The Wall, both the novel and the play, is the story of the Warsaw uprising in 1943 against the Nazis. It is a celebration of the outstanding instance of Jewish resistance to the Germans and a dramatic account of how that resistance grew against frightful odds among people who were like people everywhere—selfish, greedy, fearful, cruel, and narrow. Zionists, Socialists, Communists, Orthodox religious Jews, contended interminably before they could reconcile their special interests with the idea of resistance. People kept on striving for security for themselves, unable to believe that physical resistance was possible or even necessary—while thousands daily disappeared into the box cars going to Auschwitz. A rabbi goes passively, resigned to the gas chamber. A wealthy jeweler, Pan Apt, hides his identity, covers up even his circumcision by means of plastic surgery, and buys his way out of the ghetto. A used-furniture dealer, Fishel Shpunt, clowns and humiliates himself to ingratiate himself with the SS. The rabbi’s son, Stefan, joins the German-created Jewish police and tries to turn over his father for export to Auschwitz. The jeweler’s ugly daughter, Rachel, creates in her loneliness a school for children, engages in underground espionage, and discovers in herself the possibilities of leadership and courage which bring her respect and even love. In Dolek Berson, the hero, charming, talented, and unstable, is concentrated the struggle between self-interest and kindness, ease and action, personal safety and sacrifice to the fighting group. The resistance grows clumsily, painfully, and—save for its final expression of human dignity—ends in futility.
The adaptation by Millard Lampell brings to the Broadway stage some of the most terrible incidents in John Hersey’s novel, but little of the terror—or the pity. The play’s seriousness is only half-hearted. Were it not for the fact that its subject consistently engages our thoughts and emotions it would, as a play, be worth not much attention. But it is having a successful run on Broadway, is being translated into Polish for performance in Warsaw, and—like the Dairy of Anne Frank—will probably be performed around the world; it bears a rather awesome responsibility.
I suppose the assumption has been that the main thing is to expose the horror of the Nazi inhumanity and the suffering of Jewish victims: what harm can there be in a little softening here or there for the squeamish, or a bit of jazzing up, or a few extra gags? So long as sympathy for the Jews and outrage at the Germans are aroused. But softening up in art has a way of distorting meaning. Adjustment—for whatever purpose—of an original conception can pervert emotion, frustrate sense, and turn the shock of revelation into a shock of sensation.
Perhaps one of the most significant facts about John Hersey’s novel is that it served as a kind of response to the Diary of Anne Frank—or at least to a rather widely held notion which her story did nothing to dispel. Bruno Bettelheim, in his forward to Auschwitz, A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account, by Dr. Miklos Nyiszli (Frederick Fell), points out that “. . . the worldwide acclaim of her [Anne Frank’s] story cannot be explained unless we recognize our wish to forget the gas chambers and to glorify the attitude of going on with business-as-usual, even in a holocaust.” I myself have no inclination to detract from Anne Frank’s moving story, and I will still accept hiding out as one of the devices for the preservation of the self and spirit confronted by absolute inhumanity. There was no prescription better than another against personal tragedy in those years. But Anne Frank does leave untouched that nasty nagging question in the back of our heads, “Why did millions of Jews accept the philosophy of life-as-usual until they went passively with the Franks to the gas chambers?”
John Hersey must have pondered this question too, and although he is able to demonstrate with accuracy, understanding, and compassion how the Jews went on with life-as-usual, he had in the end to prefer the opposite attitude. He found the most impelling answer to the question in Warsaw, where slowly and laboriously and hopelessly a small resistance developed. And in that story he revealed the tragic morality of active resistance.
