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The Defense of a Jewish Collaborator

The Last of the Unjust

a film directed by Claude Lanzmann
Shown at the New York Film Festival in September; general release in February 2014

Terezin: Il ghetto-modello di Eichmann [Theresienstadt: Eichmann’s Model Ghetto]

by Benjamin Murmelstein
Brescia: La Scuola, 246 pp., €15.50

“Der Letzte der Ungerechten”: Der “Judenälteste” Benjamin Murmelstein in Filmen 1942–1975 [“The Last of the Unjust”: The “Jewish Head Elder” Benjamin Murmelstein in Films 1942–1975]

edited by Ronny Loewy and Katharina Rauschenberger
Frankfurt: Campus, 201 pp., €24.90
lilla_1-120513.jpg
Cohen Media Group
Claude Lanzmann and Benjamin Murmelstein, Rome, 1975; from Lanzmann’s film The Last of the Unjust

1.

A half-century has passed since Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem was first published. Yet somehow we can’t escape it. Even today historians of the Final Solution do battle with her misguided thesis that Adolf Eichmann, the cold-blooded engineer of the Nazi killing machine, was himself but a cog in it, a self-deceived simpleton who made evil seem banal.1 And her cavalier criticism of Jewish leaders who found themselves forced to cooperate with the Nazis in the expropriation, expulsion, internment, and even extermination of their own people still provokes outrage and rebuttals. As sometimes happens in the world of ideas, it is those who think least of Eichmann in Jerusalem who keep it alive by dragging its author out for what is by now ritual trial and conviction. This is how the book survives.

The specter of Hannah Arendt haunts every film Claude Lanzmann has made, beginning with his nine-and-a-half-hour epic Shoah, released in 1985. Arendt believed that the Nazi experience could be understood, and had to be, since only through understanding can “we come to terms with, reconcile ourselves to reality, that is, try to be at home in the world.” This would mean reconciling ourselves, in some sense, even to the Holocaust. “To the extent that the rise of totalitarian governments is the central event in our world,” she once wrote, “to understand totalitarianism is not to condone anything, but to reconcile ourselves to a world in which these things are possible at all.”

Lanzmann refuses to understand the Holocaust, let alone make peace with the world that made it possible. A short essay only three paragraphs long is his most powerful retort to Arendt:

All one has to do, perhaps, is pose the question simply, and ask, “Why were the Jews killed?” This shows its obscenity. There is an absolute obscenity in the project of understanding. Not understanding was my iron law during all the years of preparing and directing Shoah: I held onto this refusal as the only ethical and workable attitude possible…. “Hier ist kein Warum”: this, Primo Levi tells us, was the law at Auschwitz that an SS guard taught him on arriving at the camp: “Here there is no why.”

What disturbs Lanzmann about standard historical treatments of the Final Solution is that, in trying to comprehend its chronological development, they unwittingly make it look inevitable, given the “factors” involved. Documentaries that begin with Nazis burning books and end two hours later with emaciated prisoners staring out from behind barbed wire leave the impression that everything moved like clockwork. But, he has written, “the six million murdered Jews did not die right on time, and that is why any work that wants to render justice to the Holocaust today must make breaking chronology its first principle.” Lanzmann’s achronological approach in Shoah may be the secret of its power. We hear victims, killers, and bystanders speaking as if in a vacuum, and experience their shocking words without preparation or anticipation of what is to come. They are simply present. For “the worst crime, moral and artistic, that can be committed when making a work dedicated to the Holocaust is to consider it as past.”

It is more than a little surprising, then, to watch Lanzmann’s stunning new movie, The Last of the Unjust, and realize that it breaks all these rules. Its genesis was complex. Lanzmann worked for over a decade on Shoah and during that period collected hundreds of hours of recorded material that could not possibly be fit into the film or that struck a discordant note. Several strong interviews from that material were left out and over the past fifteen years he has been releasing them as independent films. The Last of the Unjust, the most recent, is based on a series of interviews he did in 1975 with Benjamin Murmelstein, the controversial head of the Judenrat (council of Jewish elders) who dealt with Nazi officials in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and the only such figure to have survived the war.

It is also a brief for his defense. Like the ludicrous Jewish elder of the Łódź ghetto Chaim Rumkowski, Murmelstein was widely despised by survivors of Theresienstadt, who considered him a traitor, his guilt sealed by the fact of his survival. Gershom Scholem spoke for many when he wrote in a letter to Hannah Arendt that, “as all the prisoners of the Lager I’ve spoken with confirm, the Viennese Rabbi Murmelstein of Theresienstadt deserves to be hanged by the Jews.”2 But who really knew anything about him? Was he even alive? Lanzmann finally hunted Murmelstein down in Rome, where he had been living in obscurity since the war, and arranged for an interview that ended up lasting a week. And during that time Lanzmann was converted. A text that scrolls down the screen as the movie opens informs us that “during the week I spent with him, I grew to love him. He does not lie.”

