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Shoah

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 and Treblinka.

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 and resistance.

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 there.

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 faces.

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 age.

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 dispatch.

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

 

 

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