as original artwork by Samuel Bak. Perhaps the most shocking illustration in the whole documentary is the photo of Wiesel, lying in a concentration camp bunk with many other people, his eyes looking out in despair and questioning from the gaunt face of someone who might have been a victim - but, happily for mankind, has proved to be an unsuppressible witness.
Along those lines, the film includes a scene in which Wiesel accepts a Medal of Honor from President Reagan and then proceeds to beg him (unsuccessfully) not to visit the German military cemetery at Bitburg.
Wiesel describes his Hasidic education and explains why, having survived the Holocaust, he has become a writer. ``I am not a writer to entertain or please or make money. ... Whenever I see an area in which my voice can be heard to help people in trouble, I raise a voice in their behalf. ... When I needed people to speak for me, there were no such people.''
He does not consider himself a Holocaust writer: ``That is a sacred subject, and I don't want to allow it to be routine. ... I write about the Talmud and the Bible in order not to write so much about the Holocaust. But it is present. The event was a watershed. After what happened, the world was no longer the same. Everything must be seen in the light and the shadow of those flames.''
He quotes a story about a famous Hasidic rabbi who was asked, ``How can you still believe after what has happened?''
``How can you not believe,'' the rabbi responded. ``Every door opens only to another question,'' Wiesel comments. He preaches remembrance. ``I do not think we should remember for the sake of the dead - it's too late for that. Remember for the sake of the future - our children.''
As narrator Sevareid says in the ``Kristallnacht'' documentary: ``History fails us when we no longer remember.''
Together, these two superb films constitute an essential lesson in history, a compassionate view of suffering and survival, an indelible exercise in the constructive use of memory.