After Shoah

PBS television showed Claude Lanzman's 9-hour film of the holocaust in four episodes on successive nights.  Interleaved with each episode, were excerpts from a lengthy interview with the director. As often happens on these occasions, the interviewer, a young man with a clear gaze and high, intelligent forehead, was too overawed and reverent deliberately to ask any penetrating questions. After all, Lanzman had spent 11 years of his life on this film, imbibing the most unimaginable horrors of human suffering. He had the mark upon him of a man who, like Jacob, had wrestled with God.  That kind of daring and dedication can make a person unapproachable.

Towards the end of this interview, however, on the last evening, a question popped up that carried more than passing interest, though it came innocently enough. What, inquired the interviewer, had Lanzman learned from making Shoah?
What had he learned?
Lanzman frowned. What he was supposed to say? A long pause ensued - an eternity in the febrile universe of television. Then he mumbled simply: "Rien".
He had learned nothing at all.

He made a feeble attempt to follow up, murmuring something about the human condition. His words were barely coherent. "I'm not," he confessed, "in very good shape." Finally, the interviewer moved onto something less conspicuously difficult. There were a few obsequious phrases, some further mumblings, and the interview was at an end.

Whether or not Lanzman truly learned nothing at all is a matter for his own conscience. We can’t see into his mind. What seems certain, though, is that he learned very little. For though his protagonists were not actors but authentic survivors of what is certainly the greatest documented crime in human history, Lanzman seemed to have scant interest in the figures who people his film and still less recollection of what the film shows.

His stated aim was faithfully to set down the experience of those who lived through the holocaust. His subterranean agenda, one that erupts through the surface of formal documentary, was to accuse, to expiate, and even, in a refined fashion, to exact revenge.  That is why his treatment of the Polish peasants seems so savage. For he was not filming people, in the accepted sense, but symbols; symbols of Jewish suffering and grace on the one hand, and of gentile indifference, cruelty, and avarice on the other. He mocks the peasants for living in houses formerly owned by Jews. In a village scene, apparently filmed near Treblinka, Lanzman asks the occupants of one such house, an elderly couple, if they remembered the name of the Jewish family that lived there before the War. They hesitate for a moment. Forty years have passed.
"You see," Lanzman cries during the post-film interview, "They couldn't even remember the family in whose house they were living."

My own recollection of the scene was different. I thought that the old woman had indeed recalled the name. I bought a copy of the published script and checked the text. I was right. She remembered well.

But Lanzman was not all that interested in truths that failed to fit in with his purpose. For if these Polish peasants were to acquire any recognisable humanity their symbolic value would be much reduced. He needed to portray them as stupid, thoughtless, evil beneficiaries of the Jewish tragedy; creatures who were, at best, less than totally human. So it was that the Nazis dehumanised their victims, those who perished at Treblinka and Auschwitz, Chelmno, Sobibor, Madjanek, Mauthausen, and those survivors whose only claim to existence was a number tattooed on a patch of skin. If you wish to destroy your enemy,  rid him first of his humanity.

The urge to cast blame is understandable; but it is probably at the root of our most bestial instincts. Christians have been taught for 2000 years to despise Jews because of the idea that "the Jews killed Jesus Christ". Historians have often interpreted this piece of historical silliness - fostered assiduously by so-called "Christian" churches - as the origin of anti-semitism in the western world.  In fact, anti-semitism predates the birth of Christianity; it is to be found in numerous Egyptian and Greek writings of the pre-christian era. But Christian anti-semitism, though it may have drawn on more ancient foundations, emerged in its modern form from the theological polemics of Judaic sectarian literature - of which the gospels are descendants. The Christian New Testament is shot through with dark accusations and curses directed at rival sects, of which the Sadducees and the Pharisees are the most frequent targets. In the history of "Christian" anti-semitism, there is no greater irony than that its source - like Christianity itself - is Jewish.

