The clever subversion of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2002 novel Everything Is Illuminated, which described a young American Jew’s search through Ukraine for a woman who may have saved his grandfather’s life during the Holocaust, was that the American’s “self-discovery” tour was actually more revealing for his Ukrainian guides: young Alex confronts Ukraine’s legacy of anti-Semitism and Alex’s grandfather owns up to his contribution to it during the war.
The cinematic version of the book, directed by the stage and film actor Liev Schreiber and out in theaters today, also wants to emphasize that, in the end, this is a Ukrainian story. Easily half the film is in Russian and Ukrainian, and Schreiber even takes care to distinguish among regional accents. He is fastidious in his efforts toward verisimilitude; the hand soap on a train and a flask of vodka in a rural restaurant are local brands. Schreiber pushes Ukraine (and the Eastern Europe for which it stands) to the forefront of the story, but the place he discovers is completely different from the Ukraine of Foer’s novel.
In addition to doing away with the magical-realist chronicle of a shtetl that consumed half of the book, the film makes another crucial departure. (Caveat lector: the following is a spoiler for those who haven’t seen the film.) In the book, Grandfather, a gentile, is an anti-Semite who turns out to have sent his best friend, a Jew, to his death during a Nazi raid on their village when forced to choose between him and his own family. His journey with the novel’s protagonist to what turns out to be the scene of his act of complicity forces his acknowledgment and repentance of his sins.
In the film, too, Grandfather begins as a virulent anti-Semite, but the identity concealed beneath the sting of his bigotry isn’t that of a gentile accomplice; Grandfather, it turns out, is a Jewish survivor. Having inadvertently survived an execution squad in his hometown, he casts off his yellow-starred jacket and absconds into a new life as a gentile. His transformation is so resolute that we meet him as someone who knows no way to refer to Jews except as “zhidy,” or “kikes.” (In fact, the film’s only failure of veracity comes when the American informs his guides that he knows very well what their constant references to him as a zhid mean—”Jew.” It’s worse. Much worse.)
What did Schreiber, who adapted the screenplay in addition to directing, intend by this single but tremendous transformation of a major character? Why turn the film’s main anti-Semite from a philo-Semitic gentile to an anti-Semitic Jew? Does the change hint at a possible reconciliation, a symbiosis of suffering of the we-are-all-Jews variety? Or is Schreiber letting Ukrainians off the hook when he allows his camera to focus on a Jew instead of a gentile accomplice?
Schreiber claims to have had something else in mind. “Whenever we memorialize the Jews who died in the Holocaust as heroes, I believe we overlook the impact that it has on those who have survived,” Schreiber told me in an email. “At the very least, they were required to deny their identity and faith…. For me making the most vehemently anti-Semitic character in the film Jewish was a way to articulate the burden of guilt and shame that so many survivors live with today.”
What Schreiber, the grandson of a 1916 refugee from Eastern European pogroms, seems to be saying is that only a second-generation descendant of Holocaust survivors could dare to re-imagine Jewish death—and life—during World War II through such a complicated, nuanced, eminently unheroic perspective on survival. Their elders are inclined either to put the tragedy behind them or to insist on an unadulterated worship of survivors as heroes. Cleverly, Schreiber is using a youth-oriented film—Everything Is Iluminated was wildly popular among younger readers, and the film works to feel kinetic and hip—to press its youthful viewers to think in less preconceived ways about what it means to have survived the Holocaust. This way, Schreiber appears to be arguing, is a more difficult confrontation with the legacy of that tragedy, but for all that also a more sincere veneration. True empathy, after all, comes from appropriation and identification, not bequeathed dogma.
There is a chuckling commonplace in the literary world that Jonathan Safran Foer, who was 25 when he published his novel, which brims with sagelike inquiries into and pronouncements on the meaning of it all, writes like an old man. The film only underscores this. The novel’s notion of Eastern Europe, after all, was a fairly traditionalist American Jewish view: the Ukrainian gentiles were the killers and the Jews were the victims. Foer’s wishful, personal innovation was that it took the visit of a young American Jew named Jonathan Safran Foer to call out the hibernating guilt and shame of the former.
Schreiber offers an entirely different picture. He hardly avoids the Holocaust, but he wants to expand our notion of what it meant to survive it. Survival, after all, takes place mostly after the tragedy. And the great tragedy of Eastern Europe was not only that it helped to kill Jews during the Holocaust, but also that it refused to acknowledge their suffering and honor their true identities after it.
It’s hard to blame Grandfather for his self-denial during the war, but it’s more difficult to exculpate him for his postwar self-rejections and devolution into an anti-Semite, Ukraine’s inhospitable postwar terrain for Jews notwithstanding. The unpleasant aftertaste of Schreiber’s film is that survivors were not only heroes.
It’s not an argument Schreiber could have advanced with an American Jewish character. If Grandfather had emigrated to America instead of remaining in Ukraine, of course, he would have become a “hero.” And by choosing to focus on an anti-Semitic Jew rather than a philo-Semitic gentile, Schreiber returns a kind of agency to Jews themselves—an agency missing from Foer’s novel—although at the enormous cost of complicating their wartime and postwar identities.