• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Life of Death

Then a self-important-looking man steps forward. He obviously considers himself a cut above the rest, and the rest seem to agree. “Mr. Kantarowski will tell us what a friend told him. It happened in Myndjewyce [sic], near Warsaw.” “Go on,” says Lanzmann.

The Jews were gathered in a square. The rabbi asked an SS man: “Can I talk to them?” The SS man said yes. So the rabbi said that around two thousand years ago the Jews condemned the innocent Christ to death. And when they did that, they cried out: “Let his blood fall on our heads and on our sons’ heads.” Then the rabbi told them: “Perhaps the time has come for that, so let us do nothing, let us go, let us do as we’re asked.”

And when Lanzmann questions this fantastic tale, an old woman shouts: “So Pilate washed his hands and said: ‘Christ is innocent,’ and sent Barabbas. But the Jews cried out: ‘Let his blood fall on our heads!’ That’s all: now you know!”

The reaction of one of Poland’s most respected Catholic intellectuals to all this was both symptomatic and rather shocking. (Speaks the self-censor in my ear: “here comes a passage Znolnierz Wolnosci might want to quote out of context.”) Jerzy Turowicz is editor of the leading Catholic weekly, Tygodnik Powszechny. Turowicz got up early in the Oxford discussion and said approximately this: The film is one-sided. These peasants are simple, primitive people such as you could find in any country. Lots of Poles helped the Jews. There are 1,500 Polish trees in Yad Vashem. Polish Catholicism has precious little to do with Polish anti-Semitism—and anyway Polish anti-Semitism has nothing to do with the Holocaust.

Now with the greatest respect to Mr. Turowicz, this really will not do, it will not do at all. This reaction is pure “nationalism,” in the special sense in which, after Orwell, I am using that term here. Lanzmann’s presentation of Polish peasant Catholic anti-Semitism is a challenge and an implicit rebuke to Polish Catholic intellectuals. It says, in effect: For God’s sake, here is a problem, a raw, bleeding, horrid problem, and why has it taken forty years and my provocation for you to address it? And all Mr. Turowicz could reply was: We see no problem.4

Is Lanzmann’s presentation of this problem in the film unfair? Yes and no. No, in the sense that everything he shows is obviously true. These people exist. They said these things. To be sure, his questioning is aggressive, even angry. “They’ve gotten rich,” he says of one Grabów couple who have moved into a Jewish house: that is to say, a wooden cottage in a poor farming village in one of the most backward corners of Europe. Rich! Lanzmann is clearly shocked and amazed to find himself talking to real, live Christian anti-Semites, who could almost have stepped out of the pages of a textbook on anti-Semitism (a textbook that should exist in Polish). But he does not attempt to flatten out the human, all too human, complexities, the bizarre mixture of superstition and earthy common sense in the peasants’ mental world. The Jews stank, says one peasant. Why? asks Lanzmann, and we expect an ideological answer. “Because they were tanners and the hides stank.” An old woman says she is now better off than she was then. “Because the Jews are gone, or because of socialism?” asks Lanzmann. No, because before the war she picked potatoes and now she sells eggs.

He shows us their callousness, but also their compassion. A leathery old railway worker bursts into tears as he recalls a Jewish mother and child being shot. “Shot her through the heart. Shot the mother. This gentleman [explains the interpeter] has lived here a long time; he can’t forget it.” A mother and child, the central image of Polish Catholicism: Mary and Jesus. (A Jewish mother and child.) These “primitive” Poles are so much more human than the “civilized” Germans who would not dream of laughing on camera about the death camps—“man weiss, das tut man ja nicht.”

In the end, Lanzmann himself obviously developed, almost despite himself, a kind of affection for “simple” Poles like the little train driver, Pan Gawkowski, who actually drove the transports into Treblinka; an affection no one could conceivably develop for “civilized” Germans, like the unspeakable Herr Stier, former head of Reich Railways Department 33, who merely organized those “special trains” from afar, and still insists he “knew nothing” about the nature of destinations “like that camp—what was its name? It was in the Oppeln district…I’ve got it: Auschwitz!”

In these ways, the Polish part of Shoah is not only profound and moving, but also fair and true. However, its truth is not the complete historian’s truth which Lanzmann claims for it when he says “nothing essential in what regards the Poles is left out.” Essential aspects of the Polish–Jewish relationship are left out, as can be seen by comparing it with the scrupulously fair account in Nechama Tec’s book, in which she examines all the published evidence and case histories of more than five hundred Poles who helped Jews. Shoah gives no example of a Pole who sheltered Jews, although it does include a powerful interview with a courier from the Polish government-in-exile, Jan Karski, who vainly tried to alert world leaders to what was happening to the Jews in Poland.

