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Auschwitz gave to Promo Levi when he dared to ask the "Why?" question. To be sure, the guard was simply attempting to be cynical and sarcastic rather than reflective or philosophical, but LaCapra is also critical of Claude Lanzmann for failing to ask this question enough in Shoah. All of the Germans who Lanzmann interviewed were either perpetrators of complicit bystanders, and they spent a great deal of time explaining what, where and how the Holocaust happened, while also denying or minimizing their own responsibility. Franz Suchomel, the S.S. guard at Treblinka, was a notable exception to this rule, but Lanzmann interviewed him with a hidden camera after promising to keep his identity anonymous. Almost all of the Jewish survivors described what happened in painful detail, and Lanzmann's preference was to make them literally relive their experiences, but they were not asked why. With a few exceptions the resistance leader Jan Karski, who visited the Warsaw Ghetto and tried to warn the Allies about the death camps, most of the Poles he spoke to were unsympathetic to the Jews or even pleased to observe them being exterminated. They also revealed their Christian anti-Semitism on at least one occasion, but that was not what motivated the Nazis. Interesting, he did not talk to anyone from his native country of France, no matter whether survivors, perpetrators or bystanders, and the only historian on camera was Raul Hilberg.
Shoah certainly shows the viewer a great deal of the Polish countryside, especially the obscure towns of Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec and Chelmo, which do not get as much recognition as Auschwitz in the story of extermination. Very few people survived these other death camps, but Lanzmann has found some of them, like Abraham Bomba, a barber at Treblinka who cut the hair of the victims before they entered the gas chamber, and Simon Srebnik, one of the few survivors of Chelmo. In his case, he was shot in the head by the Nazis in January 1945 and left for dead, and he had only survived that long because they had kept him as a kind of mascot and forced him to sing for them (LaCapra 248). In one scene, Srbnek is standing outside a Polish church with the villagers, who remembered the day the Jews were rounded up and sent to be gassed. They recalled being sympathetic to him, but at the same time stated that the Jews were exterminated as a punishment for killing Jesus Christ 2,000 years before (LaCapra 248). Lanzmann rented a barbershop in Israel and forced Bomba to stand there cutting hair while he described what occurred in the camp, even when he broke down and said "It's too horrible. Please" (LaCapra 256). Most of these Polish towns had not changed much at all since the Second World War, and even the trains looked very similar to the ones that hauled freight cars to the death camps. Henrik Gawkowski, a locomotive engineer and one of the few Poles he finds sympathetic, is made to drive his train again back to location of the same death camps, and recalls that the Germans gave extra liquor rations to those who had to make these trips. He has been drinking heavily ever since and still hears the screaming in his nightmares (LaCapra 257). These are the parts where Shoah offers the most powerful experience to the viewer, short of actually being there when the events occurred.
Lanzmann did not believe that normal historical methods could do justice to this subject, which is why he had a rule against using any pictures, films or documents from the period, which are common in other nonfiction films about the Holocaust such as Night and Fog. He opposed any attempt to "relegate it to an inert past or assume that it has been thoroughly historicized and normalized" (LaCapra 240). Nor does he offer any hope for the viewers, witnesses and perpetrators to work through their trauma, because the damage has been too profound. His skepticism of conventional history increased because "there was an absolute gap between the bookish knowledge I had acquired and what these people told me" (LaCapra 252). Raul Hilberg explained the "why" at least to some extent when he described the Shoah as a culmination of a long history of anti-Semitism, from those who first declared that "you cannot live among us" to the Nazis who said "you cannot live" (LaCapra 236). For most of his time on camera, though, he explains how the German railroad system operated in moving Jews to the extermination centers on a strict timetable, even from as far away as Greece and Corfu. This leads him to interview Walter Stier, a German railroad official in Warsaw during the war, who denied any knowledge of Jews being deported to their deaths although he recalled very well that he routed "special" trains to places like Treblinka and Auschwitz. Stier maintained that he stayed carefully glued to his desk, afraid to even say a word about what was going on, lest he end up in a concentration camp as well. Dr. Franz Grassler, an economist who was second-in-command of the Warsaw Ghetto, was equally smiley, reasonable and evasive when he denied any intention to exterminate the Jews but only to keep them alive as workers in German war industries. He also mentioned that he was relatively young and powerless at the time and had no real control over anything that was going on. Lanzmann never really accepted the Hannah Arendt's thesis about the banality of evil and bureaucratic mass murder, though, since this portrayed a "machine made up entirely of cogs with no motor" like Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich and Goebbels (LaCapra 263).
In his chapter on the Gray Zone from The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi found less of a clear distinction between good and evil or friends and enemies than Lanzmann did in Shoah. For example, he did not interview any members of the Jewish councils or kapos and prisoner trustees from the camps, who were both victims and perpetrators. Lanzmann did interview Rudolf Vrba, a Jewish resistance member who escaped from Auschwitz in 1944 and attempted to inform the Allies about what was going on there. Like Jan Karski, though, he seemed to arouse little response from them, in spite of pleas from Jewish organizations to bomb the gas chambers and railroad lines. According to Vrba, the non-Jewish resistance leaders in Auschwitz were in a slightly different position from the Jews since they had a much better chance of survival if they could improve conditions in the camp to some degree and wait for the war to end, while the Jews were all slated for the gas chambers. For Levy, the true evil of Nazism is that it does not sanctify its victims but rather "it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself" (Levi 40). This was true of all the prisoner-trustees in the camps who found safer and more comfortable jobs to ensure their own survival. Those who did not would usually die of cold, hunger or disease in two or three months at the most. Prisoner-functionaries were also vital in keeping the camps running, as were collaborators in every country occupied by the Germans. Chaim Rumkowski, the Jewish 'king' of the Lodz Ghetto in 1940-44, was just such a collaborator. He and his friends survived well enough for a few years even while the Jewish masses starved to death on rations of 800 calories a day (Levi 62). He even found artists and poets to sing his praises in return for a loaf of bread, and acted like a miniature Hitler, even giving speeches in the same style (Levi 64). Hans Biebow, the ghetto administrator and Rumkowski's partner in crime, also had an economic interest in…[continue]
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