Amos Oz: Mary Kafka's Suitcase
MARY KAFKA'S SUITCASE
(Written after viewing Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah)
and Fellow Man
Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah: An Oral History of the Holocaust (1985) is the most powerful film I have ever seen. It is a creation that transforms the viewer.
After collapsing on the witness stand during the Eichmann trial, author Ka-Tzetnik said that Auschwitz was a "planet of ashes," that the destruction of the Jews took place "on a different planet," and that whoever had not been there would never understand. With this, he concisely expressed the same idea that teachers, public figures, and orators have tried to instill in us in their efforts to "inculcate an awareness of the Holocaust in native-born Israelis." Something inhuman happened there; satanic, metaphysic. As thoughhistory had been broken in the middle and transplanted to another planet.
The Holocaust, so they told us, and we repeated it to ourselves, is "incomprehensible."
The very term "Holocaust" creates an extrahuman approach to destruction. A holocaust is an outburst of natural forces, which humans neither cause nor have the power to prevent or to influence, nor even to understand its causes and the manner of its occurrence. Earthquake, flood, tornado.
Claude Lanzmann produced his film from a completely opposite position. His choice of the Hebrew title Shoah not-withstanding, we can, he offers, comprehend the destruction, not outside history, but within it, not beyond human nature, but as part of it, provided that we get down to the smallest details. None of this took place on another planet; it all happened on this earth, amid forests and meadows and peaceful hills, near idyllic villages, on the banks of rushing brooks, not far from people herding cows, playing cards, and fixing roofs in preparation for winter. There is no planet of ashes. The murdered victims were not saints. They were men, women, and children like anyone else—optimistic, frightened, and with limited imagination. The Polish peasants who happened to see the mass murders at close hand, indifferent witnesses, conniving witnesses, spiteful witnesses—they, too, were people like any others. And the survivors who appear in the film, who survived by cunning or by luck or by courage, were like any other human beings.
And, in truth, so were the murderers. They were not hairy devils, glowering beasts, or foaming fanatics, but men like all other men. Perhaps a little more stupid than the normal, average human, but not much more.
Not one figure, in nine and a half hours of Lanzmann, is larger than life.
Lanzmann's view is not to be confused with Hannah Arendt's well-known ingenious theory, in her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem”, of the "banality of evil." Lanzmann does not portray evil as a banal thing, but as something that masquerades as banal, a mixture of selfishness, stupidity, indifference, and ignorance, of prejudice tinged with malice. Lanzmann does not view the destruction of the Jews as a mythological drama or as a metaphysical cataclysm, nor as a theological experience or as an existential symbol. As if obsessed, he stubbornly recreates, through minute technical details, the aggregate acts committed by human beings with the help of other human beings and in the presence of additional human beings to still other masses of human beings, almost all of whom did not comprehend, until their last moments, what was about to be done to them; who, when ordered to lend a hand in the undertaking, obeyed. Because it was not possible to disobey.
Even the handful of heroes in the uprising, even one or two speakers who understood what was happening, are not larger than life. There is no place in this movie for God, for the devil, for the spirit of history. The film distances the viewer from the widely held conception that maintains that the killing was the logical outgrowth of the "Germanic spirit," as well as from the common conclusion that "the germ lurks everywhere, and no individual and no people is immune."
One can find in the film moments of astonishing and penetrating exposure of the intensity of popular Christian anti-Semitism. But the Nazis who were interviewed made no use of Christian anti-Semitic cliches. They, do not talk like anti-Semites at all. We had a dirty job to do, they say, and we did our duty under particularly difficult and ugly conditions.
There are almost no images, symbols, or cinematic metaphors in the film. There are a lot of trains that symbolize trains. The snow stands for snow, and the forests for forests.
Perhaps Lanzmann is wary of metaphors because he knows that the murder of the Jews was the "literal" embodiment of an ancient metaphor.
What, then, is the focus of the film? It focuses primarily on a kind of "systems analysis," in the industrial sense of the term. The mass killings began in 1941 and were conducted by simple, clumsy methods: shootings and mass burials.
Within a few months, in an effort to overcome "production constraints," trucks were employed to asphyxiate human beings with carbon monoxide fed in from the exhaust pipe, and the mass graves, which created problems, were replaced by open cremation pits. Within a year, more sophisticated killing methods were developed: Zyklon B gas chambers disguised as delousing showers, and crematoria capable of processing thousands of bodies each day. The process of perfecting the production line continued almost until Germany's surrender. The Holocaust boils down to just a handful of production engineers, laborious, inventive, and devoted to their task. And a handful of German executives at each of the murder sites. And several dozens of Ukrainian and Lithuanian "security guards," whose job it was to substitute for German manpower needed at the front. Thousands of Jewish "production workers," forced to attain a high level of efficiency and specialization. And, of course, a Polish population to provide the industry of death with an optimal "ecological" environment to implement the process.
None of this is "incomprehensible": Lanzmann chooses not to deal with "the birth of the horror from the spirit of Germanity"—the “Nibelungenlied”, Martin Luther, Goethe, Hegel, Chamberlain and Gobineau, Nietzsche and Richard Wagner—rather, he prefers to focus on the facts, on the technique; on how the survivors, murderers, and witnesses use words. Hitler himself, for example, "appears" only once: a Jewish artisan from Corfu, with a sheepish smile, demonstrates in front of the camera how to draw four pigs and then fold the paper in a certain way to make a portrait of the Fiihrer. Nothing more. There is no Satan. The murder of the Jews
appears here as an intrahuman affair. I almost wrote "as a matter between man and his fellow man."
Here in this transport
With my son Abel
If you see my older son
Cain, son of Adam,
Tell him that I am
"Written in Pencil
in the Sealed Wagon," from
the collection Metamorphosis
Tell him that I am what?
Nothing. Silence. That is how Lanzmann's film, too, concludes. A sealed train moving along the tracks. And silence. No lesson, no moral.
Except, perhaps, for one trivial conclusion: All those involved—Jews, Germans, Poles—have fingers; they all have ears, lips, and eyelashes. They all have grown old. They all get dressed, eat, sit, wake up, and go to sleep. Some of them are suffering from illnesses and infirmities; others look fine for their advanced age. Nothing has come to a conclusion or a resolution, except for the lives of the millions murdered. The Holocaust is still going on because the suffering continues.
And the forgetting continues, including the forgetting by dint of a stern decision to forget. Everything flows. It is both possible and impossible, according to Lanzmann, to take a dip in the same river twice. It is both possible and impossible to sit in Cain's living room, over a cup of tea, and chat with him about Eve and Abel, who were in the sealed wagon.
"How did you feel?" Lanzrnann asks Franz Suchomel, an SS man, old and ailing, in front of a hidden camera. "How did you feel when you first saw the bodies spilling out of the gas chamber at Treblinka?"
"People fell out like potatoes," the aging murderer recalls in a tone of wonder and sadness. "Naturally," he adds, "we . . . cried like old women at first. It was . . . catastrophic,
Herr Lanzmann. Do you understand? Catastrophic."
The quotations from Shoah in this section are based on the author's recollection; they were not taken verbatim from the film.