Tec concludes that the only sociological generalization that can safely be made about people who helped Jews is that peasants were the class least likely to do so. In Shoah one sees almost exclusively peasants. On the few occasions where Poles mention the penalties they had to fear if they helped Jews in any way, Lanzmann seems to cast doubt on this by his own questioning and crosscutting. In Tec’s book, for comparison, we find a reproduction of a German poster announcing the sentencing to death of fifty-five Poles in one region (Galicia) in one day in December 1943, eight of them for the crime of “Judenbeherbergung“—sheltering Jews.

At the very end of the film, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto rising describes how he escaped from the ghetto by a tunnel into “Aryan Warsaw,” where, to his stupefaction, he found that “life went on as naturally and normally as before. The cafés operated normally, the restaurants, buses, streetcars, and movies were open.” “The ghetto,” he concludes, “was an isolated island amid normal life.” Lanzmann accompanies this with a long film sequence showing Warsaw today. Now, as Leszek Kolakowski pointed out in the Oxford discussion, Warsaw in 1943 may well have looked “normal” to someone who had just emerged from the indescribable hell of the ghetto, but the Polish capital under Nazi occupation was certainly not “normal” in the way that Warsaw today is “normal.” It was a city living in terror.

This Lanzman does not mention. But he also does not mention the merry-go-round just outside the ghetto wall, in “Aryan Warsaw,” the merry-go-round that went on playing even as the ghetto burned, the sound of gunfire from the last desperate fight inside the ghetto mingling with the fairground music, while “wind from the burning houses / lifted the girls’ frocks”—as Czeslaw Milosz describes it in his great poem “Campo di Fiori.” He also does not mention what some people in “Aryan Warsaw” were saying—as Kazimierz Brandys memorably recalls in his Warsaw Diary: “The nice woman who weighed my meat in the grocery store said that Hitler had disinfected Poland of Jews (the Warsaw ghetto was still in flames at that time).” He also does not mention the criminal Poles who blackmailed Jews (the “szmalcownicy“) or the role of the prewar Polish police (the so-called Granatowa Policja) in helping to round up Jews. Are these not also “essentials”?

The real point is that (pace Lanzmann) Shoah does not make a historical argument about the Poles and the Holocaust, in the way that it clearly does make a historical argument about the extermination process. As we have seen, Lanzmann’s own statements, outside the film, about the connection between Polish wartime anti-Semitism and the working of the death camps on Polish soil are quite confused. Inside the film, there is no coherent statement—no historian’s argument—about this connection. On this point, too, there is no key professional witness, such as Hilberg is for the main subject. (Partly, perhaps, because there is no Hilberg for Polish–Jewish relations during the Second World War.) This is not at all to put in question Lanzmann’s achievement; only to define it. Just as it stands—vivid, personal, raw, and partial—the film within the film about the Polish role should be compulsory viewing in Poland. One would like to think that its very rawness and partiality could provoke Polish intellectuals and, above all, Polish historians, into beginning a serious scholarly examination of the entire subject—so that, for the next film, there might be a Polish Hilberg to argue with.

With the Jaruzelski government permitting and apparently even encouraging Polish-Jewish studies in Poland (a political fact to be welcomed, whatever the mixture of motives behind it), and—equally important—with the support of the Pope, the external conditions for such an intellectual and moral effort would seem to be more favorable (or, at least, less unfavorable) than at any other time since 1945. But alas, one can equally well imagine it producing an opposite effect: yet another sterile, bitter clash of intellectual nationalisms—the (Polish) nationalism of the victim against…the (Jewish) nationalism of the victim.


Shoah is so obviously a larger film than Heimat—more complex, difficult, profound, and important—that one wonders if, after all, there is much point in reviewing them side by side. But on reflection, I think a real point emerges precisely from the very difference in quality between them. Why is Reitz’s film about German memory so much “easier,” lighter, more superficial than Lanzmann’s film about Jewish and Polish memory? Not because Reitz is a lesser director, but because the German memory of this period is itself “easier.” I do not, of course, mean the memory of those historically sensitive and morally anguished Germans who have shaped the Federal Republic’s public attitude to the Nazi past, and who currently have a fine spokesman in the Federal President, Richard von Weizsäcker. I mean the popular and private memory of most ordinary West Germans which is Reitz’s subject—the memory, as it were, of Herr Kohl at home. And in comparing the two films we discover the last monstrous injustice: it is the victims not the executioners who suffer most in remembering. It is the victims who break down, while the executioners bask in the happy memories of Heimat.

