Roy Exum: Are We Like Nazis?

Sunday, June 17, 2018
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Four years after William Styron’s best-seller ‘Sophie’s Choice,’ had achieved the highest height of an atrocity that the literary world had known at the time, a little girl who was birthed the same year as the book (1979) was cast as Meryl Streep’s daughter in the movie. The four-year-old blonde knew nothing about evil, not to mention the Holocaust, but she became enamored with delightful Meryl, who would win both the Oscar and the Golden Globe for arguably her greatest performance.

Just as the Universal Studios had all but wrapped up the shooting, the most critical scene would finally be filmed on the set in Yugoslavia. Up until then, the director had carefully shielded the four-year-old from the glaring Nazi. The child was wide-eyed as “her mother” and “Satan” rattled off the script and – believe this -- Jennifer Lawn (Lejeune) who is now married and works in Paris, was not acting at all when she was jerked from Sophie’s arms.

Later, Steep said she wasn’t either. Her scream was silent. But many will never forget the sound of the child’s anguish – the unspeakable evil real – because little Jennifer was genuinely horrified.

“Everybody was shocked because they thought they had only one take to make this happen,” Lejeune told Entertainment Weekly several years ago. “They expected the first time and that’s it. And they were able to do it 13 times.”

13 times. 13 takes of being ripped out of her “mother’s” arms, and carried off by the mean ones to hell itself. Think about a four-year-old’s mind! Make no mistake: Those screams were real. “I totally thought it was the end of the world,” said Lejeune. “Absolutely. People tried to explain it to me, but I had such a bond with Meryl, so I think I got into the whole emotional part of it. Just as she was getting more emotional and scared, so was I.”

Jennifer also remembered: “I was terrified of him,” she said. “You couldn’t tell on the screen, but he actually had a huge scar on his face that was sort of covered up with makeup.”

* * *

THIS SCENE FROM ‘SOPHIE’S CHOICE’ IS RATED AMONG THE TOP 50 OF ALL TIME

SS officer: (to Sophie) You're so beautiful. I'd like to get you in bed. Are you a Polack? You! Are you also one of those filthy communists?

(walks away)

Sophie: I am a Pole! I was born in Cracow! I am not a Jew. Neither are my children! They're not Jews. They are racially pure. I am a Christian. I am a devout Christian.

(the officer comes back)

SS officer: You are not a communist? You are a Believer?

Sophie: Yes sir, I believe in Christ.

SS officer: You believe in Christ the Redeemer?

Sophie: Yes.

SS officer: (looks at Sophie's children) Did He not say... "Suffer the children, come unto me?"

(Sophie remains silent)

SS officer: You may keep one of your children. (Meaning: Sophie could keep one and go to Auschwitz, while the other would be taken immediately to a death camp. At first Streep has no idea what he is saying … but as it dawns on her, she conveys the same to the theater audience and I can remember the gasps.)

Sophie: I beg your pardon?

SS officer: You may keep one of your children. The other must go away.

Sophie: You mean, I have to choose?

SS officer: You are a Polack, not a Yid. That gives you a privilege, a choice.

Sophie: I can't choose. I can't choose!

SS officer: Be quiet.

Sophie: I can't choose!

SS officer: Make a choice. Or I'll send both of them over there. Make a choice.

Sophie: Don't make me choose! I can't!

SS officer: Shut up! Enough! I'll send them both over there! I told you to shut up! Make a choice!

Sophie: I can't choose! Please! I can't choose!

SS officer: (to an officer) Take BOTH children away!

(Sophie clings on to her son while the Nazis take her screaming and crying daughter away from her)

Sophie: Take my little girl! Take my baby!

* * *

Yesterday it was announced the Trump Administration has selected a site in the Texas desert near El Paso to establish a “tent city” to house migrant children. According to the Washington Post, almost 12,000 children are now being held and, according to weather reports, the temperatures in Tornillo, Texas, this week will be 98 degrees today, 100 degrees on Tuesday, 103 degrees on Wednesday and 102 on Thursday.

Think about that. It is cruelty that boggles reason. The United States of America is going to place children in tents in such heat after they have been torn from the mother’s arms and separated from their families. Aren’t we better than this?

While I have no idea what the correct solution is to the astonishing fact 658 children were separated from 638 adults in just two weeks last month, the root cause boils down to a distance of 200 yards – 100 yards south of the border there are no jobs and no money, but 100 yards north of the same line there is the land of milk and honey. I get that.

But to use children as pawns is worse than being a Nazi, worse than it was when I watched Merle Streep’s child get ripped away in the Land of Make Believe. What’s happening in Texas is real. And it is wrong.

* * *

In the book Sophie’s Choice, William Styron famously wrote:

“Someday I will understand Auschwitz. This was a brave statement but innocently absurd. No one will ever understand Auschwitz. What I might have set down with more accuracy would have been: Someday I will write about Sophie's life and death, and thereby help demonstrate how absolute evil is never extinguished from the world. Auschwitz itself remains inexplicable. The most profound statement yet made about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response.

The query: "At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?"

And the answer: "Where was man?”

royexum@aol.com



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