Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” Memorialized Its Subject in a Way Nothing Else Could

July 13 2018

On July 5, Claude Lanzmann—whose epic documentary Shoah brought the story of Hitler’s war against the Jews to thousands, if not millions, of viewers—died at the age of ninety-two. Walter Reich reflects on Lanzmann’s contributions, and on years of showing the film to students in a course on the Holocaust:

[S]ome sources of Holocaust memory that we study can muddy it, especially commercial films. For a Holocaust-related commercial film to be successful, it usually has to leave the viewer feeling at least some sense of relief, such as the rescue of a thousand Jews by Oskar Schindler, some of whom are shown at the end of the film, with their children, paying homage to his memory at his stone in a Christian cemetery in Jerusalem. Films that are brutally honest fail commercially—such as The Grey Zone, probably the finest Holocaust film ever made. Some films utterly distort Holocaust memory for millions. The worst offender was Life Is Beautiful, which won an Oscar, was seen by many millions around the world, and was a sentimentally saccharine lie. After watching this feel-good creation, some viewers imagined that in the Holocaust Jews routinely joked around and children survived in barracks thinking they were playing games. . . .

But the testimonies preserved in Lanzmann’s Shoah, and the film as a whole, are a source of Holocaust memory in a class by itself. My students experience the wrenching words of survivors uttered in the very places where they were among the few who weren’t murdered. They watch local citizens who knew of the killing operations even as they looked the other way and even as they saw Jews through anti-Semitic lenses. And they watch killers being interviewed. In Shoah, the survivors are far younger than the ones who have been filmed in recent years, far closer to the event itself. . . .

Toward the end of my Holocaust-memory course, the students study the ways in which that memory has been denied by anti-Semites; hijacked by government officials, including our own, to further political ends; distorted by nationalists in Eastern Europe who want to cleanse their own countries of the stains left by the participation of their own citizens in murdering Jews; and inverted by enemies of Israel by claiming that the Jewish state is doing to others what others once did to Jews. All this even as survivors of the Holocaust die and their living voices of conscience are stilled.

Except as preserved in great works. And the greatest of them all is Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah.

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More about: Claude Lanzmann, Film, History & Ideas, Holocaust

Zionists Can, and Do, Criticize Israel. Are Anti-Zionists Capable of Criticizing Anti-Semitism?

Dec. 12 2018

Last week, the New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg defended the newly elected anti-Israel congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, ostensibly arguing that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism aren’t identical. Abe Greenwald comments:

Tlaib . . . has tweeted and retweeted her enthusiasm for terrorists such as Rasmea Odeh, who murdered two American students in a Jerusalem supermarket in 1969. If Tlaib’s anti-Zionism is of the Jew-loving kind, she has a funny way of showing it.

Ilhan Omar, for her part, once tweeted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” And wouldn’t you know it, just because she believes that Zionist hypnotists have cast global spells masking Israeli evil, some people think she’s anti-Semitic! Go figure! . . .

Goldberg spends the bulk of her column trying very hard to uncouple American Jewishness from Israel. To do that, she enumerates Israel’s sins, as she sees them. . . . [But] her basic premise is at odds with reality. Zionists aren’t afraid of finding fault with Israel and don’t need to embrace anti-Zionism in order to [do so]. A poll conducted in October by the Jewish Electorate Institute found that a majority of Americans Jews have no problem both supporting Israel and criticizing it. And unlike Goldberg, they have no problem criticizing anti-Semitism, either.

Goldberg gives the game away entirely when she discusses the discomfort that liberal American Jews have felt in “defending multi-ethnic pluralism here, where they’re in the minority, while treating it as unspeakable in Israel, where Jews are the majority.” She adds: “American white nationalists, some of whom liken their project to Zionism, love to poke at this contradiction.” Read that again. She thinks the white nationalists have a point. Because, really, what anti-Semite doesn’t?

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Israel & Zionism, New York Times