My mother had a childhood friend who survived being in a concentration camp, Lilly Kramer. The first syllable of the last name was pronounced the same as the first syllable of Cromwell, so the name wasn't given an Americanized pronunciation. Lilly did have the requisite numbers tattooed onto her forearm. But there were other things about her that were more revealing regarding whom she was.
My mother, herself a survivor of the Shoah, had many friends whose first language was German. Lilly was quite different from the rest of them. Her voice was husky, not gentle. She was a chain smoker. Few of my parents friends smoked, and I don't recall any other woman who did. She lived alone. She was long and lean, not demur and petit. Her demeanor was quite harsh.
My strongest memory of her was after a visit to her place in Manhattan. After we left, I was crying. I'm not sure of the cause, whether it was something she did or something she said. But there is no doubt that I was crying painfully and that it took me a while to calm down. By rights her personal history demanded empathy from those who were in contact with her. I was unable to provide that. I could not get beyond her harsh manner. I was only a child then, perhaps 7 or 8 years old. My reaction to Lilly was childlike. Yet I was old enough to know that I shouldn't have behaved that way.
Last night I finished up watching The Pawnbroker, having started it the evening before. With my evening Benadryl I often don't get through an entire film, even one I had seen before like The Pawnbroker. Odd as this may sound, there might be some benefit from watching a film in bits and pieces rather than all in one showing. It triggered these memories of Lilly and some of that had to simmer for quite a while. I had no such emotional response that first time I saw the film. The last few years I've noticed on occasion getting much stronger emotional reactions to films I've seen before, particularly movies from the 1960s.
I wonder if my contemporaries would have a similar reaction to The Pawnbroker because of personal knowledge of someone like Lilly. That would be a way to insert oneself into the story. Many people know of Elie Wiesel, of course, but it is not the same thing. He is a public figure and his persona conveys strong compassion for the human condition. His is not the right image to hold as one watches The Pawnbroker. How many knew a survivor of the concentration camps who was never in the limelight, one who was permanently damaged by the experience?
If I'm typical of my contemporaries who have had such encounters, these memories are buried deep in the subconscious and not readily revived. Lilly's voice came first, then my crying. It took much longer, not till this morning, before I was able to retrieve her name. Now I wonder if the memories should have stayed buried. I have no way to meaningfully connect them to the present and I'm not going to try to do so here, because I think it would come off as quite artificial. How much of the rest of our childhood that was unpleasant do we remember as adults?
The film, too, has at its center the issue whether memories should be repressed. In the Pawnbroker these are memories of the atrocities in the concentration camp. Presumably, repression of the memories allows the witness to get on with the rest of his life. Yet holding the memories close, so the person is always in touch with what was near and dear to him, may be the only way for the person to preserve his own humanity. Sol Nazerman, the character in the title role, has opted for repression of the memories. He has placed himself in a personal purgatory for his two great sins, as he explains during the film. The first is that he did nothing to stop the atrocities he witnessed, because there was nothing that he could have done. His Nazi captors prevented that. The second, and worst than the first, is that he did not die in the concentration camp. He can't seem to forgive himself for that. Rod Steiger, who plays Nazerman, does an excellent job of conveying the harshness as nihilism that is a consequence of these repressed memories. The harshness comes out not as a little boy would see him but as other adults who encounter Nazerman do.
This nihilism allows Nazerman to be non-caring about his customers at the pawn shop and about other people he interacts with, and allows him to not question the unethical business relationship he is in - serving to launder money from prostitution and the rackets. Near the end of the film he has a realization, I hesitate to call it an awakening, where the memories return in force and he has become a witness to the atrocities. He is then able to transfer those memories to his then present circumstance. He starts to realize that the callous way he has treated his customers at the pawn shop is somewhat akin to how the guards treated him at the concentration camp. He starts to make amends.
But it is too late. The film is a tragedy and ends with Nazerman literally having blood on his hands. A robbery, orchestrated by his employee at the pawn shop, goes badly and the employee is fatally shot. The employee arranged the robbery out of a grudge against Nazerman, who told him to his face that he was nothing. That message was devastating. It demanded vengeance. It was a message Nazerman sent before the memories began to haunt him.
This telling of the story abstracts from much of the film. A more complete and more traditional review should be read to get a fuller sense of the story and its setting. Pawn shops don't exist in nice middle class neighborhoods. They're signposts of poverty. In this case the setting was East Harlem in the 1960s. Pawn shops are exemplars of old style predatory lending. And in this case the borrowers were for the most part people of color while the lender was Jewish.
That puts into motion its own dynamic and other viewers might elevate that part of the film as an equal part of the story. Perhaps that's they way I thought of the film when I saw it the first time around. But this time it was simply backdrop, contributing to the irony of Nazerman's predicament.
It is a compelling, if haunting, story.