Immediately following World War II, Jewish survivors of Hitler’s Final Solution referred to the murder of six million of their brethren as the Churban (“Destruction”), the same term used for the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem.
The word “holocaust,” derived from the Greek holokauston – meaning “a completely burnt sacrificial offering” – was adopted in Greek translations of the Torah to refer to the olah, a communal sacrifice that was entirely burnt on the altar. Its Latin form, holocaustum, was first used with specific reference to a massacre of Jews by chroniclers in England toward the end of the 12th century. It later took on the connotation of any great massacre; for example, Churchill used the term in 1929 to describe the Armenian genocide in World War I.
The use of the term “Holocaust” – with an upper-case “H” – to refer specifically to the Nazi murder of six million Jews began only in the early 1950s (though The New York Times on May 23, 1943 had discussed refugees from “the Nazi holocaust”).
“Shoah” – the biblical Hebrew word for calamity or catastrophe (see, e.g., Zephaniah 1:15 and Isaiah 10:3) – was used before WWII, including by several Orthodox publications, in characterizing what was happening to the Jews of Germany. In Eretz Yisrael, the Knesset established Yom Ha-Shoah V’ Mered HaGeta’ot, the national day of remembrance, on April 12, 1951, but the term “Shoah” remained almost entirely unknown outside Israel until director Claude Lanzmann’s documentary of the same name.
Lanzmann (1925-2018) was born to a non-practicing Jewish family that emigrated from Eastern Europe to Paris, where he was born. To survive the Holocaust, his family went into hiding. Claude joined the French communist resistance with his father and brother, smuggling arms to the partisans and fighting in Auvergne, narrowly escaping capture by the Gestapo.
After WWII, Lanzmann studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, where he became a respected leftist intellectual, and he taught at the Free University of Berlin, during which time he snuck into East Germany to conduct his own explorations. His left-wing bona fides were bolstered while serving as secretary to Jean-Paul Sartre, who had a powerful effect upon his thinking and invited him to write for Les Temps Modernes, where he later rose to become chief editor.
Ironically, Lanzmann first became conscious of the persecution of the Jews only after WWII when he read Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate (1946). It was Sartre who taught him that all art must be “exhaustive,” which may account, in part, for the extraordinary length of “Shoah.” In any event, it is indisputable that Lanzmann’s philosophical, literary, journalistic, intellectual, and investigative experience all came together in his production of this documentary.
“Shoah” is a unique and unabashed cinematic confrontation with the Holocaust marked by a total absence of historical archival footage or visual horrors, which are common in other Holocaust films. He used neither voice-overs nor commentary. Rather, he featured contemporary interviews with firsthand witnesses, including survivors, victims, perpetrators, and bystanders, yielding images that were, in many ways, more real, more shocking, and more memorable than Holocaust footage would have been. When the film was released, Lanzmann also published its complete text, including in English translation, with introductions by him and Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote that Lanzmann “seemed to be carrying the weight of a whole ancestral experience on his shoulders.”
The misguided Hannah Arendt infamously subtitled her magnum opus, Eichmann in Jerusalem, “The Banality of Evil,” but it is that very presentation of “banality” that makes “Shoah” one of the greatest cinematic feats of all time. No fact was too trivial for Lanzmann: Where did you stand? How long did it take? What was the process? How was that accomplished? This kind of approach had never been taken, and the impact on viewers was extraordinary.
The “Shoah” project began when Lanzmann was approached by Alouph Hareven, then-director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who had viewed his previous films on Israel and believed that he was the only director able to make a film that would “not be about the Shoah but which would be the Shoah.”
He commissioned Lanzmann to make what they thought would be a two-hour film to be delivered in 18 months about the Holocaust from “the viewpoint of the Jews.” However, Lanzmann’s ambitions deepened as he became more immersed in the project and, when he failed to deliver the film on time, Israel withdrew its support.
Throughout its production, “Shoah” was plagued by financial problems, difficulties tracking down interviewees, and even threats to his life. The film, which debuted in 1985 at nine and a half hours, ultimately took 11 years to complete. (The 350 hours of raw footage, along with the transcripts, are available on the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.)
Exhibited here is an original vintage “Shoah” movie still depicting Henryk Gawkowski, who drove transport trains to Treblinka and whose image became well-recognized through its use on the poster for the film’s marketing campaign. Lanzmann, who hired a steam locomotive for the photograph similar to the one on which Gawkowski labored, estimated that Gawkowski’s trains delivered some 18,000 Jews to Treblinka.
