Ordinary People

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No one comes off well—neither the timid church, nor the waffling mayor, nor the press nor the courts nor the business community nor the educational institutions in which Boston takes such pride. In the Boston busing crisis the burden of all the individual and institutional history that Lukas has labored to uncover—the tough questions of equality and citizenship and fairness for which those to whom we usually look for leadership provided no answers—was finally shifted onto the shoulders of the children of the poorest, least educated, least hopeful among Boston’s citizens. In the conflagration that followed, only the police seem to have done their duty, laboring hard and thanklessly to keep the ordinary people of their city from actually killing one another.

This is a bleak book, but an important and honest one. Its only hopeful note—and the only common ground these embattled people truly seem to share—is the grit and tenacity with which they struggle just to live their lives.

Do you know how many Jews were exterminated there [at Chelmno, Poland]?” The off-camera interviewer’s voice is gentle but insistent. The elderly woman in close-up, widow of a Nazi schoolteacher who was stationed near Chelmno during World War II, looks thoughtful.

Four something,” she says, finally. “Four hundred thousand, forty thousand?”

“Four hundred thousand,” the interviewer prompts her.

The burden of all the great issues in the Boston busing crisis was heaped on the shoulders of the children of the poorest, least educated, least hopeful citizens.

“Four hundred thousand, yes,” she brightens. “I knew it had a four in it. Sad, sad, sad!”

This surreal exchange is one of scores that comprise Shoah , the French director Claude Lanzmann’s harrowing, monumental film on the holocaust. It runs nearly ten hours; it is reiterative, relentless, sometimes crudely photographed, and it is surely one of the most important historical films ever made. Not one frame is archival: there are no heaps of corpses here, no living skeletons. Instead, it is an unforgettable re-creation of the business of extermination, made up of the vivid, brutal memories of those who lived through it—Jews who somehow endured the death camps and the Warsaw ghetto; Germans who oversaw the destruction; Poles who watched it all.

It is hard to know how widely shown this film will be; its length and subject are both daunting, and as I write, there are still no plans to televise it. A slender book has been put together from the subtitles that captures something of the film’s power but cannot convey the emotional impact of watching the witnesses’ faces as Lanzmann forces them in the interest of history to confront again events most of them have sought for forty years to forget. (The major exception to this rule of reluctance is a former SS man, filmed with a concealed camera, who seems to have near-total recall of how he and his colleagues supervised the murders of twelve to fifteen thousand people a day at Treblinka; he eagerly uses a pointer and an outsized chart to show Lanzmann just how things were organized for maximum efficiency, clearly delighted to have someone so interested in his work .)

The director devoted more than ten years of his life to making this film—with time out to recuperate from an assault by angry former Nazis—and he is an uncompromising interviewer. An Israeli barber who survived Treblinka by cutting the hair of women about to be gassed, suddenly breaks down at the memory of having seen a friend forced to cut the hair of his own wife and sister, pleading: “I can’t. It’s too horrible. Please.” Lanzmann urges him to continue: “We have to do it. You know it.” The barber finishes his story.

Such probing may seem harsh, even cruel. But the survivors do finally all go on, for they know, as the director does, that part of the Final Solution was to obliterate not only the Jews themselves but all memory of them, and the placid, green Polish landscape where much of it happened shows how close to success the Nazis came. The clearing in the forest near Chelmno where bodies were burned every evening is blanketed with grass and wildflowers, a pleasant wind rustles through the groves of trees the Germans planted to hide their work, and the nearby Narew River, into which the pulverized residue of the most stubborn bones was stirred at the end of each workday, now runs clear.