Shoah and the Uses of History
     Reflections on a Film and Its Implications
Richard Maxwell

Perhaps an entire history of cinema could be written around the movement (both inside and outside) of the train: L'Arrivee d'un train en gare, Black Diamond Express, The Great Train Robbery, The Lonedale Operator, Intolerance, The Pilgrim, The Iron Horse, The General
—Gerald Mast, Film/Cinema/Movie


Claude Lanzmann's Shoah is composed exclusively of photographed interviews from roughly the last six years and photographic scrutiny of present-day landscapes; Lanzmann thus hopes to reconstruct the reality of the Nazi death camps at Treblinka, Chelmno, and Auschwitz where millions of people, mostly Jews, were murdered. The point of the reconstruction cannot be communicated by any one image or claim. However, if we are to understand Lanzmann's purpose, we might be best off starting with something immediate, something present in the world. Let us begin, therefore, by noticing the trains.

Ruth Elias, a survivor of Auschwitz, remembers ar­riving at the camp in a cattle wagon: "It was warm inside, because we made the heat, we heated it up with our temperature, body temperature. One evening the train came to a stop. The next day in the evening the doors were opened and there was a terrible screaming: 'Out, out, out, out!' We were shocked, we didn't know what was going on, where we are, we saw only SS with dogs, and we saw in the distance symmetric lights."1 This is Auschwitz as experienced by someone on the edge of being processed, "verarbeitet." She knows only that something is wrong. However, since things are happening fast, she does not yet realize the efficiency of the operation. Within three hours of the moment she recollects, almost everyone getting off the trains would be reduced to ashes.

Another viewpoint is that of the "special detail," the group of Jews selected to perform certain tasks at Auschwitz, such as raking the furnace where bodies were incinerated. Filip Müller, a survivor from the "detail," observes that his life "depended on the train loads . . . We in the 'special detail' knew that a lack of trains would lead to our liquidation." This is Auschwitz as experienced by someone in a special kind of hell. Müller had time to learn; he came to understand the logic behind the industrial, factory-like routines of extermi­nation. To wish that the trains would come was to wish a horrible death for thousands of others; to wish that the trains not arrive was to will one's own extinction.

A third perspective is afforded by Henrik Gawkowski. Gawkowski is a Pole who drove the locomotive that pushed cattle cars to Treblinka (Lanzmann is meticulous about such details). We see the old engineer ride the old route. His face has fallen in; he looks like death. His head out a window or door—it's hard to say which—he watches familiar landmarks recede behind him. Ahead of him, the station sign for Treblinka looms up into the film frame. Did he hear screams'? asks Lanzmann through a translator. "Obviously." Can one get used to that? "No. It was extremely distressing to him. He knew the people behind him were human, like him. The Germans gave him and the other workers vodka to drink. Without drinking they couldn't have done it."

Walter Stier, "former head of Reich Railways Department 33 of the Nazi Party," offers yet a fourth view. You never saw a train? "No, never. We had so much work, I never left my desk. We worked day and night." Stier maintains that he knew nothing of what happened at Treblinka or Auschwitz, despite his responsibility for commissioning "special trains" that serviced these places. He can barely identify Auschwitz: "that camp—what was its name? It was in the Oppeln district. . . ." With increasing implausibility, Stier maintains that the Poles knew everything about the death camps while German bureaucrats like himself could have known nothing.

Trains were essential to the Nazi project: extermination of whole races (Gypsies as well as Jews) could not proceed without large-scale industrial resources, mass transportation included. For many years this insight has belonged to the realm of public discourse; it is advanced by the historian Raul Hilberg, the one mainly scholarly figure interviewed in Shoah. Lanzmann's treatment of the trains, however, produces novel effects. Lanzmann is compulsive. He is willing to return again and again to the same topics. The trains—and the part they played in state-sponsored genocide—can thus assume a peculiar kind of life. The tracks, the smoke, the engine, even the engineer: they are all there before us, on the screen. At the same time their history is being recalled, pieced together from memories. We come to feel that we know the trains— within and without.

