“To ask why the Jews have been killed is a question that shows immediately its own obscenity.”
— Claude Lanzmann
Apart from it being unpronounceable by most Americans, the Polish city of Oświęcim (aws-ven-chim) seems innocuous enough until you realize it’s known to the wider world by its German name, Auschwitz.
“The Auschwitz concentration camp (Konzentrationslager Auschwitz) was a complex of over 40 concentration and extermination camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II and the Holocaust. It consisted of Auschwitz I, the main camp (Stammlager) in Oświęcim; Auschwitz II–Birkenau, a concentration and extermination camp built with several gas chambers; Auschwitz III–Monowitz, a labor camp created to staff a factory for the chemical conglomerate IG Farben; and dozens of subcamps. The camps became a major site of the Nazis’ Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”
Auschwitz-Birkenau was one of many camps designed primarily for genocidal extermination: Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Majdanek and Jasenovac are some of the others. In numerical terms the Jews were killed in horrifically greater numbers, but the Nazis also murdered political opponents, Slavs, Roma (gypsies), homosexuals, Soviet POWs, and anyone else who objected to Hitler’s new world order.
A Frenchman named Claude Lanzmann (1925 – 2018) somewhat serendipitously came to play an out-sized role in documenting these atrocities by combining the mediums of film and oral history.
Lanzmann was born into a secular Jewish family in Paris, and while they hid during the German occupation of France in World War II, Lanzmann joined the French resistance at 17, smuggling small arms for the fight against the invaders.
After liberation, Lanzmann went to university, studied philosophy, worked (and famously played) with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir, and eventually became a filmmaker. In 1973 he was contacted by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which offered financial backing for a documentary about the Holocaust (a term meaning “burnt offering” which Lanzmann found objectionable).
Nearing 50 years of age, Lanzmann agreed to the proposal and spent the next 11 years crafting the epochal nine-and-a-half-hour-long Shoah (or “catastrophe”). I believe the Israeli financing dried up very quickly, but he persevered. There have since been sequels using the many hours of interviews filmed for the original.
Shoah remains visceral and essential viewing for anyone wishing to understand what happened to Europe’s Jewish population at the hands of the Nazis. It is an unconventional and brutally effective documentary, describing factual historical events without the use of archival footage or tacky reenactments.
The hour is late, and what Lanzmann achieved probably could not be repeated today. The 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation was Monday, January 27, and obviously the number of people with active memories of the period has dwindled considerably. It is reckoned that fewer than 400,000 Holocaust survivors remain with us in 2020. The fact there are even this many given the number of deaths testifies to the sheer scale of their incarceration.
Naturally many more of them were alive in the 1970’s, and so were those ordinary people in places like Poland capable of bearing witness. Lanzmann filmed dignified Jewish survivors, serenely acquiescent Poles and even an entirely unrepentant SS officer, albeit the latter surreptitiously with a hidden camera. They all lived through cataclysmic and unspeakably horrible events that took place primarily in areas of dense pre-war Jewish population, which became saturated with planned centers of systematic slaughter during the Nazi occupation.
To record these memories and recollections, Lanzmann traveled to a dozen or more then-Communist locales in Poland and Eastern Europe. He also made side excursions to Israel, Germany and elsewhere in the world, reflecting the post-war diaspora of victims and perpetrators.
Lanzmann organized their recollections into stories woven together with consummate skill, and as the hours pass, there is an emotional crescendo guaranteed to leave the viewer both drained and fearing for the future of humanity. It’s true that we manage somehow to survive our own seemingly boundless stupidity. It’s unclear how we do it.
At the time Shoah was released, its director was fiercely criticized for including footage that unflinchingly exposed lingering anti-Semite tendencies on the part of ethnic Poles, this coming at a time when Poland — through the activities of the Solidarity trade union movement and a sitting Pope — was being lionized by anti-Communists throughout the world as the best extant hope to commence the toppling of the Bloc’s socialist dominoes.
And so they were, but to this very day the arguments about Poland and the Holocaust have not been resolved. They likely never will.
In 2018 the Poles overstepped, passing a law that would have criminalised stating that the Polish people had collaborated in the Holocaust. In fact, while some Christian Poles heroically saved Jews, most did nothing—and others helped kill them. Many Jews saw the law as whitewashing the long history of anti-Semitism in Poland and other European countries besides Germany. The Poles eventually scrapped the law, but Israel showed its own prejudices last year when its foreign minister claimed that Poles “imbibe anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk”.
Lanzmann’s Shoah documentary occupies a place in my consciousness utterly impossible to overstate. I first saw Shoah in its entirety several months after my mother videotaped the film from public television during the summer of 1987, precisely as I was traveling in Europe, including a passage through Poland and a visit to the Auschwitz memorial.
For ten straight days in 1988, I set the alarm an hour early each morning and gradually absorbed the film in bits, pieces and chunks before heading off to work. It may have been the culmination of my free-lance, post-graduate education, voraciously soaking up books and documentaries about European history, culture and any related matters in an effort to achieve greater understanding during my periods of continental travel.
In spite of everything I was sure I knew about life back then, these mornings in front of the tube in 1988 were profoundly uncomfortable. Shoah is about death, and in a manner we’re unaccustomed to considering. I’ll never forget it.
My visit to Auschwitz came on July 11, 1987.
