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"Jacob the Liar" -- Inside a Nazi Ghetto -- A Film

Updated on May 6, 2014
phdast7 profile image

Theresa Ast earned a PhD (Emory) in European History and has taught history for 20 years. "Confronting the Holocaust" available at AMAZON..

The Fascist Nations, 1922-1938
The Fascist Nations, 1922-1938 | Source

Scarcity of News -- Fascist Method of Control

The film begins with Jacob Heym chasing a newspaper; his fellow inhabitants in the ghetto are starved for news from the outside world. They are completely isolated from society for all radios were long ago confiscated and they are surrounded by concrete walls, barbed wire, and guards with spot lights and machine guns.

Heym's wild chase after the newspaper brings him the unwanted attention of one of the German guards who sends him to the Kommandatura (Military Headquarters just outside of the ghetto) to receive punishment for being out on the street after curfew, even though it is not yet 8:00pm and Jacob has not broken curfew. While waiting to talk to the officer in charge, Jacob hears “good news” over a radio in the commanding officer's office inside Nazi Headquarters.

Surprisingly, perhaps too busy with a girlfriend, the officer does not punish Jacob and instructs him to return to the ghetto. The ghetto gates have been locked because it is now after curfew. Jacob finds a way to get back into the ghetto, because Jews found outside are always shot.

Once safely back inside the ghetto, Jacob’s great dilemma is what to do with his forbidden information gleaned from a radio broadcast. Should he keep it to himself, which is safer, or should he share it with others to give them a bit of hope and a reason to hold on a little longer in the ghetto? Jacob changes his mind repeatedly about what the correct course of action should be.

The film examines the role of "hope in desperate situations" and it poses, again and again, the following question to the audience, to us, “Is telling a lie, or a series of lies, the morally correct and proper thing to do, if it brings hope and thereby, possibly saves lives?” The film is an amazing study of the often conflicting expectations and demands of survival and traditional morality.


Jewish Character, Emotion, Religion, Survival

The film also presents us with a variety of Jewish characters all struggling to maintain some sort of sanity in the vicious and insane world created by the Nazis. Families try to maintain some kind of decent and normal home life amid the most abnormal circumstances. We are treated to a rather amazing level of dark comedy and ironic humor, unusual in a Holocaust or "war" film, but which enhances the pathos and drama of the Jewish plight.

The use of humor also personalizes and humanizes the ghetto inhabitants, rather than minimizing the reality of ghetto life as one might expect. There are plenty of sobering and violent scenes which reinforce the horrors experienced by people unfortunate enough to be caught up in the Nazi system.

Through the emotional and religious responses of several characters to Jacob’s news, we are shown the competing religious perspectives of Jews and the wonderful complexity of human strength, weakness, and character. Acts of kindness, tenderness, acceptance, and courage emerge where one does not necessarily expect them to exist at all.

The film ends tragically as it must, if it is to be true to history, with the torture and murder of Jacob Heym. At the same time, the film also ends with a statement about the enduring value and necessity of hope and the life enhancing power of belief. Although the film is based on a novel, the novel was written by a survivor and is based on real-world conditions that existed in many ghettos. While thousands and thousands died, some Jewish, and non-Jewish, victims of the Nazis, did survive long enough to experience liberation by one of the Allied armies. This is an excellent film and well worth watching.

Note: I show this film to my college level Junior - Senior History courses. Students are given the Study Guide below to guide them in composing an analytical essay.

Soldiers in the Soviet Ukaine
Soldiers in the Soviet Ukaine | Source
Confronting the Holocaust: American Soldiers Enter Concentration Camps
Confronting the Holocaust: American Soldiers Enter Concentration Camps

During the Second World War American soldiers participated in the discovery and liberation of many Nazi concentration camps. This monograph deals with their experience in the concentration camps, what they saw and what they did, and the long-term affects of their experience. The author has drawn heavily on the oral histories and personal papers of approximately 500 World War II veterans, and on military documents from the National Archives in Washington DC and the United States Army Military History Institute in Harrisburg, PA.


History Film Essay Guide

JACOB the LIAR -- Essay Study Guide

You have now seen three films about ways in which people tried to RESIST the Nazi regime -- Swing Kids, Valkyrie, and Defiance. In this film with Robin Williams I want you watch for ways in which the characters resist the Nazis, but also for the ways in which they try to survive their ordeal inside the ghetto. Below is a list of the major characters. I am only going to give you two major essay topics to discuss, but you should provide four or five examples (paragraphs) for each topic. Your final essay, double-spaced, should be 4-5 pages long.

Jacob Heym (Robin Williams) - Jewish café owner, wife killed by Nazis

Mischa (Live Schreiber) – ex-boxer, friend of Jacob

Rosa Frankfurter – Mischa’s girlfriend, then fiancée’

Professor Kirschbaum (Armin Muehler-Stahl) – doctor inside the ghetto

Kowalski – the ghetto barber, longtime friend of Jacob

Lena Kirstaad – little girl whose family is deported, hidden by Jacob

Mr. Frankfurter (Alan Arkin) - stage actor, Rosa’s father

Samuel – older man who is often Jacob’s work partner

1) How did the people imprisoned in the Nazi ghetto try to survive? What were there survival strategies or techniques? What talents, abilities, ot characteristics helped people in their attempt to survive? Why do you think some people died quickly while others survived the ghetto hardships for a very long time?

2) How did the ghetto inmates resist the Nazis (or resist their plans and purposes)? Did different people have different ways of resisting the Nazis? Were most people too afraid to openly resist them? Why? Remember that resistance in this film may be very different from resistance in the other three films.


