Dr. Ernestine Schlant Bradley, who specializes in the resurgence of Jewish life in post-Holocaust Germany, spoke at the Rutgers New Jersey Jewish Film Festival on Nov. 18.
Photo by Debra Rubin
December 2, 2008
Being in a mixed marriage often exempted Jews from death and deportation during the Holocaust.
That privilege was the central theme of Plus Tard Tu Comprendras (One Day You’ll Understand), a French film about the son of such a marriage seeking to fill in the missing pieces of his family history, particularly his Jewish grandparents who disappeared during the war and were never spoken about.
It also came up in comments by Dr. Ernestine Schlant Bradley, a German-born professor of comparative literature at the New School in Manhattan, after the Nov. 18 screening at the Regal Cinema in North Brunswick. The movie was the last of 13 shown at the Rutgers New Jersey Jewish Film Festival.
Bradley, who is not Jewish, specializes in the resurgence of Jewish life in Germany and Austria and Germany’s coming to terms with its Nazi past through post-Holocaust literature and poetry. A resident of Verona and wife of former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, she previously taught German and comparative literature at Montclair State University.
During her talk and in a follow-up phone call, Bradley said the Nazi policy codified in the Nuremberg laws of 1935 gave a Jew married to a Christian “a sort of protection, at least in Germany.”
Often non-Jewish partners were pressured to divorce their Jewish spouses; in many cases they caved in to the unrelenting demands.
“These so-called Nazi laws may have been somewhat different in occupied territories, but in Germany the Nazis did not forcefully separate those couples,” said Bradley, although even that policy fell by the wayside in the waning months of World War II.
“In early 1945 — by then the war was almost over — that’s when they started really being preoccupied with killing as many Jews as possible,” she said. “They really even ignored the demands of their soldiers on the front…in order to have the trains to ship Jews to death camps. It was incredible madness.”
By then “the handwriting was already on the wall” as the Allied forces were gaining against the Third Reich, she said.
The Nazi plan was that once all the Jews already interned were dead, “then the mixed marriages would be broken up and the children deported and killed. But then the ending of the war intervened,” said Bradley.
‘New Jewish life’
At her Rutgers appearance, Bradley commented on the film, directed by Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai, which begins against the backdrop of the trial of Klaus Barbie — known as the Butcher of Lyon — for his role in killing thousands of French Jews.
After Victor discovers that members of his family were deported from France during the war, his elderly mother, Raymonde (born Rivka) — played by veteran film star Jeanne Moreau — gives him some personal papers. Among them is a letter written by his Catholic father attesting to the Aryan bloodline of his family. But in the letter, his father admits that his wife is a Jew, but that she has since been baptized as was their daughter, Tania, born in 1939.
Although Tania tells her brother that the letter probably saved her life, he cannot get past the feeling that his father and his family had somehow sealed the doom of his maternal grandparents.
Bradley said for her the most moving scene in the movie was when Rivka takes her teenage Catholic grandchildren — Victor’s son and daughter — to a synagogue on Yom Kippur. She hands her grandson a kipa and tells them she is Jewish and lost her family as a result, something she had never told anyone before. She also gives the boy the yellow star of David she was forced to wear under the Nazi occupation and makes both children promise to fight hatred and discrimination wherever they encounter it.
“Here they were in this synagogue, and it was filled with people who were living a religious Jewish life,” said Bradley. “Religious Jewish life was not cut off and I, especially being German-born, have to believe religious life went on after the Holocaust.”
In a scene near the end of the film, Tania and Victor bring in a young Orthodox rabbi to oversee their mother’s funeral.
“These two events are very comforting because they attest to the start of a new Jewish life,” said Bradley.
Considering that a fourth generation has come of age since the Holocaust, Bradley said, she took something else from that scene: “I have the feeling those two children would grow up to be devout Jews — at least that is my hope. Even though their grandmother denied her son this heritage, she made sure through her grandchildren that her Jewish heritage continued.”