It seems hardly worth saying that the Jews did not kill Jesus Christ, any more than the Romans killed Julius Caesar, or the "Americans" killed Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Most Jews who were alive at the time of Jesus Christ probably had no knowledge of his existence. The idea that they were collectively responsible for his death could not possibly stand up to serious historical scrutiny.  Nevertheless, anti-semitism, and the seemingly endless cycle of pogroms that have savaged the Jews of the diaspora, and that culminated in the holocaust itself is, at least partially, based on this palpably false idea;  an idea nurtured in the tranquil confines of cloistered seminaries and in the cells of learned monks, and given voice from the pulpits of cathedrals and churches.

A second idea, equally obsessive and perhaps even more offensive and damaging, has provided a fitting accompaniment. It is to be found in the Gospel According to St Matthew and occurs when, after Pontius Pilate washes his hands of Jesus' fate, "the people" exclaim: "His blood be upon us and on our children."  Responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus thus lies on Jewish heads.  In the rigorous casuistry of doctrinaire Christian theology, this simple but deadly concept turned every Jew into a common criminal - theoretically until the end of time.

So it is that these twin prejudices have furnished a platform on which anyone who so wished could build a philosophy of hatred towards the Jews.

Isaiah Berlin, paraphrasing the German poet Heine, has pointed out that ideas, unleashed upon fertile ground, can destroy a civilisation. Under the Nazi regime, the densely-layered Jewish societies of Eastern Europe were wiped out with the aid of ideas that, for all their repellent madness when reviewed in the cold dawn of Nuremberg, nevertheless held sway over the multitudes of men and women who participated either actively,or by their silence, in the mass slaughter of innocent Jews and others the regime didn’t like.

By another unpleasant irony, Claude Lanzman's lens swings in the reverse direction and points accusingly wherever a gentile can be caught in focus. He’s in good company. A number of popular Jewish writers have sought relief for their anguish by charging the non-Jewish world in general with a common, if unspecific, criminal responsibility for the holocaust. Even Martin Gilbert, in his agonising history of that period, can’t resist an unsavoury suggestion that the holocaust "depended upon collaborators from countries far beyond the German border and depended, most of all........upon the indifference of bystanders in every land." Yet his own painstakingly gathered evidence shows that it was disbelief as much as indifference that caused the lack of response from elsewhere. As late as 1944, a Hungarian Jew, Fulop Freudiger, wrote as follows: "I do not believe that we shall suffer the same fate that befell Polish Jews. We shall have to give up our wealth, we must be prepared for many struggles and deprivations, but I am not worried for our lives." No one, not even Jews of Eastern Europe, thought it possible that any "civilised" people could engage in a program of mass racial extermination. New York's wartime Jewish community must have felt much the same way judging by its quiescence, its lack of publicly-voiced outrage at the news that seeped through from Europe. The strength of nazi criminality lay in its impossibility. Human beings could not, cannot behave in that way.
We now know that they could, and they can.

There is a sense in which we are indeed all guilty. However much the nazi atrocities may repel us, they were committed by people; the same people who write poetry and music, who can speak to us in language of sumptuous beauty; the same people as we ourselves are. Somehow, along the road of human development, we reached a fork and were led ineluctably in a direction of unspeakable criminality, of which the holocaust is simply a recent and terrible example. We have all been forced along that road; and the experience has left an indelible stain on our skin.  No serious definition of what it means to be human can avoid that stain. Our free will, of which we are so proud, has been shown to be a freedom to create hell. The nazis made one such hell; but they are not alone. Wherever the diseases of blind prejudice, unthinking xenophobia, or just petty racial arrogance lead us to see other men as essentially different from ourselves, inferior, less intelligent, alien, evil perhaps and threatening, then we offer ourselves a licence to treat them as disposable items, creatures to be coerced or, if necessary, extinguished. None of us is immune to such spiritual infections.

It would be easy and comfortable to blame circumstances, or the evil play of chance, for this state of affairs. But it is not life or circumstances that are evil, only men who make them so. And we will continue to do so so long as we believe that we alone are glorious in the sight of God; so long as we visit hatred and contempt upon the children of others; so long as we cannot see that all of us are nazis just as much as we are Jews.

Lanzman has not found this truth, and that is why he learned nothing from his years of filming and study. But for humanity it may be the only truth that really matters.