In bringing us to this state of mind, Lanzmann has exploited a technical property of film: that what we see in motion on the screen usually seems to belong to the present (compare still photographs, which have an elegaic quality). He has also relied on a synthesis of sight and sound. There are train tracks at Auschwitz today; the camera moves along them; they are ours, not some other time's. And then, of course, it occurs to us that the words we hear are also in some sense ours, that they do not speak only of the past. An obsessively precise historical reconstruction has suddenly deposited us in the present moment.

Such accomplishments need not be welcomed. Lanzmann can be boorishly aggressive in his pursuit of historical memories. Sometimes he seems to be torturing his interviewees, Jews included. Furthermore, he lacks journalistic scruples: he is more than willing to eavesdrop on old Nazis by means of hidden cameras and microphones. While Shoah has been well reviewed, many people have reservations about it. Irving Howe has recently asked: "Can we really say that in reading a memoir or novel about the Holocaust, or in seeing a film such as Shoah, we gain the pleasure, or catharsis, that is customarily associated with the aesthetic transaction? More disquieting, can we be sure that we do not gain a sort of illicit pleasure from our pained submission to such works?"2

To which I would answer: we cannot be sure. No one's motives are pure, likely enough. All the same, Shoah's treatment of the past within the present deserves a "submission" which is more than "pained," however inevitable pain might be. Perhaps I can best explain why by comparing Shoah's kind of history with a more uplifting kind just hinted at by Howe.


Without exception, Nazi camps set up for the mass-murder of Jews were located in Poland.3 Lanzmann interviewed peasants who farmed near the Treblinka camp and the railroad tracks that led to it. As they appear in Shoah, these peasants are a sly and uncouth lot. We do not feel, upon viewing them, that rural life has had an edifying effect. Their reminiscences combine platitude, malice, and self-interest: a common mixture among human beings but here unusually vivid and therefore unusually repugnant.

While all this was happening before their eyes, normal life went on? They worked their fields? . . . Were they afraid for the Jews too? "Well, he says, it's this way: if I cut my finger, it doesn't hurt him. They knew about the Jews: the convoys came in here, and then went to the camp, and the people vanished." Which is to say: we, the peasants, are sorry that the Jews had to die, nonetheless we are glad that they no longer live among us.

Occasionally the tone of peasant testimony changes; a picture of passive acquiescence in Nazi atrocity gives way to a picture of exultant moral support. A telling detail is described by at least four witnesses in Shoah. One Jewish survivor of the camps tells of being inside a train and seeing Poles outside draw fingers across their throats. It was unclear from his point of view what the gesture meant. The peasants speak more plainly. "Once there were foreign Jews—they were this fat—riding in passenger cars, . . .They said they were going to a factory. On arrival they saw what kind of a factory it was. We'd gesture [to the Jews in railroad cars] that they'd be killed."

Given these words, the throat-slitting gesture cannot have been intended helpfully. However, when Lanzmann asks for clarification, what did that gesture mean?, there is a quick retreat towards ambiguity: the gesture meant "that death awaited them." Just for a moment the speaker has identified himself as an actor—and then, with a quick cunning, thought better of this leap. He interprets his own act in a strangely neutral way, as though its purpose were to convey information.

It is clearly Lanzmann's desire to identify these Polish peasants and others like them as indirect accomplices in the murder of six million Jews. Shoah's insistence on this point has not escaped the Polish-American Congress. At Valparaiso University this past fall, I arranged for a public showing of the film in two seg­ments on two successive evenings. Between the first and the second evening, there appeared in several mailboxes at the University a letter from the Congress (Indiana Division). The letter is titled "Shoah—A One-Sided Presentation of the Holocaust."

It makes the following claims: 1) The Jewish leader­ship of Europe "could not comprehend the stark real­ity of the 'final solution.'" This failure contributed to the deaths of many Jews. 2) The Polish government-in-exile could not convince Western powers of that same "stark reality." Western powers, including the United States, must also bear responsibility for the deaths of many Jews. 3) By forgiving the Jews who worked in the death camps but condemning "simple Polish peasants" for collaboration with Nazis, Lanzmann "introduces a double moral standard." 4) "Polish efforts to save the Jews were on a much broader scale than elsewhere in occupied Europe."

