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Hollywood and the Holocaust: Remembering The Pawnbroker

From: American Jewish History
Volume 84, Number 4, December 1996
pp. 353-376 | 10.1353/ajh.1996.0045

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American Jewish History 84.4 (1996) 353-376

"Hollywood is just interested in making money . . . . No, to Hollywood, culture is just a dirty word. Callow, that's the word for American culture. They have so much to learn from the Europeans."

Selig (the brother-in-law) in Edward Lewis Wallant's The Pawnbroker

In a 1961 novel by Edward Lewis Wallant, Sol Nazerman runs a pawnshop near the Harlem River in New York. A former inmate of the Nazi concentration camps, he has social contacts -- a woman with whom he has sex, an assistant who helps him in the store, a sister and her family who share a comfortable suburban home in Mount Vernon with him. But he shuts out the world to grieve for himself and the wife and children he lost in the Holocaust. Grim and ethnic, peppered with phrases like oy vay and gay shluphin, the novel was unusual screen fare in the year that Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar for Butterfield 8.

Gerald Mast notes in A Short History of the Movies that the American cinema of the 1960s "became more a directors' cinema." As an account of The Pawnbroker shows, though, the roots of the so-called Hollywood Renaissance were not only exceptionally tender -- especially for downbeat pictures -- but nurtured as much by studios or producers as directors or auteurs. Adapted for the screen and released by Allied Artists, The Pawnbroker (1965) was a story of repression and survival. And so, behind the scenes, was the story of the independent producers who, in association with actors, artists, and technicians, created the first stubbornly "Jewish" film about the Holocaust.

Movie company story editors of the early 1960s read virtually everything, even fiction, that concerned the Holocaust. The Pawnbroker, though, was not only about the annihilation of the Jews and its consequences -- that was rare enough in 1961 -- but had the rawness of a bleeding wound. The gloomy novel opens as the "subtly deformed" (31) Sol Nazerman tramps to work. The snow he crunches could have produced a pleasant sound, but "the sight of the great, bulky figure, with its puffy face, its heedless dark eyes distorted behind the thick lenses of strangely old-fashioned glasses, dispelled any thought of pleasure" (5). For the anomic, the proper pronoun is indeed its, not his.

The story arc of The Pawnbroker rises, regressively, retrospectively, toward the death anniversary of Sol's wife and children. Instead of action, though, the novel works via memory and things, like glasses. Again and again the stolid pawnbroker dons or removes the "round, archaic" (197) glasses he had found during his internment. These "weird glasses" (168) lead his nephew to wonder whether Uncle Sol can "penetrate and understand" the "murkinesses" of the universe (75), and they so embarrass his niece that she wants to buy him "a decent pair . . . tortoise shell, those heavy, movie-producer kind" (29). The "unique spectacles" (71) "cut into the flesh of his nose" (191), but Sol goes on wiping (95) and cleaning (134) and rubbing them (85). They are his shield against past "spectacles" like the Holocaust and his weapon against present "spectacles" like Mount Vernon (and Harlem) culture, in one scene "picking up flashes of sunlight and flinging them at [another character] like tiny darts" (109).

Sol does not lack a sense of irony. When the Jewish cop on the beat tries to bully him into giving away a Hamilton Beach mixer, he merely shrugs. "Here he was in the classic role of the interrogated again, and Leventhal was playing the part of the oppressor. It was getting confusing; soon you wouldn't know the Jews from their oppressors, the black from the white" (44-45). He cannot be ironic about what haunts him, though, especially when it occurs with the force of a cinematic cut. "Suddenly [Nazerman] had the sensation of being clubbed. An image was stamped behind his eyes like a bolt of pain" (6). The horrendous scenes that follow, italicized in the text, do not conform to the usual survivor's dreams "of improbable paradises, of equally mythical and improbable enemies; cosmic enemies, perverse and subtle, who pervade everything like the air." Instead, Sol's...


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