Both films together remind us: Memory is treacherous. Memory is amoral. Memory is also forgetting. There are things that memory cannot look in the face. If German, Jewish, and Polish survivors try to remember exactly the same event, they simply cannot remember it the same—almost physically cannot, as a paralyzed man cannot lift a pen. And both films together also say: Beware the tyranny of the director. For both Shoah and Heimat are ultimately shaped, and bent, by the partiality of the directors’ own attitudes and biographies. Reitz’s America, Lanzmann’s Poland—these, too, are the products, the inevitably distorted products, of one man’s memory.

The one conclusion to which they both lead me is: Thank God for historians! Only the professional historians, with their tested methods of research, their explicit principles of selection and use of evidence, only they can give us the weapons with which we may begin to look the thing in the face. Only the historians give us the standards by which we can judge and “place” Heimat or Shoah. Not that any one historian is necessarily more impartial than any one film director. But (at least in a free society) the terms of the historians’ trade make them responsible and open to mutual attack, like politicians in a democracy, whereas the film director is always, by the very nature of his medium, a great dictator. So the historians are our protectors. They protect us against forgetting—that is a truism. But they also protect us against memory.


Direct quotations in this review are from the text of Shoah published by Pantheon.

Some small caveats must be entered about this edition, and the publisher’s bold description of it as “the complete text” and “an oral history of the Holocaust.” In fact, as Lanzmann points out in his short introduction, many of the English words we have here are in fact the English translation of the French subtitles based on the (often hurried) simultaneous interpretation into French from the Polish, Hebrew, or Yiddish, languages Lanzmann “did not understand.” As Lanzmann observes, “the subtitling…has determined the way in which this book reads: the subtitles reflect very closely the spoken words, but they never express the entirety of what is said.” What is “unessential” in the film becomes “essential” in the book.

Unfortunately, at least in the Polish passages, small mistakes that the interpreter understandably made in her haste, or which crept into the subtitles, have also been reproduced in the book. For example, on page 33 the train driver apparently gives the distance from Treblinka station to the ramp as four miles, but I am fairly certain he actually said “eight” in Polish, and surely he would anyway reckon in kilometers? On page 99, “Myndjewyce” is an orthographical impossibility as a Polish place-name. On page 174 Karski’s pseudonym must be “Witold” not “Vitold,” as printed, and it should be “Plac” not “Platz” Muranowski.

These points might seem too trivial to mention, were it not for Lanzmann’s own magnificent obsession with accuracy in detail. It does seem a pity that after Lanzmann has spent a decade in scrupulous research, it has not been thought worth getting competent language readers to spend a few days checking the English text against the Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew actually spoken on film. Moreover, the final published text does not contain a rider which I found in the uncorrected proof to the effect that “a small number” of Lanzmann’s questions “have been eliminated in the English-language edition to allow for a clearer flow of the narrative.” Yet in at least one place—on page 88—it seems to me that this has in fact been done, and a tiny but not unimportant nuance lost.

Finally, one should note that much of the film’s power comes precisely from the clash of languages—the appalling bureaucratic euphemisms of the executioners’ German, for example, put against the survivors’ plain English or Polish peasant crudities—and this is inevitably lost in translation. Still, it is probably better to have an incomplete and one-dimensional text than to have none at all.


The Life of Death’: An Exchange January 29, 1987

Shoah’ and Poland May 8, 1986

  1. 4

    In fairness it must be said that many younger Catholic intellectuals are already keen to address these problems: see for example, the April 1983 special number of the Catholic monthly Wiez. Tygodnik Powszechny itself has apparently been described by the Polish government spokesman, Jerzy Urban, himself Jewish, as “idolatrously philosemitic.” In the November 10, 1985 edition of Tygodnik Powszechny, which reached me just as this article was going to press, Mr. Turowicz devotes a long leading article to “Shoah in Polish Eyes.” He there repeats the basic lines of defense that he presented in Oxford, but he does also write that there was widespread anti-Semitism in Poland between the wars, that this had partly religious roots, and that it was a “social sin” for which the “reckoning of conscience” has not yet fully been made in Poland.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print