This letter has little importance in itself. So far as I know, its circulation has not been wide. Nonetheless the content and tone of the arguments it advances are worth our careful study; the Polish-American Congress has embraced an approach to collective memory quite influential in popular historical practice. An analysis of the four claims listed above will help me test Lanzmann's accuracy—is he really so "one-sided" as all that?—while moving towards the issue just beneath the surface, the question of whether facts should always be told or always be remembered.

I will say of the letter's first claim mainly that it is true—though given the futile search for a country of refuge, it is not clear that Polish Jews could have escaped their fate, simply because they could not have escaped Poland.4 The third claim, I think, depends on a kind of cleverness which should be restricted to high-school debating teams and even there discour­aged. The actions of the Jewish "special details" are not comparable to the actions of the Polish peasants interviewed by Lanzmann—though it is probable, as Lanzmann suggests in an interview with the wife of a Nazi schoolteacher, that the Germans thought little more of Poles than of Jews and would for most purposes have associated the two groups.

This leaves us with the second and fourth points, each of which demands more extensive consideration. The fourth, the reference to Polish efforts to save Jews, could provoke no dissention from Lanzmann or anyone else. What is dubious about the statement is not what it says but what it leaves out. As Abraham Brumberg has recently written, "thousands of Poles did indeed risk their lives to save Jews, but most of them lived in fear of betrayal by fellow Poles."

If we consult the testimony of Marek Edelman, last survivor among the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, we discover that the Polish Resistance movement was characterized by virulent anti-Semitism; it hardly comes as a surprise that the movement gave no help, and above all no arms, to Polish Jews in their fight against the Nazis.5 Most important of all is the reception accorded those Polish Jews who attempted to return home after being freed from concentration camps. In many cases they found that gentile Poles had occupied their homes and would not give them up (Lanzmann interviews a number of Poles who lived in once-Jewish dwellings). In Kiecle, on 4 July 1946, "an old-style post-Hitler pogrom erupted. . . . Repatriation had become a meaningless slogan."6 Poland at the present day is home to only a few thousand Jews.

This brings me, finally, to the second claim of the Polish-American Congress, regarding the Polish government-in-exile and its communications with the Allied powers. The letter ignores the fact that this topic is treated in the longest uninterrupted narration during the ten hours of Shoah. The speaker is Jan Karski, described as "university professor (USA), former courier of the Polish government in exile."

Karski is photographed in a beautifully lit and spacious book-lined room. When he first opens his mouth, he cannot get out many words: he begins weeping, then leaves the room, only to be called back by the filmmaker (who here as elsewhere exerts a remarkable influence on his subjects.) Then he starts all over again. He tells how two Jewish leaders in Warsaw came to visit him. One was a Zionist, one a leader of the Bund (the Jewish socialist movement). Karski took particularly to the Bund leader, who "looked like a Polish nobleman, a gentleman, with straight, beautiful gestures."

Of the meeting that followed he notes: "they described to me first that the Jewish problem is unprecedented, cannot be compared with the Polish problem, or Russian, or any other problem. Hitler will lose this war but he will exterminate the Jewish population." Karski is to see for himself what is happening in the Warsaw Ghetto; then he will perhaps be able to convince the Allies that the situation is desperate: that they "cannot treat this war only from a purely military strategic standpoint." He goes to the ghetto, is horrified . . . but evidently proves unable to convince anyone that the situation is unprecedented.7

The Karski sequence acknowledges that not all Poles were brutal anti-Semites; it also implicity confirms the claim of the Polish-American Congress that the Allies were unwilling to take steps against German death camps (for example, to bomb the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz, tracks which were not far from the site of a major military engagement).8 Here Lanzmann and the Congress are mostly in sympathy, despite the latter's assumption of antipathy. However, Lanzmann's treatment adds another dimension to the discussion.

We need to know that at the end of the fifteenth century, Poland was home to about 25,000 Jews; by the middle of the sixteenth century, an additional 275,000 had settled there. The Jews were welcomed to Poland by a class of wealthy nobles who needed a middle class to mediate between themselves and a conquered, oppressed peasantry. Jews thus became traders, managers, and collectors of feudal revenues.

