Day 352: ‘The Warsaw Ghetto and Worse’ 2018

Day 352
Sunday 17 June 2018
‘The Warsaw Ghetto and Worse’   2018

Shoah: Second Era, Part Two
A Claude Lanzmann Film

We chose tonight to watch the last section of Shoah. Watching Disc 2, Second Era in two sittings is tough. The main area covered tonight was finishing up the story of Filip Müller and Rudolf Vbra. It introduces a new interviewee, Jan Karski, a Pole who met with senior Jewish leaders, to try and get the word out about the Jewish extermination, the deputy of the Commission which was responsible for the Warsaw ghetto, Franz Grassler, and the diary entries of Adam Czerniakow, president of the ‘Jewish Council’ of Warsaw, who lived in the ghetto, and two ghetto fighters, Itzhak  Zuckermann alias Antek, and Simha Rottem, alias Kajik.

The last of the four parts begins with Ruth Elias describing the arrival of herself and approximately 4,000-other Czech Jews, from Theresienstadt, at Auschwitz in September (I’m unsure of the year – 1943 or 1944, I believe). It then moves into a description of a 6-month period where the Theresienstadt, from the ghetto near Prague, were given preferential treatment. Vbra talks about his experience as Registrar in B II A which gave him more liberty to move around than virtually any of the other prisoners. The Theresienstadt Jews arrived and no one was gassed and their hair wasn’t cut off and they had their belongings. No one knew what to make of it. They had special cards which guaranteed that they weren’t to be gassed for six months. 7 March, was when the six months were to end. 20 December, another group of 4,000 Jews arrived. Families were left together. They kept their belongings. In 6 months only one quarter of them died due to the preferential treatment they received. A school was even established for the children. The people in the ‘Work Detail’, like Vbra, were stunned that a group of people were to be reprieved for 6-months. There was conjecture about whether they were going to be saved and fed for 6-months and then gassed. It seemed absurd to the other Jews in the concentration camp.

At this point Müller picks up the story: “At the end of February, I was in a night squad at Crematorium V. Around midnight, there appeared a man from the political section: Oberscharfuhrer Hustek. He handed Oberscharfuhrer Voss a note.”

Voss was in charge of the four crematoriums. Voss unfolds the notes and talks to himself, saying, “Sure, always Voss. What’d they do without Voss? How can we do it?” After reading the note he asked Müller to go and get the kapos. Voss wanted to know how many bodies were stacked up in a particular Crematorium. He was told there were five hundred.

“He said, ‘By morning those 500 pieces must be… reduced to ashes.'” In the undressing room of Crematorium V, it also served, according to Müller, “as a warehouse for bodies.” Voss went to check it out personally but left the note on the table. Müller quickly read it: “The crematorium was to be gotten ready for ‘special treatment’ of the Czech family camp. In the morning, when the day squad came on, I ran into kapo Kaminski, one of the Resistance leaders in the ‘special detail’ and told him the news. He informed me,  that Crematorium II was also being prepared. That the ovens were ready there, too. And he exhorted me, ‘You have friends and fellow countrymen, go see them. Tell the locksmiths who can move around so they can go to camp B II B.  Tell them to warn these people of what’s in store for them. And say that if they defend themselves we will reduce the crematorium to ashes. And in Camp B II B, they can immediately burn down their barracks.’

“We were certain that the next night, these people would be gassed. But, when the night squad went out, we were relieved. The deadline had been postponed for a few days. But many prisoners, including the Czechs in the family camp, accused us of spreading panic, of having… of having circulated false reports.’”

Nevertheless, word of the possibility of the gassing of the Czechs created a situation where an extraordinary thing happened in the ‘undressing room’ – most of the Czech prisoners refused to undress and resisted being gassed. Müller begins to cry and, eventually, sob, as he recalls this moment when he gave up the hope of living. Instead of being part of the Work Detail, he walked into the gas chamber with his fellow Czech countrymen, to die alongside them. His emotion at remembering the moment he chose to die with them instead of living, as an unwilling servant of the Nazis, is one of the most poignant moments in Shoah.

A similar moment happens with Jan Karski, a Pole who tried to let the Allies know what was happening to the Jews, to get their support. To even recall the things he saw, the events he witnessed, to think of what he still carries around in the memories left in his brain, reduces him to blubbering mess. I use that word, cautiously, as it is the only way that I can describe in words what it was like to see him – in real life – breakdown. The memories of the horror he witnessed brought on a series of emotions with which he could not cope.

And on and on and on…

Shoah is not actually a film in four-parts like it appears on the 2-Disc DVD. It is a seamless (almost) ten-hour film of interviews and recollections which shows regret on the faces of some people who had to deal with their personal attitude and behaviour at the time, and none, on others. And that’s without writing about, and telling, the story of the Warsaw ghetto and the horrors that were forced upon the Jews who were (literally) starved to death over a period of two and a half years.

Some people tell their stories with engagement. Others with a smile on their faces. Still, others with a stern expression, as if they know that they are part of something that is indescribable, and they’re filled with shame or unbearable sadness.

What is stunning – in the truest use of the word – about Shoah, is that through a collection of interviews by Lanzmann, with his no-nonsense approach, he finds there are words that can be used to describe, not just, what happened, historically, but what people experienced, personally. By piecing together the memories, thoughts and looks, of ‘thirty-two key witnesses’ Shoah finds a way to show something both terrible and beautiful.

If there’s one thing in life that can seem to be contradictory, it is how someone’s horror can be another person’s inspiration; that the miracle of one person’s survival, Simon Srebnik, a bullet through his head, can allow his existence to mean something to someone else; that Franz Glasser’s eyes can tell the pain of every word which Lanzmann fires at him in the form of accusations.

Shoah reveals a global truth that nothing can be taken at face value, however it appears on the surface. It shows there is more to the events in life than a historical document can record as facts. That there are more shades between black and white than the brain can comprehend. That not everyone who was caught up in doing bad things is therefore, fundamentally, bad. That there are weak people who can’t bear to survive and strong people who can’t bear to die. That judicial systems have no perfect way of exacting an appropriate punishment for people who have acted in a way that deserves life-imprisonment or to be hanged by their neck until they are dead.

More than anything, Shoah, for me, is a film about recording the emotions of people caught up in life – when it is going well and when it is going badly. This particular experience of life centres on Adolf Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ to his Jewish problem. Whether you’re a German bureaucrat, a train scheduler, an SS guard, a non-Jewish-Polish person, or Hitler, Shoah reveals that we judge ourselves – most of us, when brought face-to-face with our own notion of the reality of our actions and beliefs – in the light of how much those around us really know about who we are inside; who we are in the part we keep to ourselves; who we are in the private moments which we hope no one will ever see.

Sometimes the things which can’t be seen – the memories and thoughts in a human’s head – are betrayed by the look on our faces when we talk about the the memories and the thoughts in our brain.