I have long been an admirer of Simon Schama as an historian and a contributor to the Financial Times. He is one of a number of historians who in this global age have reached a vast audience through craft and eloquence, through the ability to tell stories through today’s media. There is a humanistic majesty to his narratives, an appreciation that humankind is capable of great things as well as great barbarities.
The grandson of Litvaks, he was in some ways the inevitable writer and host of the BBC’s documentary series The Story of the Jews. As the series progressed, his own emotional investment in the narrative seemed to deepen, perhaps unpeel. There is no contesting the fact that the story and the resonance he has personally with the story of the Jews has given the series a sharp charge, a personal and wholly engaging emotional depth: See his visit to the Synagogue in Venice for his awe at the ability of Jews and their culture to survive expulsion (from Spain in this instance), persecution and ghettoization. You can feel the depth of his feeling as he admires not just the beauty of its architecture but its mere presence, its affirmation of the Jews’ ability to continue to survive and indeed prosper. As a man of letters himself, he is clearly mesmerized that so much of Judaism is focused on the word for its identity and for its survival as a stateless people over the centuries.
Given the Litvak connection to Ireland, there is a particular interest for us in episode four of this series for in it Schama looks to the story of the Jews of the Russian Pale, formerly the Lithuanian-Polish kingdom. It is from the shtetls of the Pale that the Irish Jews came, from these also that so many went to the United States. Clustered in the Lower East Side, the Jews reformed their communities and many of them prospered, bringing US retail, banking and the Broadway musical to life. He looks in some detail at the career of Yid Harburg, author of the Depression Era “Brother Can You Spare and Dime” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. For Schama, the The Wizard of Oz’s anthem could only have come from the Jewish/Yiddish tradition, its aspiration to find another place, possibly mystical, possibly America, certainly Zion, where life can and will be better.
However as the episode closes it is Schama’s return to Lithuania, the land of his forebears, and his account of the murder of those who stayed behind by the Nazis and their local collaborators, that provides a jolt of personal drama, a look into the soul of someone struggling to comprehend what had happened to his people there in all its brutality and inhumanity. As if he can only bear to ponder their terrible fate briefly, he returns to New York, to the triumph of survival and continuation, to that place over the rainbow. It is a stunning piece of television, of history as story telling.