As Chaim Potok writes, "It was entirely an accident of history that placed Jewish capital in this economic role. Jews were especially suited for this task not only because of an acquired ability to administer and handle large moneys but also because they were politically powerless and would never interfere in struggles between ruler and ruled. . . . The Jew always supported the ruler and noble under whose protection he lived."9 This situation persisted until 1648, when a Cossack rebellion based in the Ukraine—which had been annexed by the Poles during the early sixteenth century—wiped out one-fourth of Poland's Jewish population, as well as many Poles.

Put these clues together and we start to understand Karski not only as an individual but also as a typical figure. His comment about the Bund Leader, "he looked like a Polish nobleman," takes on a particular resonance: we understand from it both the preconceptions of the speaker and his roots in an historical situation going back not decades but centuries. Here as elsewhere Lanzmann has used an interview strategically: he asks us to focus on a kind of cultural understanding. The more we consider a single individual's struggle in the present to remember and articulate the past, the more we are able to comprehend a large-scale historical situation complex almost beyond belief.

Shoah stands up well against claims of distortion. The more I study the film, the more I come to appreciate the representative quality of its narrations, the purposeful organization behind its anecdotes. Nonetheless: even if Lanzmann's accuracy is admitted there remains another claim, an argument strongly implied by the letter from the Polish-American Congress. That document makes a pretense of engaging the film on its own ground; at the same time it is concerned to suggest a further territory of dispute, one which it is reluctant to name. Let me do the job.

Were I to characterize the fundamental difference between the director of Shoah and the writer of the letter, I would put only a modest emphasis on particular points of historical contention (the area of disagree­ment is actually rather narrow); I would make no claims for Lanzmann's superior objectivity (he is obviously a polemicist, just as much as the writer, whoever he may be); I would not even pause to consider the contrast in medium (a two-page letter on the stationery of an incorporated society versus a ten-hour film financed by public funds).

My interest, rather, would be in two divergent forms of rhetoric. The letter adopts the language of fellowship, considered ethics, and social responsibility. It does so without mentioning certain awkward facts, but then facts are hardly the essence of the matter. The assumption of the letter-writer is that good feeling in the present can be based on a process of historical erasure. Friendliness follows forgetting: why, then must we concern ourselves with what actually happened? Why can we not concentrate on what should have happened? It might well be true that we are best off reasoning from present desires to past realities rather than vice-versa.

The choice between these alternatives is hardly a clear-cut one. Rewriting, suppressing, or ignoring the past is arguably a good idea. It is not only official state historians or radical figures like Foucault who practice "poetic history" in Nietzsche's sense. Though the official wisdom of our culture may insist that truth for its own sake is valuable, most people accept that historical narratives are seldom conceived according to such a high-toned standard. As the Polish-American Congress asserts, it is possible that Shoah "does a disservice to both [Polish Americans and Jewish Americans] in that it pulls both further apart."

I admit, then, that the burden of proof remains the responsibility of people like Lanzmann, people who stir up trouble about irremediable evils committed many decades ago. Such persons must show that there is a place for unpoetic history in a world all too packed with poets. And so—after all the fuss about accuracy—we arrive back at the question raised by Irving Howe. We have to decide whether some truths are so unpleasant, so futile, so likely to conduce to ill-feeling, that they should be allowed to rest.


A  judgment   on   this   question   could   take   many forms. In the case of the Nazi death camps we could point to efforts, quite popular during the last five or ten years, to deny that these places ever existed. Surely a falsification on this scale is worth resisting. History cannot be poeticized so blatantly, not without protest! On the other hand, as the letter from the PAC shows, people of good faith can admit the reality of the death camps without wishing for a full exploration of all the human ugliness surrounding them. To justify Shoah's treatment of its subject, we need to make a narrower kind of case. I will take one step—one only—in this direction.

At the very beginning of Shook, Lanzmann introduces Simon Srebnik, one of two Jews to survive the Chelmno death camp. After World War II Srebnik moved to Tel Aviv. Lanzmann "persuaded that one-time boy singer to return with me to Chelmno." We watch Srebnik punting his way up the river Narew, singing the folk songs he used to perform for SS officers during such voyages. Lanzmann suggests by this image that Srebnik's return is a false idyll, a false homecoming—which of course it is. Though we seem to be far away from the trains and the camps, we are not. At the end of Shook, part one, this realization is taken up and expanded in the most extraordinary sequence I can remember from a documentary film.

