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.

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