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

By Recognizing Israeli Sovereignty over the Golan, the U.S. Has Freed Israel from “Land for Peace”

March 25 2019

In the 52 years since Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria, there have been multiple efforts to negotiate their return in exchange for Damascus ending its continuous war against the Jewish state. Shmuel Rosner argues that, with his announcement on Thursday acknowledging the legitimacy of Jerusalem’s claim to the Golan, Donald Trump has finally decoupled territorial concessions from peacemaking:

[With] the takeover of much of Syria by Iran and its proxies, . . . Israel had no choice but to give up on the idea of withdrawing from the Golan Heights. But this reality involves a complete overhaul of the way the international community thinks not just about the Golan Heights but also about all of the lands Israel occupied in 1967. . . .

Withdrawal worked for Israel once, in 1979, when it signed a peace agreement with Egypt and left the Sinai Peninsula, which had also been occupied in 1967. But that also set a problematic precedent. President Anwar Sadat of Egypt insisted that Israel hand back the entire peninsula to the last inch. Israel decided that the reward was worth the price, as a major Arab country agreed to break with other Arab states and accept Israel’s legitimacy.

But there was a hidden, unanticipated cost: Israel’s adversaries, in future negotiations, would demand the same kind of compensation. The 1967 line—what Israel controlled before the war—became the starting point for all Arab countries, including Syria. It became a sacred formula, worshiped by the international community.

What President Trump is doing extends far beyond the ability of Israel to control the Golan Heights, to settle it, and to invest in it. The American president is setting the clock back to before the peace deal with Egypt, to a time when Israel could argue that the reward for peace is peace—not land. Syria, of course, is unlikely to accept this. At least not in the short term. But maybe someday, a Syrian leader will come along who doesn’t entertain the thought that Israel might agree to return to the pre-1967 line and who will accept a different formula for achieving peace.

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More about: Donald Trump, Golan Heights, Israel & Zionis, Peace Process, Sinai Peninsula, Syria