Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Shoah, the Unseen Interviews

Last week I posted a piece on the Forward's Arty Semite Blog on the previously unseen footage from Claude Lanzmann's Shoah documentary.

Those posts have to be short, about 600 words. For my original full-length posting, this is what I wrote:

Last night (December 6th) I attended a screening of “Shoah, the Unseen Interviews,” sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 epic is more than nine hours long and features interviews with 70 individuals from 220 hours filmed (no images are in the monumental film, only interviews with witnesses and survivors). This was a chance to see outtakes from the 220 hours that did not make the original film, clips which are part of the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive.

More than 500 people filled the auditorium at Am Shalom synagogue in Glencoe to see these unseen interviews. (Tonight there will be a sold-out screening in Chicago.) These outtakes, which features footage from interviews with three individuals, two of whom are in the Shoah film, will also be shown in January in the New York Jewish Film Festival, and have already been shown in Cleveland and Detroit.

Rabbi Lowenstein of Am Shalom started the introduction with some fitting words of the Baal Shem Tov and Eli Weisel about the importance to Jews of telling our stories, and suggested that Primo Levi’s words tell us “we should help make the world a little bit better” which is “just what the U.S, Memorial Holocaust Museum is doing”, “remembering the Genocide, the Holocaust, of course, but also Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia, and unfortunately, the list goes on and on...” (Not to pick on a Rabbi, though that was one of the individuals included in this screening does, but must the Jewishness of the Holocaust really be stripped away, I thought, even at a synagogue screening of unseen clips from Shoah, and equated with the atrocities suffered by others, yet which do not equate with the Holocaust?) His words seemed to unwittingly de-Judaize the Holocaust much as is the recent trend in U.S. Holocaust Museums, which are “contextualizing the Holocaust,” mentioning other genocides alongside the Holocaust, as if the Jewish experience in the Shoah is not important enough in itself for a museum to exist.

Raye Farr, Director of the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archives, then introduced the footage, explaining that these clips were chosen from the 210 and a half hours of Lanzmann’s footage not included in Shoah because first of all, they are in English, and second, they were an attempt to “bring out the remarkable depth and variety of people that Lanzmann filmed but that didn’t fit into the final construction, or architecture of the film. Lanzmann’s edited film [hews] closely to the killing process, the sweeping up of all the Jews in the Nazi’s process of genocide.” The Archive’s goal was that these excerpts from unseen interviews would bring out other aspects that didn’t fit into this architecture: “victims’ families, the will to survive, women’s experiences, and the attempt to let the world know and rescue remaining Jews.”

The first outtakes are from Lanzmann’s interview with Abraham Boma, a Polish survivor who was the barber in Treblinka, cutting the hair of prisoners before they were led to the gas chambers. Chillingly, Boma speaks in several outtakes, talking about cutting the hair of women before they were gassed while he trims the hair of a man in his barbershop in Israel. He says how it took getting used to once he started working in a new barbershop after the war, getting used to cutting the hair of “ladies” who were wearing clothes, as they were “meant to,” when he was so accustomed to cutting the hair of women who were stark naked. He speaks also of cutting the hair of a 17 year old yougn woman, Sarah Levinson, such a “nice,” “friendly” girl, who told him that she knew she was going to die but that he should escape and then tell everyone he could of what was happening to the Jews in Treblinka. He said he never forgot this girl, that her face was in his mind when he escaped from Treblinka. He tells of how he told the Jews when he returned to the Warsaw Ghetto that all the Jews in Treblinka were being killed but, understandably, they refused to believe him.

The third interview is with Ruth Elias, of whom there is merely a “glimpse” in the film, who talks about her experience in Thiesendat, Auschwitz, where she was pregnant and gave birth, then she and her baby became an experiment with Mengele. Elias, still at the age at which she was interviewed, has a beautiful face, high cheekbones and large brown eyes, and even as she speaks of the horrors she experienced, speaks in such a sweet, palatable voice. She talks of being selected to work in the camp kitchen because of her excellent singing, and then being spotted by an SS singing and asked to organize a variety show. The clip ends with her mentioning finding her second husband in one variety show. To me, her story of romance found in the camps verged on seeming like a recent Hollywood movie about the Holocaust (she tells her full story in her 1988 book, Triumph of Hope) despite her horrible, Sophie’s Choice experience with her baby.

