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:
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
"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
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
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.