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Now and then I encounter a book or film that lends new experience. Sometimes, my heart is torn. Sometimes I glimpse a moment in history that had previously been only words on a page. And sometimes I feel myself vibrating with resonance for an experience that feels like genetic memory. The excellent 2019 film THE SONG OF NAMES (we rented as a DVD from Netflix) created that sensation for me.
I didn’t laugh, nor did I cry, but I could feel the story wheedling its way inside me. I’ve seen dozens of WWII era films, so even from my limited exposure, I don’t expect to be surprised by the plight of Jews. This time both my husband and I felt expanded. As the story opens well after the war, the young man Dovidl, known to be an arrogant genius violinist, has disappeared while his first big concert in London is scheduled to begin. Everyone looks to Martin, who has acted as his brother, for answers, but he has none. He becomes obsessed with his search to find them. The film flashes back immediately before WWII to Dovidl, a child prodigy violinist. His Jewish father leaves him with Martin’s wealthy British father who volunteers to ensure Dovidl is raised according to orthodox Jewish tradition and receives advanced musical training. The boys gradually assume the roles of caring but quarrelsome siblings while faraway Warsaw, Poland, falls to the Nazis.
No one can say definitively what happened to Dovidl’s family, if they’re dead or alive, so he experiences a religious crisis. He can’t mourn properly if he doesn’t know. He explains to Martin that ethnicity is something you can’t escape because that’s what you are until you die. Religion, however, he likens to a coat you can put on or take off. He takes his off.
In Dovidl, we experience his beliefs from the inside out. The film doesn’t distance viewers who don’t share his culture by emphasizing orthodox Jewish traditions, but those who are empathetic are drawn into his emotional journey—one I won’t spoil by revealing it here. We begin to understand how he views his relationships. Finally, we learn the function and value of oral traditions. For example, cultures such as the aboriginal peoples of Australia preserve their history, geography, and wisdom in stories and dances that remain intact over the centuries. What was almost certainly dramatic imagination induced by the film convinced me I could sense a time long ago when my ancestors also shared tales or songs around the evening fire—not for entertainment but for survival.
THE SONG OF NAMES is not a sentimental or melodramatic retelling of the Holocaust. It doesn’t depend on images of starving prisoners or Nazi cruelty. People who don’t know the facts of the Holocaust already are probably not well enough informed or empathetic enough to appreciate this film. It challenges the mind and heart on a level that was new to me. It reminds us of the rich human potential of people of any ethnic minority looked on as “the other” by the current majority and the fact that we aren’t going to be able to understand everything about them from our perspective—neither will they embrace everything about us. We can’t carelessly throw away anything we don’t understand or we’re the losers, because we’re only a tiny fraction of the magnificent whole. There are no throw-away people. We can learn from them all.