Even more chilling and thought-provoking, indeed, challenging to the audience itself, 500 plus largely well-off, comfortable, assimilated American Jews, is the second interview shown, outtakes from 1.8 hours filmed in 1978 with the fire-brand Peter Bergson (aka Hillel Kook, his birth name), nephew of Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Isaac Kook. (Outtakes from this Bergson interview was used in the 2009 Simon Weisenthal documentary Against the Tide, and in the hour-long documentary by Pierre Sauvage, “Not Idly By,” to be released in 2012,.) Unlike the other two interviews shown, this man is not included at all in Lanzmann’s Shoah film. Bergson has remained a little-known figure, though “Not Idly By”, already had a sold-out preview screening November 16th at the Center for Jewish History in New York. Perhaps the time is now right for his story which questions the reaction of American Jews to the suffering of Jews in Europe. The story Kook has to tell begs to be made into a fascinating film in itself, an account of the American Jewish response that has not been depicted. (Kook died in 2001). Unlike Boma and Elias, Bergson, who is not a survivor, is angry in his interview with Lanzmann; he exudes an anger that probably didn’t fit into the original film. He’s angry about the lives he couldn’t save because of the reluctance of American Jewish leaders to do anything. He led an Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe but this only upset American Jewish leaders. Why? Because of their fear, he says, that “people will say this is a Jewish war.” He said he asked for an agency and President Roosevelt formed the War Refugee Board. Bergson says, “Jews were afraid to say, Jewish Refugee Board, afraid to say it’s a Jewish war. All the Jewish organizations came to give money so that it wouldn’t be said ‘the American government spent money on Jews.’” Bergson doesn’t say it here but these American Jewish leaders were afraid that if they called attention to the plight of the European Jews, that it would disturb their own efforts to assimilate into American society.

Bergson’s mission was “to get as many influential Americans to create an atmosphere so the administration would feel this is more important to them then the British pressure not to do anything because of Palestine.” We wanted to “create a tidal wave of human reaction to sway Washington..” He organized a theatrical pageant, They Shall Never Die, that filled Madison Square Garden twice in one night, selling 22,000 tickets in January 1943, that was shown in several U.S. cities. “Who are we, unknown people,” he says, “If Rabbi Weiss would have called a march on Washington we would’ve had half a million Jews march on Washington. Instead,” he says, “Rabbi Weiss, ‘Pooh bah of the Jews,’” declared that Bergson was “bringing antiSemitism to the Jews.” He points to ads on the wall, part of a “propaganda technique,” he and his committee worked on, creating over 90 individual ads placed in newspapers...”” He says of one ad, “The ballad of the Doomed Jews of Europe”, by Ben Hecht, with this ad “we almost got the [American] Jews to act.” The poem ends, “Oh world, be patient it will take / Some time for the murder crews / Are done. By Christmas, you can make / Your peace on earth without the Jews.” He says he was contacted at the time by the President of American Jewish Congress Mr. Shulman, and President of American Jewish Committee, Justice Roskow, to stop this ad because they were afraid it would rouse antisemitism because it mentioned Christmas. Bergson says he said to them, “Forget it, we won’t publish it, we have no illusions one ad will save the Jews. You are influential Jews, let’s talk about what we can do to save the Jews, let’s organize a committee. Roskow started crying, I thought I broke through. After 10 days we had one meeting. After they saw we’d withdraw the ad, we didn’t have another meeting.” Bergson says, looking at the camera with steely gray eyes, “If the Jews would have led the action, the American people would have acted.”

Raye Farr spoke again briefly after the clips were shown, asking, “Where is such inhumanity happening today? What can we respond to today?” Ironically, her brief commentary, while well-meaning, like Rabbi Lowenstein’s seems part of the recent trend, contrary to the tremendous testimonial power of Lanzmann’s original Shoah, to contextualize the Holocaust, which threatens to have the effect of trivializing the Holocaust.

As the night ended, Bergson’s words which I had just heard echoed in my head, his description of American Jews’ reluctance to call attention to the particular Jewishness of the war, to the plight of the European Jews, because they didn’t want others to say America is fighting a Jewish war. It’s as if contemporary U.S. Holocaust Museums are similarly afraid to be criticized as teaching and testifying about solely a Jewish experience, the Shoah, and so they include within their museums and their missions “other genocides” such as in Darfur, Rwanda, etc. in order to justify their own existence. Ironically, this is contrary to the purpose of Landsmann’s Shoah, and Bergson’s unseen footage suggests there is still much Holocaust Museums could probe and teach us about the American Jewish response to the Shoah.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature

A Curable Romantic, which I reviewed below, was just nominated for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Review of A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell

I loved the new novel A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell. It is a really fun, enjoyable, yet poignant and meaningful romp through history with an endearing, lovelorn, lustful shlemiel-like hero. It's a very clever book. I've written a review which has not been published, which I thought someone might like to read. Here's my review below; in part, I'm still exploring the question of why shlemiels are still re-appearing as an archetype in Jewish literature, which I asked in a review of Dinner for Schmucks in a piece in the Forward a few months ago:

Joseph Skibell’s new novel “A Curable Romantic” evokes the spirit of Voltaire’s Candide with a postmodern Jewish twist in order to ask the same question as Voltaire: how can we be optimistic, how can we have hope, in the face of evil? Voltaire wrote Candide to revolt against the philosopher Leibniz’s philosophy of optimism after experiencing the devastations of the Seven Years’ War and the Lisbon earthquake. Skibell is responding to the horror of the Holocaust, in which many of his relatives perished. The question for Skibell becomes, how is it possible to hope after the Holocaust?

