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The Defense of a Jewish Collaborator

bpk/Art Resource
A concert in the ‘community house’ at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, August 1944; still from the Nazi propaganda film The Führer Gives a City to the Jews


The Last of the Unjust begins badly. Rather than plunge us right into the Murmelstein story, Lanzmann weirdly keeps the camera focused on himself for the first half-hour. We see him staring silently and significantly at stations where the transport trains passed, pausing at spots where executions were carried out, and reading from texts on the history of Theresienstadt and from camp memoirs. Similar blunt intrusions punctuate the film. At different points we are shown drawings by ghetto artists, a cantor singing in a rebuilt synagogue, the gravestones in Prague’s Jewish cemetery, and, apropos of nothing, a long shot from a car as it approaches the walls of Jerusalem. Lanzmann generally avoided such techniques in Shoah and has criticized other filmmakers for applying schmaltz to the Holocaust, but here he nearly slips into it himself. Then Murmelstein begins to talk and the tenor of the film changes.

The first image of him will jar anyone who thinks he knows Murmelstein’s story. Sitting on a terrace overlooking Rome on a splendid day he looks less like a monster than an aging cherubic uncle from the old country, sporting tweeds and tinted glasses and speaking rapid-fire German with an Eastern European accent and slight lisp. Lanzmann seems uncomfortable around him, while Murmelstein is serene and charming, dropping well-worn anecdotes and bons mots, and smiling ironically from time to time. He is well prepared for the director’s questions, which at first are mundane. But as the interview gathers steam and the questions become more precise and challenging, Murmelstein responds with equal and astonishing precision, causing Lanzmann to remark on his prodigious memory. From that point on their relation is fixed. Murmelstein talks at length while Lanzmann interrupts occasionally to ask for clarification or shift the conversation in a slightly different direction. This, unlike Shoah, is a one-man show.

What few viewers will know is that many of Murmelstein’s detail-filled monologues are drawn, sometimes verbatim, from a book he published in 1961 about his camp experiences, Terezin: Il ghetto-modello di Eichmann (Theresienstadt: Eichmann’s Model Ghetto), which has just been reissued to coincide with the film’s premiere. Murmelstein must have had high hopes for the book but it received little attention at the time and did nothing to rescue his reputation. When he learned of Eichmann’s kidnapping and planned trial he even sent a copy to prosecutors in Jerusalem, along with a letter giving his contact information and stating his willingness to testify. He never received a response.3

Terezin is largely a straightforward history of the camp and Murmelstein’s imprisonment. He tends to get lost in the details, but every so often there are extraordinarily vivid and moving passages that express a sensitivity and moral outrage that Murmelstein rarely displays in the film. Here are his impressions on the day he arrived in the ghetto:

In one corner tired workers, in another mothers with babies in their arms. Next to a broken table, work is being prepared for tomorrow; technicians discuss the quantity of water available and the diameter of the tubes. In the corridor the sick lie in agony without hope, in the kitchen girls and grown women give themselves up for a cigarette, and, under the arcade, young people read poetry.

Soon after arrival Murmelstein was put in charge of managing health services, such as they were, and describes the hopelessness of his task:

In this atmosphere even the bacteria are not allowed to develop freely. Epidemics run a strange course because the ghetto’s residents, surrounded by all the infections possible and imaginable, finally acquire a certain immunity. Everyone becomes his own cultivator and inhibitor of bacteria.

In another passage he gives an acute analysis of Eichmann’s strategy and how it kept the Jews at each others’ throats rather than the guards’:

This is how Eichmann’s experiment developed and was prepared according to a detailed recipe: throw together Jews from different places and with different languages, add a dash of those who were never really Jewish, and bring the whole thing to a boil over a slow flame; strain, making some pass through every once in a while. The rest end up in the oven.

Terezin also describes what Primo Levi called the “gray zone” of concentration camp life that Lanzmann avoids. Up to 50,000 prisoners from very different backgrounds were forced to struggle for survival in a fort that had been built for seven thousand troops, provoking appalling behavior in some and bringing out strange rivalries and even snobbery in others. In a paragraph worthy of Levi, Murmelstein describes a sick inmate who refused care from an Eastern European doctor who visited her. “Excuse me,” she said, “but I’m a German woman who cannot be examined by a Jewish doctor.” He overhears an argument: “Theresienstadt was given by the Führer to us, the Germans; a Polish ghetto suffices for the Jews.” He tells the stories of “prominent” inmates who were under the illusion that their social position would protect them from Nazi racial laws. There is the judge who investigated the Reichstag fire in 1933, as the Nazis demanded, but was sent to the camps when his impure blood was discovered. And there is the Jewish ex-wife of a German noble who divorced her to save his family’s honor—then, to ease his conscience, arranged her transfer to the model ghetto Theresienstadt with “a privileged status.”

