Eric Goldin | Can We Handle the Truth? We Must

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The play “Eight Nights” has premiered at the Antaeus theatre in Glendale. The acting is wonderful and elicits an emotional reaction from the audience, but the most important thing about this show is the deep writing and themes that are conveyed. 

There is a vital lesson we all need to hear: There are many hideously evil things that take place in this world, but no matter how painful and sickening they may be, especially if we personally experienced them, it’s wrong to insulate ourselves and pretend like they never happened. No matter how unpleasant and heart-wrenching it may be to hear about war and genocide, burying these realities and crafting a fantasy world where bad things don’t happen only causes more suffering. The mindset of running away from the truth may have good intentions to alleviate pain, but does nothing to actually solve the numerous atrocities that take place every day.

“Eight Nights” focuses on a Jewish woman named Rebecca. She is a Holocaust survivor who has been deeply psychologically wounded by the horrors she had to go through. In my mind, the Holocaust was the biggest tragedy that ever took place. Eleven million people were brutally slaughtered because an evil ideology was given free rein to fuel hatred and violence. The Nazis were sick people who treated others they deemed “undesirable” like animals. Rebecca experienced this. She witnessed her own people going off into the gas chambers and seeing the soot and ashes of human remains falling down on her clothes. She witnessed her own mother dying in her arms, succumbing to all the abuse. She witnessed her own people being tortured. 

But Rebecca may not have experienced any of this if she didn’t witness firsthand one of the most appalling things the United States has ever done: She was a passenger onboard the MS St. Louis, an ocean liner that was sailing from Hamburg, Germany, to the Americas on May 13, 1939. German Jews were looking to escape from Hitler and the Nazis because they knew their fate would be bleak if they stayed. They initially arrived in Cuba but they were turned away. Capt. Gustav Schroder turned the ship to Miami and hoped that the refugees could take asylum in America. In a disgraceful move, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t let them stay. Rebecca and the people onboard were sent back to Germany where they were doomed to an unimaginable fate. Rebecca witnessed cruelty at the highest level. 

The main story of “Eight Nights” starts shortly after the Holocaust. Rebecca moves into a small apartment with her father. She has been obviously extremely traumatized by her experiences, but doesn’t want to fully explain to anybody around her exactly what happened. Each sequence of the show takes place on one night of Hanukkah, spanning over multiple decades. It goes through eight decades, starting in the 1940s and ending in 2017. 

The shock of the Holocaust never leaves her, but for a long time she can’t externally express her story because she’s afraid it’s going to bring back too much pain. She believes her daughter wouldn’t be able to digest something so horrific. Rebecca’s husband and daughter know she went through something appalling, but she shuts them out and lashes at them every time they try to ask about it. At one point she even says, “It’s more painful to tell the truth than fairytales.” 

Rebecca and her family are good friends with an African-American couple, Lacy and Benjamin, who explain to her that telling the truth about horrible realities can go a long way to making things better. Lacy explains that because African-Americans told the truth about what happened during slavery and the oppression they’ve had to go through under Jim Crow laws, it has been able to change people’s hearts and they’ve made progress with the Civil Rights movement. Lacy says Rebecca should tell her daughter what happened during the Holocaust so future generations don’t repeat the same horrible past. It takes Rebecca a very long time to tell her family what happened, but she ultimately is able to verbalize the pure torture and abuse she went through. In 1996, Rebecca even gets the courage to do a television interview about her story of surviving the Holocaust. She’s barely able to muster through it and emotionally breaks down, but she was able to let the world know what really happened during that dark time.

I believe the playwright Jennifer Maisel was trying to teach us to simply tell the truth so we don’t repeat the same horrible mistakes past generations made. Stephen Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” was mentioned during the interview scene, and how it inspired Holocaust survivors to share their story. Spielberg was initially hesitant to make a film about the Holocaust, but he felt he had an obligation to do it because in the early 1990s there was a Neo-Nazi resurgence, and a lot of people believed in the false rhetoric that white nationalists were spreading. 

Many people claimed the stories of the Holocaust were exaggerated, or even outright denied it ever happened. Spielberg made the film to show a modern audience how horrible the Holocaust really was.  

Just like “Schindler’s List” showed the disturbing truth about the Holocaust, the play “Eight Nights” tells us we shouldn’t have the mindset that the young people of our world can’t handle the truth. Everybody needs to know about atrocities that have taken place (and about horrors taking place right now). 

A thorough education, no matter how terrible, is the first step to making progress. 

Eric Goldin is a Santa Clarita resident.

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