- Glenn Sonnenberg
Musings from the Bunker 4/27/20
In the midst of this pandemic, it often can be difficult to focus on the struggles of others. And yet, it also is helpful to look to history, not only for reminders of struggles greater than our own or of the cruelty of man, but also for mankind’s ability to overcome, commemorate and hopefully learn from prior tragedies.
Last week was a week of genocidal remembrance. It began with Yom HaShoah, the Day of Holocaust Remembrance, on Tuesday. It ended on Friday with Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. Sandwiched between these two days, we received a note from a friend we met in Rwanda last year, acknowledging the holocaust and indicating he was thinking of the Jewish people this week. He reminded us about the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis and said he felt there is a special relationship between the Jewish people and the Rwandan people, by virtue of their related tragedies.
Rwanda is a beautiful country of rolling hills, lush vegetation, unique wildlife, and culture. If one visits the capital city of Kigali, one is struck by the friendliness of the people and the pride they take in their city. One also is struck by the great coffee shops, serving the world-famous Rwandan coffee, but I digress… Kigali feels like a happy place, making it all the more difficult to imagine the neighbor-against-neighbor horrors that occurred when some 15% of the population was brutally murdered over a 90 day period.
A “must see” in Kigali is the Genocide Museum. What was most interesting to me was the exhibit on the second floor of the building below—a series of rooms, each dedicated to a different genocide—the killing fields of Cambodia, the Holocaust, Bosnia, Darfur, and Armenia. That there could be so many of these events, all occurring in the 20th century, is both a commentary on man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, but also on man’s inability to learn lessons from horrible events in the not-so-distant past.
When I think about the letter from our Rwandan friend, it struck me that we do share a special bond of tragedy. It informs his thinking and ours. I have heard this special kinship acknowledged by Armenian-American friends as well. It is often said that common friendships do not bind people together nearly as much as common enemies. Could it be that shared tragedy or shared genocidal experience really is a glue between peoples? And, if so, could this pandemic serve a similar function in binding us to those who also are muddling their way through—a group of fellow travelers as large as all of humanity? Just a thought…
MOVIES OF DOCUMENTATION AND REMEMBRANCE
While we are on the subject of remembrance, here are some movies that recount the challenging days of unspeakable horrors and the stories human resilience and kindness that can come out of them. It is both beautiful and tragic that some of the best filmmaking comes out of the most tragic historical events:
The Promise, a story of the Armenian genocide. This film, starring Christian Bale, played to mixed reviews, but was praised for its depiction of a love triangle set amidst the horrors of a historic horror.
The Killing Fields, a British film of journalists—one British and one Cambodian, caught up with the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia. Roger Ebert was effusive over this film, which won a number of Academy Awards.
Hotel Rwanda, a pitch-perfect performance by Don Cheadle, playing a hotel manager trying to save Tutsis (including his wife) caught amidst the genocide in Rwanda. The New York Times critic Stephen Holden called this, "a political thriller based on fact that hammers every button on the emotional console.” The USA Today critic said, “Hotel Rwanda emerges as an African version of Schindler's List." That’s pretty high praise.
Schindler’s List, a brilliant film on all levels, directed by Stephen Spielberg and starring Liam Neeson in one of his greatest performances. David Lash says it is, “the best movie, hands down…the best done and most powerful film of all time. The trophy is retired.” Agreed.
Amistad. How can one talk about historic cruelty of one people to another without mentioning slavery in the United States? This film, also by Stephen Spielberg, stars Anthony Hopkins as “old man eloquent,” John Quincy Adams. Adams was arguably the most prepared person to ascend to the presidency, with only a mediocre single term presidency after a contested resolution of the election in the House of Representatives. This film takes place in his post-presidential years as a member of the House. A man of great moral fiber, he defied the “gag rule” imposed by the Southern states, which prohibited bringing up the subject of slavery in the House, insisting to bring up the issue at each possible opportunity. This is the story of his novel defense of the slaves who took over the Amistad. Brilliant, historically accurate and viscerally moving.
These book reviews describe an explorer’s quest for, and analysis of, silence. He goes all the way to the South Pole to find that solace and silence: https://kenyonreview.org/reviews/silence-in-the-age-of-noise-by-erling-kagge-738439/ and
JAMES TAYLOR’S LIFE IN MUSIC
Audible is offering a free book, “Break Shot: My First 21,” James Taylor’s 90 minute autobiography. It’s spoken word, with some music thrown in. Spoilers: I learned that Taylor plays the cello and speaks French… https://www.audible.com/pd/Break-Shot-My-First-21-Years-Audiobook/B081D9H5J3?ref=mrq_aud_BS_em_mem4&source_code=MRQOR22301152002WR&ref_=pe_3201290_490083850
REPRODUCING ART AT HOME
Remembering those who lived through and died in unspeakable times.
PS: The photo at the top is the real-life Oskar Schindler.