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The Banality of Evil Redux

My cousin, Lily Sobotka, murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. She was a performer.



Who somebody really was. That was the Zone of interest.

― Martin Amis, The Zone of Interest




I woke in the night in the midst of a seminar inside a dream about The Zone of Interest, not the award-winning movie, but the 2014 book by the British writer, Martin Amis. In this dream, the participants were gathered around a large circular table in The Hague, and we had an assigned task: to determine if the film was a viable book-to-film adaptation, and to assess its impact on our deadened psyches as we teetered towards fascism in the United States and tolerated atrocity in Gaza, one atrocity compounding another. There was no food, no water, in the wasteland of my dream, only men and women of varying ages, sizes and nationalities taking turns in an unknown pecking order to expound their theories. But the discussion was not theoretical; our lives were at stake.


I was not surprised to have had a complex dream about the movie, which continues to haunt me in the daylight hours as I sit down to write about it. The opening sequence—a black screen with the hum of the crematoria revving up, screams, clattering shovels and guns, is so unsettling that I almost stopped breathing. When an image finally emerged, I could hardly concentrate. Was this a garden? A walled-in garden with children playing and flowers in abundance?  But once "the Commandant" appeared, I knew what I was looking at: his home behind the wall of the death camp, killing on an industrial scale, the graveyard of my grandparents and many other relatives.


For years, whenever I saw the grainy photos or newsreels of Auschwitz, I feared recognizing my grandmother Nanette's face. I imagined that I heard her screams. Now I am certain that I did hear them in the soundtrack of Glazer's astounding film.


Sometimes a friend or relative will mention they are going to visit Auschwitz on the way to or from somewhere else, perhaps Paris, the city of light, or Rome, or Barcelona, equally beautiful. I can't say, "Have an enjoyable journey," or "I hope the sun shines brightly on the day you are at Auschwitz."  I might think, silently, "Please don't show me any photographs when you return." And, these days, "Please don't post anything on Facebook or Instagram." And, now, this film in my living room, piercing my heart.


My husband had suggested we watch it early in the evening to create a buffer before bedtime with something lighthearted—a comedy, perhaps? But as the film wound down and we were left with the echo of the crematoria's efficient engines in our ears, we were both distraught. I made some tea and we talked. I had already decided that the film was a masterpiece, an evocation of the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt described it. I was therefore surprised when my husband did not agree. His reaction was visceral and strong: "We should not be shown murderous monsters as normal or happy without juxtaposing them with images of the horrors inside the death camp."


This assessment gave me pause; it has merit. But, for me, the smoke, the rooftops, the gunshots, the screams and the dissonant blue summer sky was enough. More than enough. As Naomi Klein wrote in a review of the film for The Guardian, "The concentration camp and the family home are not separate entities; they are conjoined." Indeed, it is their historic fate. So, too, Israel and Palestine; they are conjoined.


In the dream I had after watching the movie, we had  entered the infamous gate to the death camp, a windswept, gray day, ashes underfoot swirling around us. And my parents were forcing me to stand in the ashes and to look at the barracks and the crematoria in the distance, the barbed wire around us. In this dream, as in life, unless I witnessed what my family had endured and survived, I would no longer exist myself, I would be worthless to them, and to myself. 




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