For such a serious metaphysical question, much of the novel is surprisingly laugh-out-loud humorous, with a shlemiel-like hero, Dr. Sammelsohn, who becomes interwined Zelig-like with a father-figure who is the visionary leader of a movement, first Sigmund Freud, then Dr. Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, and finally Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto. Sammelsohn starts the novel as a Jewish Candide, a shlemiel embodying unbridled, persistent and unwarranted optimism, seeking love at every turn. The novel is invested with irony--we always know more than Sammelsohn--because we know the fate of Freud, Esperanto and sadly, Shapira, who was murdered in the Holocaust, though the book he is valiantly working on in the the novel does get published in the 1960s after a construction worker finds it hidden in a canister. (This book-within-a-book suggests that writing, i.e this epic itself, can be the individual’s greatest weapon against nihilism.)

The novel starts in 1895 when the twenty-one-year old Sammelsohn, an opthamologist living in Vienna, attends the opera and falls in love with Emma Eckstein, Freud’s well-known case study, and meets Freud before the publication of “Studies on Hysteria” made him famous. When we first see Sammelsohn, he has cut off his forelocks, in an effort to shed any traces of his shtetl past. (He escaped his shtetl to flee a forced marriage to the village idiot, Ita.) He shows up at the opera wearing the too-large jacket of another man. Yet despite Sammelsohn’s purposeful donning of “appurtenances”: “the little mustache and goatee I wore in an effort to appear not more masculine, but less feminine; my unruly hair, worn in the Bohemian style; the little trinkets and fobs dangling from my vest. . .”, Freud can immediately infer the very shtetl town of Sammelsohn’s birth. Sammelsohn’s shtetl childhood, his Jewishness, is not so easily discarded. The Jew, try as he might, cannot so easily forsake his past or his Jewishness.

The figure of the dybbuk, which originated in the Hasidic lore of the shtetl, re-appears throughout the book as Ita occupies different bodies, chasing Sammelsohn through the centuries. Trapped between the spiritual and the material world, never at rest, the dybbuk is a metaphor for every wandering Jew. As Sammelsohn reflects: “It’s a peculiarity of us Jews that we tend to drag our history along behind us, clattering and clanking like tin cans tied to the tail of a frightened dog, and the more we attempt to outrun it, the louder and more frightening it becomes. Still, it’s nearly impossible for me to describe the shame of being haunted by a dybbuk at the dawn of the twentieth century, as though I were nothing but a benighted Ostjude!”

Interestingly, here Sammelsohn has internalized this pejorative term that German Jews used against Eastern Jews, and the Nazis later applied to all Jews, a term that draws boundaries-the East and the Jew, ways to exclude, the very opposite of the utopian vision, in which there are no boundaries between people, naively expressed by Dr. Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, whom Sammelsohn meets in Book Two.

Like Sammelsohn, Freud tries to resist the influence of his shtetl Jewish past. When he and Sammelsohn are alone in the hospital room, Freud resists believing that Eckstein has actually been inhabited by the lovelorn Ita as a dybbuk. Freud insists that it is not the dybbuk possessing Eckstein but her hysteria, preferring to align himself with the science of psychology rather than Hasidic mysticism, and that the two angels who appear are merely symptoms of his own cocaine use. Yet when the dybbuk predicts the date of his daughter Sophie’s premature death, he is chastened; he hangs a mezuzah on the door. He proceeds to publish a paper he thinks will be revolutionary, stating his new theory that the origins of hysteria lay not in “early sexual traumas,” as he had until then maintained, but in “dybbuk seductions.” Yet his colleagues denounce him, and under their pressure he recants his belief in dybbuks, declaring that God was merely a “symptom of our child-like longing for a father.”

This is the key choice men must make in the novel, between choosing a life of mysticism or what’s deemed “realism”, of envisioning a world better than this one or of turning one’s back on what could be and only seeing what is, the faults of man and not the potential. Freud gives in to his colleagues and denies his belief in God and Jewish mysticism. Zamenhof, the second father-figure in the novel, also seeks to escape his shtetl origins, but he chooses to hold onto Jewish mysticism, to not elude his intrinsic Jewish faith.