I’d been in Krakow with my friend Barrie (who now teaches history at Scribner Middle School) and two fellow travelers from Florida. We’d taken an unscheduled detour from the Soviet/Baltic/Poland youth and student package tour, hopping a Friday afternoon train from Warsaw and learning the dubious (and embarrassing) value of handing the conductor $5 cash for our fare, then watching aghast as he evicted people from their rightful seats for us to sit.
The displaced made no objection whatever, and we rationalized: It was the awful Commie system to blame.
On a Saturday morning, after overnighting in Krakow for $2.50 per person amid aging furniture in a pensioner’s shabby flat, we rustled a few grams of greasy salami and bread, then found the dingy bus station in the city’s crumbling and neglected downtown, joining several dozen Polish weekend trippers on the bumpy, grinding, two-hour journey to Oświęcim.
There were no English speakers around to help, but we managed to guess the correct stop near the entrance to the Auschwitz museum. Once there, we paid our fees and wordlessly passed through the numbing exhibits inside the old brick pre-war Polish army barracks buildings of Auschwitz 1, a strangely bureaucratic and tidy introduction to the supreme horror a few hundred meters away at Birkenau, the epicenter of the assembly line death camp.
You’ve probably read or heard about the rooms filled with abandoned luggage, eye glasses, artificial limbs, shoes, children’s toys – all confiscated from prospective victims as they were paraded from cattle cars to perish within minutes of passing through gates that read, “Arbeit Macht Frei” … or, work will make you free.
Intense? Chilling? Insane? Yes, and so much worse than these or any other inadequate words we might choose, yet only pretending to encapsulate some measure of emotion about a crime scene possessing a degree of industrial aspiration to cold-blooded murder well beyond the imagination of a twenty-something Hoosier bumpkin.
Or the same bumpkin at 60.
After two hours, we’d had enough of it. To get back to Krakow for the return to Warsaw later that evening necessitated a short walk into the center of Oświęcim, where we boarded a train that ran roughly half the distance back to the Krakow before abruptly disgorging us at a rural rail crossing point to change trains.
The day had become hot and sultry, and activity at the station was ploddingly minimal. There was a simple buffet offering plates of mystery meat in gray sauce, but we weren’t so much hungry as thirsty, and not merely thirsty, but fairly desperate for an adult beverage or three to ease the transition from wartime Auschwitz back to dilapidated 1980’s-vintage Poland.
Pivo? Wodka? Vino?
Alas, there was no succor for the bibulous at the teetotal train station. Resigned to temperance, and waiting at the platform, we could see green fields and crops in the distance beyond the tracks. People wearing their best were walking in little groups toward the settlement; surely even in a Polish farming town there’d be something happening on a summertime Saturday night.
Right before the train finally limped to rest, a horse-drawn cart clattered across the weathered cobblestones nearby.
I’d been looking at the older folks among the crowd at the station. With memories of Auschwitz still raw, it’s obvious what I was thinking, and I kept those thoughts to myself. Later, watching Shoah, the parched rail platform reverie and the native Poles populating it came back to me with a vengeance, and wouldn’t let go as the film unspooled over those mornings of otherwise forgotten days, as Lanzmann meticulously peeled away the dusty layers of memory and forced the viewer to think.
What did it all mean?
This is by no means a denunciation of Poland and the Poles, or a doomed attempt at facile erudition with respect to their places in the historical record, only an observation that there are times when very little about anything makes sense, especially when one’s own senses are being burdened with the unsettling melancholy of time.
Or, of time passed.
It has been almost fifty years since Lanzmann’s film went into production, and certainly all the survivors he chronicled are dead. The people I saw in Poland in 1987 are thirty years older, and many of them have died, too.
There was a time when I felt reasonably confident that a majority of readers understand the Holocaust as empirical fact and don’t require daily reminders. Glancing each morning at the endless, repetitive and triumphant Twitter proclamations of American idiots with moth-like attention spans, I’m no longer quite as sure. Sadly, the revisionism extends to Europe, where anti-Semitism continues to poison minds today.
Nature or nurture – or both? We’re classified at birth as human by biological default, but mustn’t we actually learn how to be human? If no one is there to teach us what it means to be human, or if our purported mentors shirk their responsibility, aren’t we condemned to repeating these instances of man’s inhumanity to man?
In 2006, a new translation of Elie Wiesel’s Night appeared on the paperback bestseller list (Wiesel died in 2016). How many Americans know anything at all about Wiesel, much less can say they’ve read this or other books written by him?
In Shoah, Lanzmann interviews Dr. Franz Grassler, one of the Nazis “administering” the Warsaw Ghetto. A mere quarter-century removed from his duties, Grassler’s memory repeatedly failed him.
Claude Lanzmann: You don’t remember those days?
Franz Grassler: Not much. I recall more clearly my pre-war mountaineering trips than the entire war period and those days in Warsaw. All, in all, those were bad times. It’s a fact we tend to forget, thank god, the bad times more easily than the good. The bad times are repressed.
Forgetfulness of history to this magnitude is something too many of us have become proud to seize as a birthright. I can’t tell you why ignorance always seems to be in fashion. All I can do is promise to denounce it — and to watch Shoah again in its entirety later this spring.
January 9: ON THE AVENUES: Elusive sounds of silence.