Srebnik appears at the entrance to the Catholic church in Chelmno, where the birthday of the Virgin Mary is being celebrated. People gather about him, at­tracted by Srebnik himself or perhaps by Lanzmann's camera. On either side of the visitor is a portly, grandmotherly lady; the ladies in turn are flanked by others. The effect is of a desultory but cheerful family photograph.

In the background we can see people entering the church; as Lanzmann notes, it's a good crowd despite the rain. The villagers affirm that they are very pleased, that they are glad to see Srebnik again—and we cannot doubt this: their affability is real. Srebnik, at the center of this moving family photograph, smiles. Then Lanzmann leads the crowd into one of his memory exercises.

They remember when the Jews were locked in this church? . . . The vans came to the church door! They all knew these were death vans, to gas people? . . . They heard screams at night? Were there as many Jews in the church as there were Christians today? The questions elicit a reconstruction of the past whose effect must be seen and heard to be fully appreciated. A character in one of Dickens' novels keeps wondering gloomily how he can identify the Voice of Society. As we follow this extraordinary conversation in front of the church at Chelmno, we feel that we have located the voice of a town, if not a whole culture.

No one individual dominates (yet). There are many comments from many people, together forming a group reminiscence. Much of the reminiscence does not seem trustworthy. How are we to take the assertion that the Jews locked in the church, awaiting extinction, "called on Jesus and Mary and God, some­times in German?" Trustworthiness, however, is beside the point. We are discovering what people—not historians, or professors, or public affairs officers, but everyday people—think that they know. And what they know follows an age-old pattern.

At the climax of this group narrative, after the procession in honor of the Virgin Mary has passed, an individual speaker finally does emerge. He is Mr. Kantarowski, whom from past scenes we are able to identify as the church organist. The crowd practically pushes him out in front of the camera. Or is it he who is pushing? "Mr. Kantarowski will tell us what a friend told him. It happened in Myndjewyce, near Warsaw." Go on. "The Jews there were gathered in a square. . . . 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.' "

In response to an inquiry from Lanzmann, Mr. Kan­tarowski denies that the Jews expiated the death of Christ "or even that Christ sought revenge. The rabbi said it." At this moment one of the grandmotherly ladies breaks out in a near-quotation of Matthew 27:25. The last comment from the crowd is: "Now you know."

All this time Simon Srebnik remains at the center of the crowd and the film frame. Among the death-camp survivors interviewed in Shoah, Srebnik has seemed the least burdened by his ordeal: perhaps this is because he was so young at the time of the war, or because he survived by singing to SS officers instead of by pushing bodies into furnaces. At any rate his features are open and kindly: he beams to find himself in Chelmno and indeed to be welcomed so royally.

Then the conversation takes its turn towards the past. Mr. Kantarowski moves to stage center while the guest, the visitor, stands forgotten—even though he has never changed position. A blankness steals over Srebnik, until he finds it hard to decide where he should look. I would almost say that his features fall in, so isolated, so vulnerable does he seem while the good people of Chelmno tell Claude Lanzmann what is on their minds.

These villagers had read the Bible, or heard it read: they were thus encouraged to accept the Nazi project. Certain texts of Christianity effectively encouraged acquiesence in mass murder.10 Here is a truth as ugly, almost, as any stated during the course of Shoah. How could it be useful? I suggest that the question is not so much of blame, of who is at fault, as of acknowledging a disturbing fact and acting on it. Like the little church at Chelmno, the Christian tradition is marked by an event of singular horror.