Sammelsohn immediately finds a kindred spirit in Zamenhof and tries to help him spread his dream of one language creating one universal brotherhood. Alluding to the last line of Candide, an overly optimistic Sammelsohn imagines that “Esperanto will be endorsed by the committee as the international language. Little by little, the entire world will begin speaking it. . .The dark world of separation and exile--known only too well to me from my childhood in Sziboyta — will disappear, and with a dawning sense of excitement. . .men will begin recognizing one another as brothers. . .No longer forced to live in fear, every man will tend to his garden until the entire world is one rich and thriving garden.” Skibell suggests that Voltaire’s last line about tending gardens is too naive--men are too full of hatred for there ever to be such a garden. The French turn on Zamenhof, wanting him to eliminate his prayer exhorting men of all religions to join hands from his speech before the Congress in France in 1905. (“Esperanto is a scientific endeavor! Let us leave the God of Israel out of it entirely!”) Zamenhof ultimately resists giving in to the pressure to take Jewish mysticism out of his writings, and reforms are enacted which strip Esperanto of its very mystical qualities.

Things only go from bad to worse. (As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his new book Future Tense is what happens when Jews choose universalism over particularism). Early in the novel, Freud’s friend Dr. Rosenberg says he had a nightmare that he was Captain Dreyfus, wrongly exiled to Devil’s Island for an act of treason. Freud and his friends made light of Rosenberg’s fears, saying Dreyfus’ fate was singular, and didn’t apply to all Jews. Near the end of the novel, trapped behind walls in the Warsaw Ghetto, being called “Der Jude,” in the singular by Hitler in Mein Kampf (the very opposite of the pluralistic utopia for all, Jew and non-Jew, envisioned by Zamenhof, Sammelsohn realizes that Rosenberg’s nightmare had come true: “here I was, here we all were, a million or so Captain Dreyfuses, trapped inside our own Devil’s Island, our every existence deemed an act of treason.”

Yet Sammelsohn, now a middle-aged man, does not give up hope. Throughout the novel there has been a tension between the dreamers, the luftmensches who believe in utopias and Jewish mysticism and the Jews like Freud, Sammelsohn’s father, and Herr Bernfeld, Sammelsohn’s father-in-law, who choose realism over mysticism, who assimilate and erase their Jewish difference, that leads to monetary success, and thereby achieve wealth and success. At one point, Bernfeld, a businessman who thinks Sammelsohn is not worthy of his daughter, says he sees people for what they are. Therefore he can profit from their inevitable “warring ways” and with that money can “build schools, fund hospitals, endow laboratories, plant a few trees. . .while fools like [Sammelsohn] go rushing off to greet the Messiah.” In another moment, Sammelsohn questions whether Zamenhof’s dream to “refashion the world” is doomed: “How many dictionaries, how many grammars, how many vocabulary lists would it take before the world was reconsecrated in all its pristine glory? Or, I shuddered to think, was my father right to turn his back on the world, seeing it for what it was: irredeemably violent, venal, base?”

Through the fate of his characters, Skibell suggests the answer is no. In the end, the approach of the dreamer, who does not turn his back on the world despite its harsh realities, wins out. Skibell has a special place in his kishkes for the Jewish dreamer, the Romantics like Zamenhof and Rebbe Tzapira who envision a better world and refuse to be “cured” by others of their mysticism or their faith. By imbuing this novel with the beauty and magic of Jewish mysticism, Skibell suggests that mysticism can, indeed, should, live hand-in-hand with realism (just as his description of Sammelsohn walking in heaven includes the smell of urine and freshly baked bread.) In the final lines, Sammelsohn escapes Warsaw and states, “I’d had my fill of myths and dreams. I was walking into a realer world. . .I was heading towards Palestine, towards the Promised Land, and it was only there, I knew, that a man could live as a Jew, and a Jew could live in peace.” While he is forsaking one set of Jewish myths for another, his walking on towards the Promised Land is a testament to the Jewish belief in the value of hope, of dreaming that this is not the “best of all possible worlds,” that there is a better world to come. We, the reader, know that what awaits Sammelsohn (despite his certitude) is not certain peace. (Hopefully, Israel will not be the impossible dream that was Candide’s Eldorado). And yet we are not meant to scoff at him and what’s left of his tempered idealism: It’s optimism, hope, call it delusion or vision, that is intrinsic to shlemiels and to survivors, and it’s what made the establishment of Israel, our history and our future, possible.