There are no such humanizing touches in Lanzmann’s film. Murmelstein is there to defend himself and defend himself he does. He wants to convince his interviewer and the viewer that all his actions, including the most troubling, were intended to beat the Nazis at their own game. If Eichmann’s strategy was to create in Theresienstadt a model ghetto that would distract world attention from the mass murders committed elsewhere, Murmelstein’s was to maintain that illusion so the camp and its inmates could not be destroyed without setting off an alarm.

If one accepts the soundness of this strategy, his actions appear in a different light. Rules had to be strictly, even brutally enforced to ensure that the Nazis did not transform the ghetto into an extermination camp. To keep the place from succumbing to a typhus epidemic he secretly had all the inmates forcibly vaccinated, denying food to those who refused, so the place appeared healthy. The seventy-hour work week was essential because, at the time he instituted it, the Nazis were worried more about shortages than about world opinion, and Murmelstein wanted the ghetto to appear economically indispensible. “Survival through work,” he says, was his version of the Nazi camp motto “Freedom through work.”

He offers the same defense of his efforts to beautify the ghetto for the propaganda films. Besides keeping it in the public eye, the beautification program also allowed him to actually improve conditions in the camp: clean the streets, build more accommodations, especially for the elderly, and put windows into windowless buildings. Every one of these actions bought the camp a little more time.

They may have done so. What’s fascinating, though, is to witness a man incapable of recognizing the real cost of his strategy, especially in the wider Lager system. Keeping his camp running efficiently and in the public eye saved it as an institution, but also meant that victims could be processed more efficiently on their way to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other places east. Murmelstein, like everyone in the camp, did not learn about Auschwitz until 1944, but no one was ignorant of the fact that transport nach Osten meant unspeakable suffering and nearly certain death. At times, he speaks as if preserving the ghetto was an end in itself, never considering, as Hannah Arendt had suggested, that less efficiency might have meant fewer deaths overall. In the judgment of Holocaust historian Saul Friedländer, “objectively the Judenrat was probably an instrument in the destruction of European Jewry.” “But,” he added, “subjectively the actors were not aware of this function.” Arendt never considered that a healthy capacity for self-delusion may have been necessary for survival in the camps, and that Jewish elders especially would have needed it to continue helping others and not just themselves.

Still, there are moments, when Murmelstein rattles off statistics or recounts the precise dates of meetings or corrects some detail in Lanzmann’s questions, that he sounds eerily like the blinkered figure Eichmann pretended to be in Jerusalem, oblivious to the larger drama he was a part of. In the last half-hour of the film Lanzmann finally loses patience with him. After asking Murmelstein what happened to children born in the camp, and being told matter-of-factly that all those born before October 1944 were killed, Lanzmann criticizes his coolness:

Listening to you speak about Theresienstadt, one does not have the impression that Theresienstadt was a place of disaster, that the people were suffering, that thousands perished and that other thousands were deported to Auschwitz…. I have the feeling that you did not have any human feelings.

Murmelstein snaps back:

Imagine a surgeon who cannot stand blood, who is so good-hearted that he starts crying during an operation. Can you imagine that? He would kill the patient. He is hard-hearted, yes, in order to save the patient.

In the transcripts of his original footage Lanzmann is even rougher on Murmelstein, asking him at one point, “You have a fascist temperament, right?”4 But as the interview wears on, it’s clear that Lanzmann is coming to believe and even admire him. It’s not hard to. What gives Murmelstein’s testimony the ring of truth is not his mastery of detail or even self-justifications. It is his ability to evoke, often with striking metaphors, what it was like to be in his position, without the “luxury,” as he puts, of being a gentleman. All the Judenälteste were “between hammer and anvil,” unable to satisfy either Nazis or Jews and earning the contempt of both. He compares himself to Sancho Panza, the practical man who got things done while the Don Quixotes of the camps perished ineffectively.

