"SHOAH" (meaning Annihilation) is a film which attempts to instruct on the experience of the Nazi death camps. It was shown in Ann Arbor by the Hillel Foundation over several weeks in April of this year. This film deals with how it was possible for the Nazis to slaughter so many. It also considers the issues of how those who knew of the atrocities responded to this knowledge and how the lessons of the Holocaust affect the present. I approached the viewing of this movie as one sometimes approaches requisite cultural or educational experiences. I feit that I "should" see this film, that I had an obligation to be familiar with its contents, to understand its intentions. I had no lack of actual concern or interest in the topic, yet I feit that it might be difficult to view. Having some familiarity with films made when the Allies liberated the death camps, I expected to undergo some of the nauseating, riveting horror one experiences when viewing the footage of piles of thousands of people who have been starved and brutalized to death. "SHOAH" does not approach the topic in this manner. The French filmmaker, Claude Lanzmann, created this film over a ten year period. There is no footage of war time scènes and there are no clear pictures of gross atrocities. He presents only current interviews with the perpetrators and victims of the Holocaust. He presents current views of the sites of the former camps. The film runs for 9 and 12 hours. As one views it, the immediate shock and horror of the newsreel footage is not experienced. Rather, a more pervasive and inescapable understanding develops. One of the most chilling realizations one experiences is that so many knew what was happening to the Jews. Although the Nazis went to great lengths to hide the evidence,even grinding into powder the few bones left after the incineration of the bodies, there were many thousands of people who were acutely aware of the massive killings. These people did nothing to intervene. Lanzmann interviews contemporary Polish peasants who acknowledge that they lived within feet of the camps. The stenen of the burning bodies is described as well as the massive numbers of people arriving, never to leave. Although the horrors of the camps are now well known, the faces of the peasants are remarkable in their impassivity. The peasants assert quite blandly that the Jews were killed because they were the "richest" Several of the women declare in jealous tones that the Jewesses were "very pretty." It may be that the human psyche is incapable of understanding such massive atrocities, especially when to acknowledge them means such guilt and such a necessity for action. The killing machine was so huge and so efficiënt that individuals may have feit powerless. The knowledge may have been so overwhelming that people could not contend with its true implications. Denial is a very powerful human defense. This is one possibility. It must be considered in light of the fact that a recent survey in Austria revealed that one in four Austrians remains antiSemitic. The noted historian, Raúl Hilberg, who is featured in the film, states that he has a "fear of probing 'big' questions about the Holocaust for fear of coming up with 'small' answers." The answers to why and how this could have happened are indeed small when the individuals are considered. Each person wished to protect him or herself and would not see that by doing so they supported the Nazis, they encouraged them. The bureaucratie use of language perpetuated this soit of attitude. Benign terms were used to describe their grisly tasks. The Jews were transponed in large trains with the people referred to as "pieces" or "cargo." One of the functionaries who was in charge of the Germán railroad describes the large numbers of Jews and others who were transponed to the camps. He speaks to the enormous task and seeks to sympathize with the horror. Although he denies knowledge of the fate of his passengers, he neglects to address why he did not notice that none of the thousands ever left the camps as they carne. This governmental use of language and its acceptance by the people is frightening when we consider that the recent attack on Libya by our government was described on the nightly news as "defense suppression." As one man relates in the film, if you teil lies enough you start to believe them. It also becomes clear that the orders and the planning were acceptable if one didn't "utter the words appropriate to the acts." The shallow nature of the perpetrators' or Nazi "technicians1" denial is skillfully revealed. Director Lanzmann interviews some of the former SS Commandants. They do not relize that they are being filmed. Several of them are adamant that they did not comprehend the extent of the killing. Lanzmann then asks specifïc questions about the massive technology of death which these men helped to créate. They then unwittingly reveal their pride in their accomplishments. They eagerly describe their success at killing huge numbers of people in the shortest amounts of time. One of the Commandante bursts into a spirited rendition of the camp song. Even so, they seek to exonérate themselves and to make a human connection with the interviewer by acknowledging some of the atrocities. By doing so they merely testify to their own culpability. There is a tendency when considering history to disavow the current possibilities for such evente. Perhaps this is why Lanzmann focuses on the actors-victims and perpetrators--in the present. Many Nazis and some survivors live today. The Holocaust is not an event remóte in time. lts effects remain. Richard von Weizsacker, the president of the Germán Federal Republic, delivered a speech last year on the 40th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. In this speech Mr. Weizsacker stated, "Anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present. Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risks of infection." This statement is particularly forceful when one considers that Helmut Kohl, the current Chancellor of West Germany, is now supporting the candidacy of Kurt Waldheim for the Austrian presidency. The evidence is mounting that Mr. Waldheim was one of the actors in the drama of the Holocaust. In Waldheim's recently discovered war diaries, there is clear evidence that he accepted and fulfilled orders to murder hundreds of partisans. He has made campaign speeches in which he has stated, "We were not doing anything but our duty as decent soldiere." Mr. Waldheim has chosen to deny the lessons of history. One must consider whether this can be the result of his denial or the callousness of one who has a conscience which permits him to hate so many in such an unreasonable and desparate manner. One European diplomat was heard to say "Waldheim's skin is so thick that he doesn't need a spine." The testimony of the Polish peasants would also seem to indícate such bland unconcem for the horrors of the Nazi regime. Primary questions which these responses raise are what could possibly cause such hatred for the Jews and such an unimaginable solution to be generated? How is it possible that these feelings and ideas still exist after the tragedy of the Holocaust? Victims and perpetrators alike, witnesses to the Holocaust, live among us. The horrors are exhaustively documented. The citizens of Europe were unavoidably faced with the attempted annihilation of the Jews. There are clear indications that Waldheim is the favorite of the Austrian people and that he will win the presidency. There is clear evidence that Waldheim was a Nazi perpétrate. The evente of the 1930's and 40's are not yet past Judy Brown is an MSW working in Washtenaw County.
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