Comments Are Welcome and Appreciated

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    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      hello chef - Thank you so much for reading and commenting. It is of concern to me that younger generations know so little about the past especially the relatively recent political past. And I agree with you, Williams, because of his comedic genius is often underrated as a serious actor. He is terrific in this film and the ensemble cast is excellent as well.

      There are funny moments in the film, but only the kind that occur between people living in very close quarters. I also think sometimes that a little bit of humor must be injected or films about the holocaust would simply be unbearable.

      How very interesting. I had come across a reference to Orador-sur-Glane years ago in my studies, but I had no idea it had been preserves as it was. What a memorial that must be. I hope soon to develop a new history course focusing on Memory, Monuments, and Memorials.

      Thanks for commenting.

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 3 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Thank you for this. We all need constant reminders of what the Nazis stood for. Younger generations especially need to know what can happen when fascism raises its very ugly head.

      I haven't seen this movie but respect Mr Williams for his work in other projects - a much underrated actor. Your review persuades me into a viewing, soon I hope.

      We visited France recently and spent an afternoon at Oradour-sur-Glane, a village left just as it was in June 1944, following a Nazi massacre of men, women and children. A stark memorial.

      Votes for your article.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Thank you Writer Fox/ I have had good success using it in my World War II and Holocaust courses. You are so right about Robin Williams. I have been impressed with his ability to do broad comedy, serious drama, and things in between. Thanks for commenting and I hope your week has gone well. Theresa.

    • Writer Fox profile image

      Writer Fox 4 years ago from the wadi near the little river

      Very good review. This is one of my favorite films and wasn't at all what I expected from Robyn Williams the first time I saw it! Voted up.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Good evening, Cam. It certainly is an excellent film and I am always surprised that so few people seem to be familiar with it. However, I do my best to correct that deficit by showing it in many of my history classes. And I agree, it is some of Williams finest work. Thanks for commenting and you are very welcome. I am always pleased if my work is useful. Take care. Theresa

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 4 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until March 2018

      I have watched this film twice and consider it to be one of the best fims I have seen and by far the best work of Robyn Williams. Thank you for this excellent review. Voted up and useful.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      You are right Audrey. With our busy schedules and (mostly) comfortable lives, it is very easy to forget. Many survivors of that terrible period in history, like your father, never said very much. One can only imagine the memories and scars they carried. Theresa

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 4 years ago from California

      I think we forget sometimes, how difficult life was then. How it must have felt for Jacob and the rest of the Jews in the ghetto. Certainly, many of us have little to compare that to vis a vis our own lives. My father's family all lived in Eastern Europe during the war, and although my father talked little about those times, I know that they affected him deeply.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Hello mours - I think my two favorites in this particular group are Jacb and Defiance, althought they are all good and illustrate various kinds of resistance and survival techniques. They may be available on NetFlicks. Don't know for sure, because I always buy cheap used coies on Amazon so I can show them to my students. Hope you are having a good week.

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      mours sshields 4 years ago from Elwood, Indiana

      I've never seen these movies, but would love to! An interesting and sad part of history.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      You are so very welcome, Patriette. They are deeply sad of course, but very good films. I hopw you have a wonderful week. :) Theresa

    • Patriette profile image

      Patriette 4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      I haven't seen these movies but I've just added them to my Netflix list. Thank you, Theresa!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      avian - You are so right. Sometimes we must say the most serious things in jest or with an edge of humor, otherwise, they would be unbearable. Makes me think of the "dark" humor often used by surgeons in the operating room. It is indeed a great movie, which should be seen. I hope the hub will motivate some people to give it a chance. Blessed Easter/

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Many lives, such as these, got through life with many moments of humor. Some of the most serious things are said in jest, and it makes me wonder how man's inhumanity to man to just keep going on, as the time passes. This sounds like a movie to be seen by all.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Hi Sparklea - Sorry it took me so long to respond. Between classes and grading college history papers my work week is pretty crazy. :) I happen to be of Polish and German descent on my father's side. Like you, I will never be able to fully grasp what the Nazis did and why the rest of the world did relatively little to stop them until well into the war years. Speaking of films, I use both Valkyrie and Defiance in my classes and then have the students write essays based on what the have learned in the class and the film. I think we do have to preserve the history and memories as the actual participants will soon all be gone. I appreciate your comments and your encouragement.

      Take care. Theresa

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Hello Frank - I am sure it was difficult. It is a very moving and powerful film. I appreciate your comments and I am happy to share. Hope your week has been going well. Theresa

    • Sparklea profile image

      Sparklea 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      Phdast7 outstanding hub, voted up, useful and interesting. I have read numerous books written by survivors of the holocaust. I am of German descent --maiden name is Nagle...and I will NEVER get over how the Nazis got away with all of this. A totally horrific event that grips me as I read each story. It also makes me treat people in this awful inhumane way. I saw both of the movies Valkyrie and Defiance plus Inglorious Bastards. The first scene in Inglorious Bastards was riveting.

      Thank you for providing this necessary information...The holocaust is something that should NEVER be forgotten. You are doing a great service showing this film to students.

      Blessings, Sparklea

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 4 years ago from Shelton

      Phdast7 wow I know it must have been a difficult film to make.. the realities must have stung the hearts of these actors.. I don't know what to say.. but keeping the event alive and well for our children's future may help in never repeating events like this again.. thank you for sharing this hub with us :) Frank