Hijacking the Holocaust: Or, Did Comcast Emotionally Blackmail Spielberg?

Hijacking the Holocaust: Or, Did Comcast Emotionally Blackmail Spielberg?

I’m sure Comcast’s p.r. people did not mean this to happen: early this week, Comcast, the cable provider sent out a press release that it would give away on its website and to subscribers 10 Holocaust documentaries, free of charge, and selected by Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation Institute. The press release said the altruistic gesture was meant to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls on May 1. See, corporations aren’t so bad, right?

Wrong, or so suggests the New York Times in a barely noticed clip in Monday’s paper. The reporter burried a more sinister reason for Comcast’s generosity, writing that the company may have been motivated "in part, [as] a way for Comcast to please Mr. Spielberg." The idea here is that Comcast, which recently bought NBCUniversal — Spielberg’s long-time employer — might want to assure the director that all will be well under new corporate leadership.

The Times deftly plays its hand here, hedging its assertion with the "in part" and burying the idea way down in the story (then burying the story way down in the paper). But you can believe that there are readers out there (like me!) who got the hint.

So here we go again: the Holocaust used as emotional blackmail. Or that at least is the suggestion.

And it’s not of a gentile-Jewish guilt thing either: it was Comcast’s Jewish owner, Brian Roberts, who initiated the Holocaust-films-for-free project himself. To be sure, Roberts told The Times that he wanted to use his power as a media mogul to do some good in the world. And that, as a long-time fan of Spielberg’s, he recently met with the director, who then told him about his work at the USC Shoah Foundation. “What I saw there was fascinating,” Mr. Roberts said of his visit to Spielberg’s foundation, which has create thousands of filmed interviews of Holocaust survivors. “The stories were very in-depth,” he went on. “Some were incredibly depressing. Some were incredibly uplifting.”

Now I make no claims that craven impulses actually motivated Roberts. In fact, I think it’s great that he’s doing it. But it does raise the broader issue about the "business" of Holocaust memory. There is no question that, however laudable our efforts to memorialize the Holocaust, there are often more sinister motives driving them. There is the deeply personal one, the subliminal guilt for the many who survived. And then there is the darker, more craven one: like prominent figures who support Holocaust causes as a red herring, a distraction from bad publicity.

This seamier side of Holocaust-supporting has made for great fiction, I should note, and I’m thinking of a wonderful short story by Saul Bellow in particular. In "The Bellarosa Connection," Beloow recounts a story, loosely based on fact, about a wealthy American Jew who, during the Holocaust, pays for the emigration of a man running for his life in Nazi Europe. Years later, when the Holocaust survivor’s wife begs for the American tycoon to meet her husband, who is alive because of him–even in private, and just for a minute, so he can say Thank You–the tycoon refuses. It is up to readers to discern why–guilt, shame, something worse?

Come to think of it, it’d make for a great movie–Spielberg! …

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