Jews & The Man in the High Castle

Warning: This piece rambles and has plot spoilers.

Over the weekend, I watched the final season of “The Man in the High Castle”.

For those who don’t know, the television program on amazon prime is a work of alternative history which depicts what America would be like in the 60s if the Axis has won the war. It is based loosely on a book of the same name.

In the show, the Japanese have taken from the pacific to the Rockies, while the nazis have taken from the Atlantic to the Rockies.

I’d like to share a few thoughts on the show from my Jewish perspective.

First, a little bit of background. All European branches of my family were annihilated in the holocaust. I occasionally have nightmares I am in the holocaust. A gay Jewish friend of mine also has holocaust nightmares; I think it is a byproduct of being taught about the holocaust too young. But really, what age is appropriate that 98%+ of European Jews were exterminated….

Throughout the first three seasons of the show, the scene which I always found most frightening was a scene from the first season in which a Jewish mother and her two children are gassed to death by the Japanese in accordance with the racial purity laws of the reich. For better or for worse, the show doesn’t show the actual death; there is no screaming or crying as Zyklon B is pumped into the room. They simply show the gas starting to flow, and you know what is going to happen.

This depiction is rather G rated; if it had been in ‘The Pianist’, I am quite certain they would have shown screams of anguish.

For the longest time, this was the scene that I remembered most vividly from the show. Most of my family probably died that way. This scene was the most blood curdling to me, until season four.

The first unsettling scene involving Jews came during a flashback. After a nuclear attack on DC, America has surrendered to the Nzis, and a main protagonist, John Smith, debates whether to show up at a reich recruiting station to get a good job. This attitude of “I need to worry about my own family” has been discussed and identified by many others. The man’s best friend, a Jew, pulls out his Jewish star necklace (not Israeli star) and says, “what about my family?” “I don’t know” replies John Smith.

“I don’t know”; surely, I can feel for Mr. Smith that he has his own family to lookout for. The Jewish man, Danny, who was Smith’s friend for a long time, is instantly written off by Mr. Smith.

I think what I found frightening is how plausible the depiction was. The character of John Smith didn’t turn on Danny and attack him. He made no attempt to hide him, either. He simply wrote him off as no longer his problem. Or his friend. This attitude of “I need to worry about my own family” has been discussed identified by many others (First they came for…). But what I found frightening was how simple it was for John Smith to turn on Danny. That’s how the holocaust happened. With friends ignoring the safety of their friends.

John Smith gets a job with the SS, and is standing guard outside a military building when he hears Danny calling to him from the cage of a truck. Danny asks John Smith to lift the lever so he and others Jews can escape, and says they will jump out along the road. John Smith says nothing. Danny pleads, knowing that death awaits him unless his former best friend saves him. John smith doesn’t move. The truck drives off with Danny yelling, “we were brothers”.   

It was painful to watch, gut-wrenching certainly, but the scene which stands out most in my mind as most frightening comes not from John Smith, but from a random schoolgirl.

John Smith’s daughter is in school, and they are reading Shakespeare. The teacher is talking about how the character of Shylock is a generic manipulative, evil Jew. And then comes the kicker.

A student puts up her hand and points out that Shylock says “do I not bleed” when he is pricked, indicating his humanity. But, the girl says, Jews are not human. She objected to Shakespeare presenting the Jew as human.

The teacher, frightened that a student was indirectly questioning her allegiance to the reich, states that she will have the matter reviewed and fixed. Students then turn to mathematics.

In all four seasons, this scene was arguably the most shocking. It was gut wrenching in the casual manner it depicted anti-semitism. It was crushing in illustrating how the holocaust was perpetrated; by drilling into the heads of millions that Jews are not human.

When I am pricked, I bleed. I am human. So was every Jew whose lungs were filled with zyklon b, every Jew shot in a shallow grave he dug himself, and every Jew burnt alive in Nazi ovens.

It frightening that such a simple idea, that Jews are not human, was powerful enough to enable the holocaust.

What I take away from man in the high castle is that vigilance is the price I pay to continue living.

I hope you found this ramble interesting, and the question for discussion is: Who among us is willing to say that, if put in the moment, they would really and truly act better than John Smith?

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