Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Girl in the Red Coat

My friend K and I enjoy exploring metro-Vancouver on the days we have off from work or studies. Typically we venture to the mall, spend countless hours wandering and shopping, and go home with at least a few books. Recently, we've decided to broaden our trips to include Robson Street and visits to the Vancouver Public Library.

Let's start off by saying it's a beautiful library... see?

It's Vancouver's version of a little Coliseum. Upon entering the library you receive shopping baskets and a map. It's that big. Last Thursday I spent most of my afternoon on the 6th floor - the History section - and left with eight books.

Roma Ligocka's The Girl in the Red Coat was the last book I decided to take home... and ironically the first book to be discussed on C.T.R. But where to start?

I'm assuming most people have seen Schindler's List. I remember the first time I saw it in a social studies class during high school. The film is dominated in black and white imagery besides one scene - that of a little girl in a red coat. In case you don't remember or by chance have not viewed the film (in which case I highly recommend you do!) here's a youtube clip.

Ligocka, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, claims to be the real little girl in this clip. Born in 1938, the first years of Ligocka's life were spent in a Polish ghetto with her father, mother, and grandmother. Ligocka claims to have worn a bright red coat alike to the little girl portrayed in Spielberg's film. Ligocka recognizes her family members in the film - the murder of a Jewish engineer and a couple who marry in Auschwitz reflect her own family's experiences in the Holocaust.

It seems like Ligocka is attempting to give Spielberg's work authority throughout her memoir. Yet, the similarities between Ligocka's and Spielberg's stories suggest to me that the Holocaust is overall generalized to far too great an extent.

Generalizing the Holocaust does create the opportunity for audiences to relate to the portrayed characters and begin to comprehend, at least a little bit, the horrors endured during the Second World War. Generalizing the Holocaust also permits people to have a cursory glance at the subject, to say that they will remember, but to fail to acknowledge the full diversity of the experience. Generalizations suggest that there is one story and thus removes and suppresses individual voices.

At times Ligocka's story is hard to believe. How can she remember events from her early childhood? How can she recall conversations, sequences of events? I suppose this can be attributed to artistic license. Yet doing so removes the sense of authenticity from her work.

Perhaps my strong dislike for generalizations is why I enjoy memoirs. Once I overlook Ligocka's views on Schindler's List her work becomes much more enjoyable. Ligocka's personal experiences are vivid. Her writing oozes descriptions that come to life - bed bugs, her first taste of chocolate, meeting her father after his escape from Auschwitz, ill-kept Jewish cemeteries, and Jewish schoolchildren who cry and flinch in class after the close of war.

Ligocka's work is most profound due to her focus on the psychological impact of the Holocaust. Ligocka adeptly illustrates the survivors' desire to not speak of their experiences, to turn away from the past, and (for some) to resort to addictions to alcohol and prescription medication.

Overall, The Girl in the Red Coat tells the story of Poland under fascist and communist dictatorship, portrays a woman's lifelong struggle to find self-acceptance, and urges one to not turn their back on the past. It is an interesting memoir but not one of the most enthralling pieces of Holocaust literature.

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