If Shoah can be viewed as a cinematic response to Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis, Lanzmann’s new film is a retort to her unflattering portrait of the Jewish leaders. It is a straightforward, chronological documentary that moves from Murmelstein’s work with Austrian Jews after the Anschluss to the history of Theresienstadt, then moves to the two years Murmelstein spent in the camp, the last as head elder (Judenältester). Now, it seems, Lanzmann wants very much for us to understand the Holocaust, through Murmelstein’s story. This is a striking turnabout for the filmmaker and makes for a very strong documentary, if not an entirely satisfying one.

2.

Benjamin Murmelstein was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in the Galician city of Lemberg (Lviv) in 1905 and moved to Vienna as a young man to pursue his religious studies, eventually becoming rabbi of a small synagogue there. In 1935, as Hitler’s rise stoked Austrian anti-Semitism, Murmelstein gave a speech in Vienna honoring what he called the “unknown Jewish soldiers” of World War I—that is, the soldiers whose names had been removed from German war memorials on Goebbels’s orders. This brought him to the attention of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (IKG), the Viennese Jewish community organization, which asked him to write reports for them after the Anschluss. It was in this capacity that he first encountered Eichmann, who had been put in charge of organizing the emigration and expropriation of the Jews, and received Murmelstein’s reports.

Between 1938 and 1943 Murmelstein became increasingly responsible for arranging logistics with Eichmann as Nazi policy evolved from forced emigration to forced ghettoization and internment. He cajoled and argued with officials to help Jews obtain exit visas and in 1939 even traveled to London to beg for assistance. By 1941, when the Nazis began sealing the borders, he and the IKG had helped over 125,000 Jews flee Austria. In 1943, though, Murmelstein was himself deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto along with many remaining “prominent Jews” in Vienna.

Theresienstadt was unique in the Nazi camp system and wore nearly as many masks as its creator Eichmann. Set up in 1941 within an eighteenth-century fortress in Czechoslovakia, it was publicized in Germany and abroad as a “model ghetto” for elderly and prominent Jews and the first step toward establishing a separate Jewish homeland in Europe. In fact it almost immediately became a transit camp for Auschwitz-Birkenau, whose purpose was then known to few. Even more perversely, the ghetto was sold to fearful Jews as a spa town whose rooms with mountain views could be booked if they handed their wealth over to Eichmann, which many of them did. They were then sent off in second-class train compartments well stocked with food and medicine, only to disembark at the other end and be attacked by guards and dogs.

When Murmelstein arrived in Theresienstadt he was appointed almost immediately to the Judenrat. Its leader at the time was Jakob Edelstein of Prague, who after a year was deported to Auschwitz and murdered, after first being forced to watch his wife and son being shot. When his successor, Paul Eppstein of Berlin, was summarily executed in the fortress the following year, the office of elder fell to Murmelstein, who held it until the camp was liberated in May 1945.

In the camp, Murmelstein was feared and distrusted, given his constant contact with the Nazis and efficiency in carrying out their orders. Murmelstein was, apparently, an extraordinarily strict man who applied the Nazis’ regulations with what seemed appalling inflexibility and heartlessness. He established a seventy-hour work week to help the camp commander reach his production quotas, despite the fact that the population was slowly starving. (It did not help that he was a naturally fat man who also controlled the food supplies.) And when the largest deportations to Auschwitz began in late 1944, he refused to receive requests for exemptions unless the petitioner was willing to take his friend’s place on the train.

Even more controversially, Murmelstein helped the Nazis “beautify” the ghetto and turn it into a movie set for propaganda films made in 1942 and 1944. (This strange episode and Murmelstein’s role in it are examined thoroughly in Ronny Loewy and Katarina Rauschenberger’s book, which also helpfully chronicles his life.) Buildings were painted, flowers were planted, and the sick and crippled were deported so as not to ruin the montage. Lanzmann splices in clips from these films that show inmates working happily, enjoying soccer games, playing chess, and listening to lectures, with klezmer music on the soundtrack. In one heartbreaking scene we see jovial children playing games and munching happily on snacks they no doubt would never see again. It is hard to know what effect if any these films had on public opinion, but the renovation of the ghetto did much to fool officials from the International Red Cross when they inspected it in 1944 and reported nothing out of the ordinary.

Murmelstein’s fall was quick and hard. After the camp was liberated by the Russians he was arrested by the Czech government and spent eighteen months in prison while a case was built against him as a collaborator. In the end, prosecutors abandoned it and Murmelstein was allowed to emigrate to Italy, where he spent the rest of his life in relative anonymity with his wife and son in Rome, working as a salesman and occasionally for the Vatican (in what capacity is unclear).

But well before his arrival, rumors about him reached the Roman Jewish community organization, which refused to register him. When Murmelstein died in 1989 his son was not allowed to inter him next to his wife; he was buried instead at the very edge of the Jewish cemetery. His son maintains that Jewish community leaders also forbade him to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, in Rome’s main synagogue. This despite the fact—or because of it—that he was the only Judenältester to survive the war.

  1. 1

    See my review of Margarethe von Trotta’s film Hannah Arendt, “ Arendt and Eichmann: The New Truth,” The New York Review, November 21, 2013. 

  2. 2

    This sentence was excised by Scholem in later publications and translations of the letter, but can be found in his Briefe II: 1948–1970 (Munich: Beck, 1995), p. 98. 

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