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Why Lena Dunham and Jesse Eisenberg made Holocaust tourism movies


A short time after the Iron Curtain fell, an older gentleman was spotted at a hotel dining room in Lodz with a travel brochure branded with a Star of David.

“Set out on an unforgettable journey through Poland, the country that was once home to the largest Jewish population in Europe,” the man read. “After breakfast we go to Auschwitz Birkenau.”

He then asked his companion, in an accent that suggested he had been, at one time, a local, “What Jew goes to Poland as a tourist?”

The scene above is from the new film Treasure, now ending its run at the Tribeca Film Festival, but the rhetorical question, asked by Stephen Fry as a Holocaust survivor named Edek Rothwax, has an answer: Tons of Jews, annually many more than now live in Poland. Tourism keeps Jewish culture on life support in places where it once thrived. There are countless heritage packages available, bundled with cemetery tours and day visits to death camps. 

In lieu of 3 million Jews murdered there, Poland takes its place on the map as a mass grave and, increasingly in films, a transformative locale for those hoping to eat, pray, cry their way into a sense of self-understanding.

Treasure, directed by Julia von Heinz and adapted from Lily Brett’s 2001 novel Too Many Men, is one of three new movies where heritage tours form the backdrop for fraught relationships, grief and Jewish people’s search for meaning. It stars Lena Dunham as Ruth, a New York journalist with a litany of complexes — about her weight, her eating, her love life — hoping to discover the roots her survivor parents rarely shared with her. (Von Heinz chose Fry to play Edek, Ruth’s father, after seeing him on the genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are?)

Stephen Fry and Lena Dunham in Treasure. Edek, a survivor, prefers not to take the train. Photo by Bleecker Street and Film Nation

The film has an unofficial companion piece — and a shared Chopin score — with Jesse Eisenberg’s A Real Pain, which played at Sundance to much better reviews and is set for a fall release. Like Treasure, Eisenberg’s film is an odd couple road movie, with cousins Dave (Eisenberg, dressed a lot like the actor, down to his I.U. baseball cap) and Benji (Kieran Culkin at his most magnetic and tragic) tracking down their late grandmother’s childhood home.

Benji (Kieran Culkin) puts Dave (Jesse Eisenberg) in a playful headlock as the tour Poland. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2024 Searchlight

Dave is a nebbishy family man who works in digital ad sales and lives in Brooklyn; Benji’s a charming ne’er-do-well who befriends TSA agents. As the two shuttle from monuments to lichen-covered headstones and the blue patina of gas chambers at Majdanek, we learn that Benji is masking a deep pain. He’s affronted by their tour guide’s “constant barrage of factoids,” which lose sight of the victims’ humanity. He bristles over riding first class on a train when, “80 years ago we would have been pushed to the back of this train like cattle.” He also says “Oh, snap” when he learns a member of their tour group survived the Rwandan genocide.

Like the 2020 romcom My Polish Honeymoon, set amid the Jew statuettes of Krakow’s gift shops, Eisenberg’s film hides a critique of the ghastlier parts of the heritage tour industry. (Eisenberg applied for Polish citizenship, he told the paper Głos Wielkopolski, hoping to “create better relationships between Jews and Polish people.”)

Benji has an outburst at a Jewish-themed bistro (the band plays Hava Nagila). His disdain is mirrored, in Treasure, by Ruthie’s insistence, to concierges and tour guides, that Auschwitz isn’t a museum, but a death camp. (She should know, her luggage is brimming with Holocaust books as well as tools to tattoo a serial number on her leg — don’t ask.)

Each film takes on the question of what can be gained by making a homecoming to a place where your ancestors perished and your neighbors turned against you.

For Treasure, the answer is in the title. Visiting his old house, with its new residents, Edek realizes he’s drinking tea from his mother’s china. Luckily there are some hidden deeds to the building, so Ruthie won’t have to just settle for the haggled for dishes and the smuggled handle of the old family factory as heirlooms.

A Real Pain’s denouement is, appropriately, an anticlimax. The cousins leave a stone on the doorstep of their grandmother’s house — until a neighbor tells them the old woman who lives there might trip on it.

The most interesting, if not the best, film in this new subgenre, is 2023’s Delegation by Asaf Saban, which follows Israeli teenagers on a school trip. Friends Frisch, Nitzan and Ido, hanging in hotels by night and looking to hook up, spend their days at camps, in cattle cars and watching Schindler’s List on the coach bus. Sometimes, draped in Israeli flags, they sing at monuments — when they aren’t warned to hide their Jewishness.

Rather than dwarf their adolescent concerns, the atmosphere of death causes Nitzan to identify with the unimaginable, as she steals a displayed shoe from Majdanek. Frisch, there with his survivor grandfather, bails on the group on the way to Auschwitz after having a petty fight.

Like Benji or Ruth, the kids are at a crossroads, only they must move forward, serving in the military and confronting the weighty expectations of being the children of the Jewish state.

This pressure to deliver — felt in Benji’s aimlessness and Edek’s demand for grandchildren from his divorced daughter — plays out against tombstones and mountains of luggage and shoes, ready-made metaphors giving shape to an inner landscape.

Naomi Harari as Nitzan, who takes a shoe from the pile at Majdanek. Photo by @Natalia Łączyńska

In probing these parts of the past, they all argue, the focus shifts away from the dead to the obligations of the living. The task is not to engage with history, but to find a personal context. 

This doesn’t cheapen the Holocaust, but rather suggests that no other narrative is available to so many of us. Just as no film can ever do justice to the horrors, no life can equal all those lost. And yet we keep returning to the scene of the crime, hoping for some answer.

In Treasure, this phenomenon is stated plainly: “You just can’t get enough of all this disaster, can you?” Edek asks Ruth.

She can’t. She’s looking for herself in it, and she’s not alone.   

The post Why Lena Dunham and Jesse Eisenberg made Holocaust tourism movies appeared first on The Forward.