Post-war theologians have tried to define an adequate response to the fact of the death camps, so far without a consensus emerging. Shoah's study of anti-Semitism points up the urgency of this undertak­ing and perhaps offers a clue towards its resolution. I will echo an argument from the current theological discussion.11

Not all suffering is redemptive. Suffering which is not redemptive—and which is therefore difficult to as­similate into a Christian frame of reference—can all the same contribute to our understanding of the world. After we view Shoah, for example, we can never read the Gospel of Matthew in quite the same way. The place of the canonical scriptures within the Christian tradition has been transformed for us. We may be moved to wonder how, or under what circumstances, this canon could be altered. So far as we are thus moved, the film has done us a service: we have learned that good feeling can be based on our own actions and acknowledgements rather than on a suppression of the historical record.

If Poland still appears distant, despite Lanzmann's best effort, a final reminder is in order. Though anti-Semitism should have been discredited permanently after the events of World War II, it continued to thrive—and not in Poland, Austria, or Russia alone. A friend of mine recalls participating in a Chicago peace march during the late 1960s; she heard voices yell from a crowd, "Open the ovens of Auschwitz!"

Hoosier sentiments are likely to be less aggressive, but not much less disturbing. Students at my own University have been known to make the assumption that Jews are ethically suspect, certainly inferior to Christians. At one of the local fraternity houses, someone who doesn't want to spend a lot of money is a "Scheckie" (the term, I am informed, is drawn from the name of someone's Jewish professor or high school teacher). This sort of jibe tends to come from otherwise pleasant and humane people, who are invariably surprised to learn that their remarks might give offense.

I am tempted to overlook the whole matter; then I think of those nice ladies nestling up against Simon Srebnik at Chelmno. And I recall that ideas have consequences.


1Here, as elsewhere in this essay, I quote from the script of Shoah as published by Pantheon Books (1985). The Pantheon edition gives Lanzmann's questions in italics, a practice I have followed. Where answers are quoted in the third person, the presence of a translator is implied.

2"Writing and the Holocaust," The New Republic, 27 October 1986.

3See Map 8 in Martin Gilbert's The Holocaust: Maps and Photographs (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978).

4See Map 12 in Gilbert's Holocaust.

5Brumberg makes his comment in "A Last Stand in Po­land," The New York Times Book Review, 19 October 1986. Cf. Norman Davies' "The Survivor's Voice," The New York Review of Books, 20 November 1986. Like Brumberg, Davies reviews Marek Edelman's recently translated Shielding the Flame; it is striking how differently Edelman's testimony is used by these two writers. Brumberg emphasizes a side of Edelman's writing (especially an interview with the Polish underground journal Cms, given ten years after Shielding the Flame was written) which would strongly support Lanzmann's analysis in Shoah; Davies uses Edelman (and particularly his decision to remain in Poland) to attack Lanzmann's motives. The not-so-hidden item on Davies' agenda is the desirability of the state of Israel. He suggests that Poles and Jews got along pretty well and—where they didn't—that there was wrong on both sides; ergo, nationalist, narrow-minded Zionists misled the Jews of Poland by encouraging them to depart for the Middle East after World War II. Without feeling any enthusiasm for Israel's foreign policy, I find it hard to swallow this interpretation of recent history.

6Nora Levin, The Holocaust: The Destruction of European Jewry 1933-1945 (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), 711. According to Joel Fishman, eight hundred Jews were murdered in the two years immediately after the war. Fishman records the opinion that the motivations behind this wave of anti-Semitism were double: 1) people did not want to give up Jewish orphans they had adopted and baptized; 2) people did not want to give up Jewish property they had appropriated. See Genocide: Critical Issues of the Holocaust, edited by Alex Grobman and Daniel Landes (The Simon Wiesenthal Center, 1983), 341.

7Lanzmann implies Karski's failure but does not explicitly mention it. The end of the story is told in Yisrael Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw, 1939-1943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), 362-363. Gutman quotes Ignacy Schwartzbart's comment that Karski was a "rare phenomenon among the Poles. If he thinks as he talks, and if the majority of Poles would act as he says, things would be better."

8See David Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).

9Wanderings: Chaim Potok's History of the Jews (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1983), 336.

10A fuller consideration of Polish history would discuss the role of the Polish Catholic Church in encouraging anti-Semitism. See Ezra Mendelsohn, The Jews of East Central Europe Between the World Wars (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983), 71-72.

11I thank Jim Moore, my colleague, for loaning me several unpublished papers on this subject.

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