Riding the Cultural Rails
How can a person explain the power and significance of cultural identity in a way that's not overly simplistic and trite, especially to a kid like my daughter Billie, who's lived in two countries and traveled the world, or to students like the ones I'm now working with, most of whom have grown up in multicultural societies such as Malaysia and Singapore and who have also traveled extensively?
One way would be to show them the Academy Award-winning documentary film Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. The main focus of the film is children, European Jewish children, who -- until Hitler's pogroms of the late 1930s -- were shown to have had many of the the same preoccupations as kids today, worrying about who was going to come to their birthday party, what Mom and Dad could afford to buy them, and whose heads they would turn with a smile and a wink.
Proliferation of the Nazi creed, centered on German ethnic pride and politico-economic ambitions, changed all that. While Hitler and his circle of sadistic henchmen laid the foundation for war in Europe and proposed the "Final Solution," they also worked hard spreading propaganda among the masses, much of it aimed at creating a sense among their fellow Europeans that the Jews were dirty immigrants, an inferior, money-grubbing race, whose very existence was undermining the progress of the Germans. Within that prescribed belief system, the Germans were touted as the master race, creators of a unique civilization, the original and most highly cultivated of all peoples. (Of course, using the term race in this manner is a misnomer. Social scientists generally avoid the term, but if they must, confine its usage to descriptions of physical attributes. Physically, the so-called Ashkenazi Jews are similar to Europeans. It is really only in culture, and in the perceptions of what culture entails, that they differ.)
In the film, period photographs and archival film footage are woven together with the individual stories of half a dozen Jews who escaped the increasing hostility of the Nazis because they had been selected into a special program initiated by the British government that would allow nearly 10,000 children under the age of 18 to leave their families and travel by train westward from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia for foster homes and youth hostels in Great Britain.
One thing that seemed amazing to Billie was how similar the Jewish kids were to those of the land they were leaving. "What made them different?" she asked.
That's when I stopped the DVD player and did my mini-lecture on the religious beliefs of the Jews and how they differed from the German Lutherans and the Czech and Austrian Catholics basically by virtue of not adhering to the New Testament of the Bible. I mentioned how they looked physically similar to their neighbors, had many of the same values for family, hard work and a good education, and could even speak the same languages, but because they held different religious beliefs and traditions, and because many of them were successful in business, the arts and professions such as law and medicine, they were viewed suspiciously.
And that was enough.
Soon after nearly 10,000 of the young Jews had arrived at their destination and been set up with surrogate families, war was declared between Germany and Britain, and the kindertransport ended. All communication between the kids and their increasingly forlorn parents was also stopped. Ironically, even in Britain there was enough suspicion that these German Jews might have some allegiance to their homeland that a whole boatload of them, mainly teenage males, was shipped off to Australia. (Toward the end of the war, some of these would return to the UK to train and fight on behalf of their adopted homeland.)
What was it about the Jews that made them so hated? In Hitler's eyes, they were clearly different, a group of people who competed with his own for resources, stealing, as it were, their livelihood in the place that he felt should be the lebensraum, or living space, for the Germanic peoples above all others. This exclusivity, along with the negative stereotyping and hate-mongering, was easy to peddle, especially as Germans of every walk of life were striving for renewed greatness after the calamity of their country's defeat in the first world war (1914-1918). The Jewish kids might have looked and sounded like acceptable Europeans, they might have shared many traits with the peoples their ancestors had been neighbors with for a thousand years, but what they didn't share was a common identity, and without that, they had no safe place in Hitler's vision of destiny.
Into the Arms of Strangers , exploring through its subtext the link between what is seen as familiar and what is foreign, ended with what we knew would come to pass: the war ended as the Germans were beaten, and the kindertransport kids survived while most of their parents were executed in the Nazi camps (along with 1.5 million children and millions of others). The life stories of the interviewees wrapped up with a mix of triumphant tales and tearful reflections.
Sadly, long after the DVD players have been turned off and the deservingly positive comments on the film shelved away, the twists and turns of race and ethnicity continue, and the bumps in our road to better intercultural relations remain.