On a train between Warsaw and Gdansk a few years
ago, I felt vaguely uneasy, somehow haunted by an
indefinable horror about the past. What I had not
been able to formulate then becomes all too clear
in Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah," as a few
wartime survivors recall the freight trains, packed
with human cattle, criss-crossing Poland, taking
millions to their deaths in the ovens at Auschwitz
There are no ancient newsreels of ghostly victims,
but an image of the railroad track leading to Auschwitz
occurs again and again in this awesome 9 1/2 hour
documentary. The relentless chugging engine noises
on the soundtrack emphasize what an immense task
it was to organize the logistics for what the Nazis
euphemistically called the Final Solution, the systematic
destruction of European Jewry. "Shoah" is
the Hebrew word for "annihilation."
These logistics, the minute details that Lanzmann
was driven to discover and record, afford a fresh
and chilling perspective even for the informed viewer.
This monumental oral history dwarfs any other film
about the Holocaust and can be compared in its moral
scope only with "The Sorrow and the Pity," Marcel
Ophuls' great documentary on French wartime collaboration
The first method of mass murder was primitive. Extermination
by gas, piped into vans packed with men, women and
children, began on Dec.7, 1941, in Chelmno, where
400,000 Jews were asphixiated over the succeeding
years. Two survived.
One, Simon Srebnik, returns to Chelmno with Lanzmann
for the deceptively bucolic opening scene of the
film. He was 13 when he was sent there in 1944, but
already inured to the sight of death. He is 45 when
he visits again, unable to believe he is actually
Srebnik, a heavy-set man with a sweetly bewildered
smile, obligingly repeats the song he sang for his
Nazi guards. The villagers, who recall that the Germans
treated him like a toy, remember him well and welcome
him back with genuine warmth.
"It was always this peaceful here," Srebik
recalls with wonder. "Always. When they burned
2000 people — Jews — every day, it was just as peaceful.
No one shouted. Everyone went about his work." Srebnik
was assigned to a crew that had to crush what remained
of the victims' bones, bag the powder and dump it
into the river.
On Jan. 18, 1945, two days before the Soviet troops
arrived, the Germans killed all the remaining Jews
in the work details — the last witnesses — with a
bullet to the head. The bullet missed Srebnik's vital
brain centers. When he came to, he crawled into a
pigsty, where a Polish farmer found him. He was treated
by a Soviet army doctor and later left for Israel.
Those Polish peasants, surrounding Srebnik on his
visit back, understood very well what had been happening
to the Jews, and yet they understood nothing. They
stand there, unself-consciously mouthing old anti-Semitic
platitudes and myths in their explanations of how
the unthinkable happened.
Lanzmann, a rugged 59-year old native Parisian who
was a teenager in the French Resistance and later
worked as a journalist on Le Temps Moderne, Jean-Paul
Sartre's Magazine, spent 10 years making this vital
documentary. He was determined to unearth what the
Nazis attempted to bury: all traces of their crimes.
In an article Lanzmann wrote on the Holocaust, he
approvingly quoted a German Jewish philosopher, Emil
Fackenheim, who observed, "The European Jews
massacred are not just the past, they are the presence
of an absence." It is that presence Lanzmann
determinedly tries to evoke in his calm, quiet and
dogged questioning, his insistence on the significant
detail even though it may pierce the painfully constructed
composure of a survivor.
As he circles around the subject, returning again
and again to a peaceful-looking landscape that hides
the crimes of the past or picking up another segment
of an interview, he creates a texture in which past
and present merge. The long silences of some survivors
remain intact, sometimes revealing more than their
The transcript of the documentary, published by
Pantheon, is a mere 200 pages, but it does not begin
to touch the unnerving power of the film. It is consistently
compelling despite the length, despite the repetition
and inconvenient necessity of interpreters.
When a raw nerve is touched and a witness cannot
continue to recount a traumatic memory, the years
seem to melt away, revealing all the horror of that
In Treblinka, Jewish barbers were assigned to cut
the hair of women before they were forced to go naked
into the gas chambers. With a certain touch of professional
pride, one of those barbers, Abraham Bomba, is demonstrating
his technique in an Israeli barber shop while answering
questions. Suddenly he breaks down. It is unendurable
for him to recall the moment his friend, another
barber, was brought face-to-face with his wife and
daughter in that room before they went to their deaths.
Professor Jan Karski, a Polish gentile who had been
asked to visit the Warsaw ghetto so he could tell
the world about the fate of the Jews, can barely
control his emotion. Describing his shock at the
stench of the dying stacked in the streets, he cries
out, "It was not a world. It was not a part
of humanity." Lanzmann disdains telling us that
Karski's reports were greeted with indifference;
he apparently believes the world already knows that.
The shadowy interviews with former Nazi officials,
filmed in black and white, hold a curious grim fascination.
The documentary shows them being filmed - through
a small concealed camera - while technicians in a
van outside receive the images. (In order to get
the interviews, Lanzmann pretended to be a sympathetic
right-wing historian. It's not the first time, let
it be noted, that a journalist has gotten an interview
under false pretenses for entirely honorable reasons.
These German interviewees are as banal as Hannah
Arendt once theorized - and more unbelievable. Franz
Grassler, one-time deputy commissioner of the Warsaw
Ghetto, insists that the Jews knew more about the
final solution than he did. The agreeable, rotund
Franz Suchomel, an SS official at Treblinka, purports
to have had a fellow feeling with those he had to
The two men are frighteningly "normal" discussing
the problems posed by genocide. Suchomel rather modestly
(!) protests that they only processed 12,000 to 15,000
Jews each day - not the 18,000 cited at postwar trials.
It is a relief to turn from their rationalizations
to the contemplation of the bustling Ruhr region
today. One can take an almost esthetic pleasure in
the colorful abstractions of sleek black steel mill
pipelines splicing the landscape.
Then, abruptly, the viewer becomes conscious of an
old SS memorandum being read voice-over in a droning
monotone. It is about those gas vans in Chelmno.
They have to be changed according to new specifications.
Since 1941, 97,000 have been processed. The memo
never once mentions people, although one learns that "screaming
always occurs when the doors are closed."
The meticulous specifications continue relentlessly,
citing the need for improved drainage in the floor
of the van. Suddenly the viewer feels a rush of nausea.
The realization dawns that this memo is about the
inability of terrified men, women and children to
control the manifestations of their fear.
This film will not let us forget them.
San Francisco Chronicle Feb. 14, 1986