The other night, I decided to watch X-Man First Class with my boys (11 and 7). At least once a week, we sneak off into the basement to watch a movie. As you’d expect, we’ve seen most of the superhero movies by now. I’ve even watched the hardly pg-13 version of Dead Pool 2 with my oldest (don’t judge). So I didn’t overthink picking First Class. Unfortunately, I had forgotten how much the Holocaust was part of Magneto’s origin story in this reboot.
I ran into a similar problem with the original X-men movie, which was the first time I had to gloss over what was happening during the concentration camp scene. I don’t shy away from being open with my kids, I usually answer any question they have. But, even I have reservations on how to explain that 6 million Jews were rounded up, shipped off to death camps, and murdered. However, based on the other movies we have watched, they had all of the contextual pieces in place to ask much harder questions about what was happening during the beginning of First Class.
To refresh your memory, in the movies, Magneto is portrayed as a young Jewish boy, Erik Lehnsherr. It starts off with him being forcibly separated from his parents in an internment camp. Afterward, the villain of the movie, Sebastian Shaw, referred to as Dr. Klaus Schmidt, is trying to get the child to use his powers. As motivation, he has two SS soldiers bring in his mother. When the young Erik isn’t able to move a coin, Shaw executes her. This, of course, sets off the sub-plot of the movie where Erik travels the world hunting down and murdering the Nazis that fled after WW II ended.
That’s a lot to unpack. My kids are well aware of WW II, generally understand that the Nazi’s were the bad guys, and know that Hitler was one of the worst people ever to live. These are sort of table stakes growing up in a post-WW II Jewish family. So while the original X-Men movie lightly touched on the Holocaust, and Captin America had its analogy of the Nazi’s with Hydra, First Class graphically showed just enough of Nazi brutality in 20 minutes to raise some difficult to answer questions.
Up until this point, the only movies we had watched, which had fully realized Nazis, were Indian Jones. Those movies made them almost comical. My oldest thought it was hysterical when Jones retrieves his father’s diary and ends up having Hitler sign it. Both of my boys happily repeated the catchphrase of that movie:
Nazis. I hate these guys.
But the other night, the real questions came. They were struggling to understand what was happening. Why were the Nazis were separating the children from their parents? Where were they? And why did they have to wear Jewish stars? But the biggest question they had was:
Why did the Nazis hate the Jews?
For the first time, I didn’t have a clear answer. How do you explain to kids what the final solution was? How do you sum up two-thousand plus years of enslavement, persecution, and extermination of a group of people? Even worse, how can I teach them about the anti-Semitism that still exists today and that I’ve dealt with my entire life? So, I responded the only way I knew how to:
The Nazis were monsters.
I paused the movie to give them the ten-thousand-foot view of what happened during the Holocaust. I can’t profess that my explanation was the right way to fill in the gaps between everything else we’ve seen up until this point. I’ve had this debate with my wife for a while now on how to explain this to them. She is not Jewish, so she’s never been exposed to the collective fear that gets passed down from one Jewish generation to the next that we are not welcome in the countries where we live and to always look over our shoulder.
I remember trying to explain to my wife that even now, I have this irrational fear that one day, we’ll be rounded up and shipped off to camps. It wouldn’t be the first time it happened in America. It also made me hesitant to do the DNA test she needed to help piece together what little we could find of my family tree. She used to tell me that I was crazy, and then those Tiki Torch neo-Nazis went for a march in Virginia leading up to the last election while being stoked by our president. And what were they chanting?
Jews will not replace us.
Everything our grandparents fought for in WW II has been for nothing. Even now, as the anti-police brutality protests continue, mostly without the news coverage they deserve, America feels a lot like Germany in the late 1930s. The “secret police” pulling people off the streets in Portland in unmarked cars sounds a lot like the stories I read about the Gestapo. In the beginning, they started with those that opposed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Eventually, Hitler’s police rounded up the Jews and anyone else that didn’t fit into his plan to create a master race.
I never thought that 81 years later, the X-men’s Holocaust scene wouldn’t just be a historical reference but a cautionary tale of where things are currently going. The X-men comics and movies have always focused on the byproduct of racism and xenophobia, which inevitably leads to violence. Unfortunately, I felt like First Class struggled to simplify its convoluted plot about acceptance, whether it be the Nazis that murdered Erik’s family while “just following orders,” or everyone else afraid of the mutants.
In the imaginary world where the X-men live, it’s not hard to figure out who a mutant is. A lot of them visibly look different, and the others that can hide it still end up eventually exposing their powers. My oldest was trying to understand how the Nazi’s knew who the Jews were because, in real life, it’s not always so easy to tell people’s differences apart. But to racists and anti-Semites, it’s straightforward. My response was to the point:
We don’t look like them.
He still didn’t understand. Because in his eyes, we all look the same; human. Kids aren’t born racist; it’s something someone teaches. And movies like the X-men reinforce the idea that ignorance and fear of those different than you lead to terrible things. Even though Magneto eventually turns into the bad guy, they are all fighting to keep history from repeating itself. But like all maniacs, Magento's violent actions don’t justify his noble goals.
While that movie is fiction, it’s never too late to teach our kids that compassion, understanding, and acceptance can bring real change to the world they live in. Especially now, when we need it the most!