The Last of the Unjust
Terezin: Il ghetto-modello di Eichmann [Theresienstadt: Eichmann’s Model Ghetto]
“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]
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…
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