I walked in with affection and gratitude. I love our libraries, and the opportunities they create for residents to learn and explore the stuff of life.
I had come to lead a discussion on the history of the Holocaust, a topic I teach at UNC Charlotte.
I was at the Concord Library to help inaugurate a new program sponsored by the Concord Friends of the Library, a three-part film series that combines viewing with discussion. Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and Walt Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson” complete the series in April and May. We were there that day to watch “The Book Thief.”
Most, if not all, were moved by the movie. They were drawn into a story of human courage, of human weakness.
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“The Book Thief,” based on the book of the same name, is set in fictional Molching, Germany, just outside Munich. Dachau is just down the road, and groups of Jews are marched there through the main streets of Molching.
But in its many hundreds of pages, the novel only rarely touches on the Nazi death camps; the living hell of Auschwitz is not the topic here. The book is not about the victims of the Holocaust but almost exclusively about the Germans who lived through the nightmare of Nazi rule.
The film centers on one German family acting heroically to save Max, the lone Jewish character.
The film omits a number of characters from the book, including those who act in support of Nazi policies. Most importantly, we hear little from the omniscient character of Death, who narrates the story in the book with power and subtlety.
There are losses, as there always are, when a masterful book is made into a film.
But the audience at the library knew how to appreciate what the film could and did do.
Despite the cold and rainy weather, close to 40 people attended the program. They sat through an uncomfortable film, one in which they experienced – if only vicariously – the temptation to look the other way when human beings were beaten and abused.
“The Book Thief” demonstrates the ways in which Germans acquiesced to the destruction of Europe’s Jews.
After the film, we talked for an hour.
Some discussed – with sympathy – the plight of ordinary Germans caught in a dictatorial regime. Others spoke about the way the film addressed human evil and human goodness.
To what extent could people be blamed for looking the other way when they were trying to protect themselves and their families? How could we not admire the resistance the character Liesel represented? She shows that a child’s love transcends adult destruction and man-made terror and horror.
During the discussion, people spoke about ordinary people they had known who had known life under the Nazis.
My mother-in-law Evelyn was a mere girl when she witnessed the planes flying toward nearby Dresden and heard the bombing of that beautiful city. Who was responsible for the terrible machinery of death? When could Hitler and his ilk have been stopped?
We asked ourselves what makes people act cruelly. We explored how contemporary circumstances combined with age-old prejudices against Europe’s Jews and Roma peoples to result in their wholesale slaughter.
Our discussion included the challenges of our time, our present. We asked ourselves how we might be at fault for still continuing to tolerate a world that makes a home for injustice and cruelty.
We spoke for an hour about the most serious life questions one can ask. We asked ourselves how one builds a safe and fair society. We explored what the film had taught us and what we had yet to learn.
I walked out with affection and gratitude. Together, we had learned. We had explored the stuff of life. And, I hope, we had become better people and better citizens because of it.
Barbara Thiede is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Barbara? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to go?
The Concord Friends of the Library’s Movie Discussion Group will be held on the second Saturday of April and May in the Concord Library Auditorium. The movies are Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” in April Walt Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson” in May. The Movie Discussion Group is free and open to the public. For information, go to www.facebook.com/cabarruscountylibrary.