Released: 1981
Director: Herbert Wise

Starring: Danny Kaye, John Rubinstein


A superior TV movie about survival and freedom of speech

January 27th marks Holocaust Memorial Day, remembering 67 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp by Soviet forces in 1945. Here in the UK the aim of the Day is to remember all of the victims of Nazi persecution including the 6 million Jews murdered, the disabled, black, gay and lesbian and political opponents of the regime. This year’s theme for the hundreds of events taking place around the country is Speak Up, Speak Out and encourages people to challenge hatred and hatred wherever they see it taking place. I would urge everyone to have a look at the great HMD website and its fantastic film for this year.

In the past twenty years or so there has been an explosion of films, TV programmes and books about the Holocaust. More and more survivors are speaking out about their experiences and the similarities between the Holocaust and subsequent genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia and Bosnia are recognised and used as warnings to help prevent future atrocities. It wasn’t always so widely remembered though, in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust survivors were not ready to talk about what had happened to them and if we are brutally honest people weren’t ready to listen. It was all just a little too difficult and therefore easy to ignore.

I’ve had a close interest in the Holocaust and related issues for a few years now and am lucky enough to have met and worked with a number of survivors so the film Skokie immediately appealed to me. Based on a true story, this is the tale of how a small American town chose to Speak Up against the threat of a Nazi parade through the predominately Jewish community. A Jewish lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defends the right of the Nazi group to gather and to exercise their First Amendment right to freedom of speech. For over 18 months the fight over the proposed demonstration is played out in courts across Illinois.

Skokie is a hugely impressive TV movie and much more thought-provoking than I first thought that it would be. Should we protect the rights of Nazis to tell Holocaust survivors that Hitler was right? It sounds horrendous but if freedom of speech only protects nice speech then is it effective? I don’t know the answer, my immediate reaction is that all speech should be protected but that’s easier to defend in theory than in practice. Many of the ACLU’s members and donors chose to leave the organisation as a result of the Skokie case. The film also highlights the loss, anger and sadness felt by many of the survivors and the helplessness and sense of not belonging felt by the children of Holocaust survivors who have no extended family, and may not realise why not.

The cast is brilliant, I was particularly impressed by Danny Kaye who flexed his serious acting rather than comedic muscles here. His portrayal of a man who has seen the result of not speaking out against hatred and is determined not to allow this to happen again is magnificent. I’ve enjoyed many performances by Kaye over the years but I think this is the first time I’ve ever really appreciated the power of his acting. John Rubinstein also impresses as the young ACLU lawyer who is determined to defend the First Amendment, even though he faces condemnation from members of his own community.

There are a number of newer and better known films about the Holocaust – notably Schindler’s List, The Pianist and The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, but this is one of the better films I’ve ever seen and beautifully captured the conflict between freedom of speech and stopping discrimination in its tracks.

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