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Los Angeles Event Recap – Hollywood and The Holocaust: An American Response on Film

By Kiera Reilly, C’93  @Kiera Reilly

As the west coast representative for the Global Alumni Network, I attend many different alumni events throughout the year – breakfast meetings, lunch discussions, evening receptions and cocktail happy hours. Some of my favorite events are those with an intellectual component, and this week I attended an event which featured the expertise of a Penn alumnus.

On Tuesday in Los Angeles, the Southern California Regional Advisory Board hosted an event at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Many of us didn’t realize there was a Holocaust museum and, as the museum staff told us is common, mistakenly thought it was the Museum of Tolerance. This museum has existed in various locations since the early 1960s, but has only been in its permanent home in Pacific Park in Los Angeles since 2010.

After the staff led us on a brief museum tour, SCRAB member Jon Kean, C’89, spoke to us about “Hollywood and the Holocaust: An American Response on Film.” Jon is a writer and director and most recently has focused on documentary film projects such as the film Swimming in Auschwitz. He currently has three projects in development, including a sequel to Swimming in Auschwitz which focuses on life after liberation for Holocaust survivors. For the past two years, he has been a Ross Visiting Lecturer at Chapman University, working with Dr. Marilyn Harran in the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education on the course Holocaust: In History and Film. Jon and his wife Beth Isaacson Kean, ENG’89, have been Board members of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust since 2004.

Jon did a condensed version of a lecture he gives for his class at Chapman, and started the discussion by asking the audience about our first visual memory of the Holocaust. He then led us through three American films “about” the Holocaust and we discussed whether or not we would now consider the main subject matter the Holocaust, how Judaism was portrayed and whether they were historically accurate.

The first movie, based on the book and Broadway play, was 1959 film The Diary of Anne Frank. Jon played the Hanukkah scene from the film and argued it had been stripped of cultural context and no Yiddish was spoken.

The next movie we discussed was the 1978 television miniseries The Holocaust: the Story of the Family Weiss. While it did a generally good job of sharing things that happened, it also tried to show a little bit of everything in different geographical locations that the characters couldn’t realistically appear in all of them.

The final film was Schindler’s List from 1993. Interestingly, he asked us how we would rate the film as a true telling of the Holocaust on a scale of 1 to 10. He said survivors tend to rate it less than 5 while non-survivors would rate it a 7 – 8. The reality is that those of us that didn’t experience the holocaust can’t really know what it is like. He encouraged us to talk to the survivors that are still living and to listen to the testimonials filmed by the USC Shoah Foundation (these are now recently available at the Penn Libraries: http://www.upenn.edu/pennnews/news/penn-host-access-usc-shoah-foundation-institute-archive-nearly-52000-holocaust-testimonies-vide )

A lively discussion ensued during and after the talk, and one attendee was a child of survivors and shared his perspective with us. Everyone enjoyed the talk and discussion, and we all hope to return to the museum to visit and further explore its exhibits. As a parting gift, Jon gave us DVDs of his film. What a special evening.

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Filed under Alumni Perspective, Alumni Programming, Alumnni Education, Events, Film, Kiera R., Library, West Coast Regional Office