Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Ha-Shoah). Thought to be the horror to end all horrors. unfortunately, the cruelty, prejudice, ignorance and fear that drove the Holocaust more than half a century ago are altogether too much a part of human existence. One way to reflect on the lessons of that historical event is to watch the movie ‘Sunshine’. The story of four generations of Hungarian Jews grappling with all of the above through many decades including the Holocaust itself.
Sunshine explores the tension between Assimilation and Identity. ‘Identity’ is standing by your background and principles regardless of their acceptance by the prevailing status quo. ‘Assimilation’ is adopting the identity (or at least trappings of it) of the prevailing status quo. It is a tension that minority groups have had to face throughout history. Even being a war hero – in the battlefields of sport, politics or military – is not a guarantee for cultural acceptance. The stained glass ceiling underscores the difference between ‘what you do’ and ‘who you are’. And Sunshine provides a very dramatic and (at over 3 hours running time) very extensive portrayal. A fictional story set in a very accurately depicted half century of Hungarian history. Ralph Fiennes plays three generations of characters all inspired by true victims of anti-Semitism. As a film, it is a bit chaotic, contrived and comprehensive. The fundamental questions of the film are ‘Who is a Jew?’ (Identity) and ‘Who is a Hungarian?’ (Assimilation).
While the characters are Jewish and their religious/ethnic heritage is part of their persecution, the issues are universal. Throughout the movie references are made to the similar toils and frustrations shared by other groups as Adam Sors decribes…
- “Never give up your religion. Not for God. God is present in all religions. But if your life becomes a struggle for acceptance, you’ll always be unhappy. Religion may not be perfect, but it is a well-built boat that can stay balanced and carry you to the other shore. Our life is nothing but a boat adrift on water balanced by permanent uncertainty. About the people whom you will judge, know this; all they do is struggle to find a kind of security. They’re just people, like us.”
When anti-Semitic laws are introduced in the late 30s, Adam seems to be ‘exempt’ by so many dimensions to his extreme assimilation (eg. his conversion to Roman Catholicism, his receipt of national honours), and yet these exemptions are not enough to save him from the ultimate ravages of persecution. His father Ignatz Sonnenschein explains in a stirring endorsement of Assimilation…
- “You are entering a new world where you will certainly be successful because you have knowledge. Study has always been our religious duty as Jews. Our exclusion from society has given us an ability to adapt to others and to sense connections between things that seem diverse. But if you feel you have power, you are mistaken. If you feel you have the right to put yourself ahead of others because you think you know more than they do, you are wrong. Never allow yourself to be driven into the sin of conceit. Conceit is the greatest of sins. The source of all other sins.”
I think the Assimilation and Identity conundrum parallels that of Leadership and Management. Leaders assert their Identity for the noble upside of their principles and integrity. Managers Assimilate to avoid the downsides of exclusion and persecution.
Also, what is it about the having the word ‘Sunshine’ in the title of a movie that means it will likely have a lesson on embracing failure? A pivotal scene is when Adam contests the Hungarian National Fencing Championship. Several points are scored in his favour by the referee, but Sors protests to the ref that actually the strike did not land and the points should be taken away from him (in the sport of fencing such calls were the ultimate challenge to a ref’s eye since they were so quick and small, until modern days suits had electronic sensors). Adam knows that in his quest to assimilate with the gentleman classes, it is not just winning the match, but how one wins the match – with grace and honour – that matters. Even if that means embracing the failure of some points.