But if the novelist was to celebrate and give credence to this fruitless protest he had to make us understand how excruciatingly difficult it was, and under what special circumstances it was even possible, and at what terrible cost in the end. He had to avoid the tempting formulas of melodrama. Germans could not be simple machines of evil—because how then could we believe that Jews in the ghetto could go on living their daily lives with any hope of some day being extricated from their misery? They were acquainted with misery and had been extricated before. It was because they could recognize in Nazi cruelty something humanly possible, something already known in mankind, that they were able to go on with endless factional and individual disputes, which prevented unified action and made any decision to fight unrealistic. The Nazi exterminating machine, Hersey makes clear, was not a perfect mechanism set in motion by one pull of the lever. It grew out of a complex of the feelings and interests and motives of human beings—beings not so different from ourselves: here is the insight which we dare not forget, ever. Perhaps, paradoxically, it was because the Jews believed that the Nazis were human that they—the Jews—were so slow to act even when circumstances made it possible; perhaps that is why so many were destroyed. But how could they believe otherwise? Eichmann tells us—if the Life magazine confession is authentic—that he was made literally sick by the sight of cruelty committed against the Jews and he protests his disgust with the sadism of fellow Germans, and it seems to me he should be believed. Otherwise his criminality is without sense and teaches us nothing. He is condemned precisely by his sensitivity and his humanity. He is evil because he is a human being in whom there are human feelings, not because he is a beast who tears apart flesh out of instinct.
Hersey had also to avoid the temptation to show Jews as being all innocence and virtue and unlimited courage; and especially he has to avoid idealization of his heroes, otherwise he would be saying—as in fact the play on Broadway tends to say—that out of six million Jews only a handful were capable of heroic action. If resistance was so easy—and in the play it sometimes seems as easy as playing cops and robbers—why didn’t more of the six million resist? Were they all cowards? Bettelheim (in the foreword I have mentioned above) as much as says just this: “. . . the unique feature of the extermination camps is not that the Germans exterminated millions of people. . . . What was new, unique, terrifying was that millions, like lemmings, marched themselves to their own death.”
The mistake, it seems to me, is to look for uniqueness at all. To insist on the uniqueness of the German murderers or of the Jewish victims is to coddle ourselves with the cozy thought that all that is over and can never happen again. We couldn’t be like those Germans or those Jews. The madmen (how easy it is to call the enemy madmen) exist no longer. To find the crimes or fearfulness of any segment of the human race unique is to insure forgetfulness and complacency. If John Hersey had subscribed to the generalization about Germans we find so easy to accept, or to the generalization about Jews that Bettelheim accepts, he would have failed as an artist and a moralist to create real people with a real problem. But he succeeded eminently, in my opinion—and all the more amazing and uplifting were the awesome instances he records of a will to fight and to live at the extremities of endurance.
The Broadway play does not succeed, either in creating real people or any urgent sense of their unbearable dilemma. Too often it crackles with gags and gunshot and strident shouts of “Life goes on!”—but it seems to go on mainly for our entertainment. Dolek Berson, the hero who is supposed to embody the conflict between “life-as-usual” and an active resistance, is an unperturbed black-marketeer until he becomes, through an unimpressive conversion by way of a love interest, a rather glib partisan. All his talents (shown by Hersey), manual, intellectual, and artistic, are sacrificed on the stage to a kind of GI wit and brittle manliness. George C. Scott (who in the past has displayed a large and sensitive style of acting) further deprives Berson of complexity by playing him in a raucously flat and hardbitten manner. Thus the schematized Berson’s choice of heroic action becomes a cliché rather than a moral statement. If his decision—and the group’s—to resist calls for cheers, much like the anticipated decision in certain stock war-hero movies, it fails to give us fresh insight into why resistance makes sense.
In the final scenes, where the implications of resistance must be faced, the play goes limp. Among the resistance fighters hiding in an underground bunker are a young mother and her infant. The SS are heard aboveground, in search of Jews who are still holding out, and at this moment of danger the infant begins to cry. It is a moving scene in the novel. Hersey creates a lesson of frightening courage out of frailty and necessity, never letting us forget the complexity of self-interest and cruelty in every member of the group. In the book, a section commander goes to the mother who is desperately trying to quiet the infant and gently offers to help. He takes the child to a dark corner of the bunker, smothers it, and returns the dead body to the mother’s breast. The quiet dismay, the shock, the outrage, the horror, all finely developed and balanced against the sense of practical decision and relief in relative personal safety even at this doomed and hopeless juncture, give us a tragic awareness of the fearful realism which may be a chief ingredient in the abstraction we call courage.
