Timothy Snyder: The Holocaust We Don’t See: Lanzmann’s Shoah Revisited





[Timothy Snyder is Professor of History at Yale. His new book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, was published this month. (October 2010).]

Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, opening this month in New York twenty-five years after its original release, is one of the great works of art of the twentieth century. As it begins, Simon Srebnik, a Polish Jew who was one of two survivors of Chełmno, returns to the death facility at Lanzmann’s request, and sings a song of his boyhood—about a white house, a house that is no longer—in the language of a country that was his homeland as it was of millions of Jews for centuries, a Poland made wretched by war. Mordechai Podchlebnik, the other survivor of Chełmno, in another conversation with Lanzmann, remembers human smoke against blue skies. The work of the stationary gas chambers began in German-occupied Poland on December 8, 1941. Here is the beginning of Lanzmann’s nine-hour reconstruction of the Holocaust, and in commencing with the faces and voices of Chełmno’s survivors, he has chosen well. Using no historical footage, Lanzmann instead elicits the detailed horror of mass death by asphyxiation at Chełmno, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, and Auschwitz from his own conversations with Jewish victims, German perpetrators, and Polish bystanders.

A quarter century ago, the Holocaust was not as widely recognized as it is today as an unprecedented evil. Lanzmann did much to change that. In his expansive “fiction of the real,” as he calls it, he is like a French realist novelist of the nineteenth century, addressing an injustice by painstaking research: a decade of reading; hundreds of risky conversations with victims, perpetrators, and bystanders; thousands of hours of unused film. This is “J’accuse” six million times over. Lanzmann is quite visible in the film, and heroically so. In his conversations with Jews and Germans and Poles, he is the perfect image of a French intellectual seeker of truth, doing what the existentialists spoke about but rarely did: imposing his mind and his will on a great emptiness, forcing it to take shape, and so leaving a trace of himself in history....


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