The singular highlight of “Shoah” was arguably Lanzmann’s clandestine filming of Franz Suchomel, an SS officer who described Treblinka’s gas chambers and the disposal of bodies in meticulous detail. He told Lanzmann that on his first day at the camp, he vomited and cried after seeing trenches filled with corpses, 6–7 meters deep, with the earth around them “moving in waves” because of the gases and the stink of the bodies carrying for several kilometers.
Some German interviewees were averse to being interviewed on camera, so Lanzmann employed subterfuge in filming some of his interviews, pretending to be pro-Nazi and using hidden equipment. His filming of Suchomel proved particularly controversial because of his promise that he would not use the SS officer’s name. During an interview of a different witness, the secret recording was discovered; Lanzmann was physically attacked and sustained serious injuries. He was hospitalized for a month and was charged by the German authorities with “unauthorized use of the German airwaves.”
Lanzmann was also criticized by some for compelling many of the Jewish subjects to dredge up their most agonizing experiences for the camera; as he himself admitted, his goal was to have his interviewees re-live their experiences rather than merely remember them. Thus, for example, in one of the most famous and heart-rending scenes in the film, barber Abraham Bomba breaks down while describing how two of the Jews whose hair he cut in an anteroom of the gas chamber were his wife and sister.
Questioned about the morality of putting people who have already suffered a lifetime of unimaginable pain and grief through this, Lanzmann replied, “One has to die with them again in order that they didn’t die alone.”
Lanzmann rejected the idea that persecution and victimhood constituted inherent Jewish traits, and that rejection underscored both “Shoah” and his profound devotion to Israel, which he first visited in 1952. He saw the Holocaust as inseparable from Israel, in part because, in his view, Israel occurred as a response to the Holocaust and most of the six million would not have been murdered had a haven of a Jewish state existed.
His Zionism was grounded in his profound empathy with Israeli soldiers and settlers who had survived the Shoah, and he remained unfazed by the harsh leftist criticism of his Zionism and his films about Israel. As he makes clear in his autobiography, The Patagonian Hare, the Jewish people and Israel both remained objects of his undying love.
Lanzmann made seven films relating to Israel and the Holocaust, which he lists in a statement he wrote and signed to accompany a January 21, 2014 screening of “Last of the Unjust”:
Since 1973, I devoted my life and my work to Israel and more generally to the Jewish question. I am the author of 7 films, Israel, Why 1973, Shoah 1985, Tzahal 1994, A Visitor from the Living 1997, Sobibor October 14, 1943, 16 Hours (Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.) 2001, The Karski Report 2010.
All these films were rooted in my deep empathy for Israel and the achievements of this unique country, but were by no means propaganda works.
I never hid the difficulties, the contradictions, the dark sides implied sometimes by the creation of an extraordinary State such as the state of Israel, the truth being the best propaganda. With my new film, that you will discover this evening, The Last of the Unjust, I dared to deal with an Israeli taboo and to rehabilitate a man, to clear the name of Benjamin Murmelstein, unjustly cursed and seen as a traitor of the Jewish people, as a collaborator of the Nazis and particularly Adolf Eichmann.
I condemn the Eichmann trial and the way it has been conducted in Jerusalem. Since 1975, I carry this film in me, knowing perfectly that it would be extremely difficult, almost impossible, for all those who participated in the banishment of an innocent, to admit their fault and recognize how wrong they behaved.
But I had to do this film, it was my duty, and I ask you to be sure that I acted in full consciousness and that only the sake of truth and justice commanded me.
In “Israel, Why” (1973), Lanzmann mounted a powerful defense of Israel’s position in the Yom Kippur War, and in “Tzahal,” a documentary about the IDF, he provided unrestrained and unambiguous admiration for the morality of the Israeli army. “The Last of the Unjust” – a reference to Andre Shwartz-Bart’s famous “The Last of the Just” (1959) – was likely Lanzmann’s most controversial film.
Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein, a leading Viennese rabbi who was selected by Eichmann to organize the deportation of Jews from Vienna, was the only one of Eichmann’s chief administrators to survive the Holocaust. Although the charges brought against him in Czechoslovakia for collaboration were ultimately dropped, he was still hated and viewed as a traitor by many Jews even though, as Lanzmann shows in the film, he was able to save Jews through unimaginably terrifying negotiations with Eichmann, during which he argued that allowing Jews to leave without their money might be financially beneficial to the Nazi war effort. Murmelstein remained a pariah even after writing Terezin, Eichmann’s Model Ghetto (1961), in which he described in detail the horrors of “death in slow motion” he personally experienced under Eichmann.
Lanzmann, who interviewed Murmelstein in Rome, originally planned to include his story in “Shoah,” but inexplicably did not do so. He later told the complete story in “The Last of the Unjust.” His spirited defense of Murmelstein generated great controversy, and its moral and ethical implications resonate to this day.