He also likens himself to Scheherezade, keeping Theresienstadt alive by telling stories to both Nazis and Jews. When asked about the charge that he was just a marionette, he rejects it—then, on reflection, accepts it:

The Jewish elder was stuck in the position of being a marionette, a ridiculous marionette. But this marionette had to act in such a way that he could influence matters from his laughable position. Nobody could understand that, nobody was supposed to understand that otherwise it would have cost him his head…. Usually marionettes are pulled by wires, but in this case the marionette had to pull his own wires. This was the hard part of being a Jewish elder.

Murmelstein states plainly that he was no hero, just a “tightrope walker.” (He also refuses to call the prisoners “heroes,” preferring the term “martyrs.”) When asked whether he enjoyed having power, he freely admits it. “I am only human…. Who is displeased with power? By which I mean the possibility of accomplishing something, that is a real satisfaction.” He also admits to a certain Abenteuerlust, a “thirst for adventure” that kept him at his post in both Vienna and in Theresienstadt. Murmelstein could have tried to escape during his London trip in 1939, and later that year was even offered a pass to Palestine for himself and his family, which he gave instead to a former student. That, in retrospect, was a mistake, and at one point he speaks wistfully of the career he might have made for himself as a rabbi or professor in America. Instead he became, as he calls himself, “the last of the unjust.”5


By the film’s end Lanzmann appears completely won over. He accepts Murmelstein’s friendship and praises his fortitude in the interviews. “Mais vous êtes un tigre!” He then asks what Murmelstein thinks about Israelis’ hostility to him, mentioning Scholem’s letter to Hannah Arendt. Murmelstein praises Scholem somewhat ironically as a great scholar at the level of Sigmund Freud, then wonders why he didn’t use the Murmelstein case as an occasion to do some historical research. Besides, cracking a smile, isn’t it strange that Scholem opposed the execution of Eichmann but wants Murmelstein the Jew dead? “The Herr is a bit capricious with hanging, don’t you think?”

This conversation, the movie’s final scene, was filmed before the Arch of Titus, not far from the Roman Forum, at Murmelstein’s request. It is a highly symbolic place. The arch was built by the Emperor Domitian in the first century to commemorate the victories of his brother Titus, who reconquered Jerusalem in 70 CE. A sculptured panel shows this conquest and Roman soldiers carrying off an enormous menorah. One of Titus’s aides was the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who as a young man fought against the Romans and, when trapped by them, took part in a collective suicide pact that he alone survived. He later defected to the Roman side and tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a Jewish surrender to save Jerusalem and its temple from destruction, and for this was, and by some still is, considered a traitor and pariah. Murmelstein was always fascinated by Josephus and in 1938, that fateful year, published an anthology of his writings, with an introduction that concludes, “His divided and ambiguous nature turned him into a symbol of the Jewish tragedy.” A sentence that reads like an epitaph for Murmelstein himself.

As the film fades into the credits we see Lanzmann walking up a cobblestone street toward the arch, his arm draped over Murmelstein’s shoulder, a gesture that seems to say, once again, “he does not lie.” Perhaps not. But The Last of the Unjust cannot be the whole truth about this brave, slippery, wise, half-blind man.

Had Lanzmann stuck to the more jumbled, associative style of Shoah he might have been able to capture cinematically the moral shadows that still shroud this historic figure, making a powerful film more powerful still. Instead he sticks to the conventional style of the documentary apologia, which delivers a clear lesson but does not, in the end, disturb. One cannot help feeling that an opportunity was missed. By blocking all the psychological exits Shoah forced us into a genuine experience few viewers will forget. The Last of the Unjust lets us escape before we reach the center of the gray zone, where we might have encountered not only Benjamin Murmelstein but ourselves.

This is the second of two articles.

  1. 3

    This is regrettable on many grounds, given Murmelstein’s intimate knowledge, apparent in the book and movie, of Eichmann’s independent initiative, cruelty, and financial ploys to feed his ambition. In the film he also drops a bombshell: that on Kristallnacht he found Eichmann in Vienna’s Seitenstettengasse synagogue with a crowbar, eagerly directing the SS as they destroyed the place. 

  2. 4

    These transcripts, which run to hundreds of pages in German and English, along with an hour of excerpts from Lanzmann’s raw footage, are available on the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

  3. 5

    He is referring ironically to a historical novel about the Jewish predicament that won the Prix Goncourt in 1959, André Schwarz-Bart’s Le Dernier des Justes

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