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Racialized urban America and Holocaust film : negotiating the limits of representation

conference contribution
posted on 2013-01-01, 00:00 authored by D Christmas, Adam Brown
Sidney Lumet’s influential film The Pawnbroker (1964) is one of the earliest films to consider the encounter between Holocaust narratives and low-income, urban American racial minorities. As much concerned with contemporary ‘race relations’ in the United States as it is with the Nazis’ persecution of Europe’s Jews, the film intertwines the story of Holocaust survivor Sol Nazerman with the social tensions of 1960s America, represented in his relationship with the young Puerto Rican shop assistant Jesus Oritz. The film stylistically juxtaposes raw footage of concentration camp existence with dismal images of New York slum life. Against these backdrops, the protagonist’s climactic ‘silent scream’ emblematically merges the repressed trauma of the survivor with the filmmaker’s interest in race relations, a theme that has undergone various transformations in a number of films since. One film that contemporizes this encounter is Richard LaGravenese’s Freedom Writers (2007). As opposed to the tragic outcome of the pawnbroker’s induction into urban America, here the Holocaust is a redemptive tool that permits inner-city Black and Latino youth to contextualize their own suffering. After reading The Diary of Anne Frank, this group of ‘at-risk’ sophomores to inspired to collaborate on an ultimately successful effort to bring Miep Geis, the woman who sheltered Anne Frank, to speak at their high school. Foregrounded by the 1992 Los Angeles riots, gentiles teacher Erin Gruwell and savior Miep Geis transform the Holocaust from an amplified parallel of American slums into an event that permits the children of American postcoloniality to triumph in spite of their socio-economic circumstances. Underlining the tension between the Jewish specificity and unprecedented nature of the Holocaust, and the need to generate Holocaust narratives that intersect with intrinsically racialized American narratives, such films have significant implications for how collective memories of suffering are constructed and contested.



American Historical Association. Meeting (127th : 2013 : New Orleans, La.)


American Historical Association


New Orleans, Louisiana

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[New Orleans, Louisiana]

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EN Other conference paper

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Proceedings of the 127th American Historical Association Annual Meeting

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