But the play tries to have it both ways, by just a little softening up. At the sound of the Nazis overhead, the section commander clutches frantically at the crying infant, the group as one man claws him away, maternity succeeds in quieting the child, and the commander literally covers his head and bends over in shame at his monstrous attempt at self-preservation. What the Broad-. way audience can’t bear, we must assume, is violence on the part of its loved ones, those with whom it identifies—so far has the theater gone in selling identification at the expense of revelation. But the scene on stage is still one of violence, except that it offers the thrill of violence without its meaning. It is just the kind of meaningless violence, in fact, whose function is really only to whet the appetite and perhaps makes the common complaint against violence legitimate. It is, however, even worse than the stylized violence of Westerns and thrillers, an inoffensive children’s game, in which no one really can believe. The violence of the Broadway version of The Wall, set in a context of meaning, is cruel and silly both, because it lacks the force of meaning. It says: oh, what evil impulses we may have in times of stress, but good men will of course suppress them. This is not only beside the point but not very true. Hersey’s scene in the novel hurts more, but offers a greater truth. The group in the play is saved by accident. In the novel, they are saved by a man’s attempt to commit justice and mercy at once. The attempt must eternally fail, as it must eternally be made. But where Hersey confronts the dilemma, the play does not.
It goes something like this: Once upon a time there were wicked Germans who had a monopoly on evil. A group of good Jews (they had to weed out the bad ones) voted for resistance. They found that courage wasn’t really so hard, in fact it could be fun, like wearing a uniform. You might even get to shoot a Nazi and watch him take a beautiful fall like in the movies. It made all decisions thereafter easy. Anything that stood for life, like a bawling infant who threatened the lives of seven or more adults, must be preserved: “The only way to conquer death is with more life!” Yes, there were bad Jews, like the boy in the Jewish police who asked his rabbi father if he might turn him over to the Nazis in order to fill his quota. (Instead of slapping the boy in the face for uttering such nonsense, the rabbi walks from the room with quiet Anglo-Saxon dismay.) But the bad Germans were all destroyed and the funny Polish Jews, who are really just like us Americans, can now eat stuffed cabbage again. It doesn’t take much to make a serious story sound foolish.
The moral lesson we may draw from Hersey’s novel is that resistance to an inhumanity on the Nazi scale offers at least as good a chance of survival as passive acquiescence; or if not physical survival, at least death with an intact mind and an intact dignity. Hersey’s novel also says that the decision to resist had to be made anew with each breath, and was unbearably painful, disheartening, and inglorious. The play surely wanted to say something like this, but giving in to the simplicities of melodrama it became a bedtime story.
One good reason for seeing The Wall is the acting of Joseph Buloff in the character of Shpunt. the clownish used-furniture dealer. Shpunt is the only character from the book brought faithfully by both text and actor to the stage. Muni Seroff as the rabbi and David Opatoshu as a wealthy jeweler who buys his way out of the ghetto, are excellent actors with a fine sense of Jewish character, but their material gets in their way. Buloff, a brilliant actor, is luckier. Made to perform for the Nazis at gun point, he does a pathetically maimed dance which expresses an ancient Jewish politique: for you I’m a fool but God knows I’m not. And when his furniture business is wiped out and he adopts a new one, the greeting business, the doubleedged mockery of his slyly energetic and disarming greetings and hand shaking with German storm troopers is a masterpiece of Jewish irony. But Mr. Buloff has his own style and his own purpose and is acting in his own play. He may not have been able to answer some of the puzzling questions about Jews and resistance which the play doesn’t even adequately raise, but with great persuasion he seems to say, just when he makes us laugh hardest: laugh, laugh, on the other side of your face, it will help like a massage will help a corpse. And it is this characteristically Jewish tragi-comic sense which only Buloff’s play within the play expresses.