Friday, January 24, 2014

The Last of the Unjust

Lanzmann and Murmelstein

January 27 is the international Holocaust Remembrance Day. Many cinemas will show Claude Lanzman's recent film "The Last of the Unjust", in which he interviews Benjamin Murmelstein, President of the Jewish Council in the Theresienstadt concentration camp ghetto. The crucial question of the role of the Judenrat is brought to the foreground. This question was raised, as well, by Hannah Arendt, and though I personally am greatly appreciative of much of her important philosophical work, I cannot accept her critical position vis-a-vis those Jews who so cleverly and ruthlessly were exploited by the Nazis, put in untenable positions, often finding themselves between collaboration and trying to save as many victims as possible.
Watch the trailer of Lanzmann's film.

“Shoah” is a masterwork of reflexive filmmaking, in which the conditions of its production are inseparable from its artistic and moral substance. The subject of “Shoah” is, as Lanzmann has said, death. The subject of “The Last of the Unjust” is life. The miracle that it conjures is that of survival. It’s a miracle that anyone came out of the camps alive. It’s a miracle that Murmelstein, in his position of terrifying proximity to barbaric overlords, was able to save as many Jews as he did—and to save himself. It’s a miracle that Judaism itself, as a religion and an ongoing element of history, survived.
From Richard Brody's post in The New Yorker. Read the full article.

The Tranquility of Terror

Theresienstadt was established as a 'model ghetto', "in order to save face in regards to the outside world" (Eichmann). The first deportation to the Terezin (Theresienstadt) ghetto too place Nov. 24, 1941.

While the Jews in Theresienstadt gave manifestation to the height of spiritual survival in the shadow of evil, it was, and was meant to be a hoax from the beginning.

The perversity of deception in the service of evil compounded into the dust of the extermination camps, but on the way, “to the East,” as the Nazis deceptively called the transports to the death camps, Theresienstadt served as a model of deception.

The Red Cross visited the 'town' in June 1944, prior to which the Nazis intensified deportations, and the ghetto was "beautified." Some inmates were dressed up and told to stand at strategic places along the carefully designated route. Shop windows along the route were filled with goods for the day, and the day's abundance in the candy shop window made life in Terezin seem sweet.

The day of the visit

Not the day of the visit

The Red Cross reported dryly that while war time conditions made all life difficult, life at Terezin was acceptable given all of the pressures. The Red Cross concluded that the Jews were being treated all right.

Inmates in Theresienstadt - also not the day of the visit

Approximately 158,000 Jews were brought to Theresienstadt. Approximately 90,000 were transported onwards to the extermination camps, of whom about 4,800 survived. About 35,500 died of hunger and illness in the ghetto (among them my great-grandmother).

Of the 12,121 children (born 1928 and later) brought to Theresienstadt, 9,001 were sent to the death camps. 325 survived.

When Helen Deutsch, the psychoanalyst who had left Vienna for the United States in 1935, wrote her important 1942 paper “Some forms of emotional disturbance and their relationship to schizophrenia,” introducing the concept of the as-if personality, the poet Leo Strauss wrote, in Theresienstadt, what in its subtle simplicity to me is one of the most spectacular poems, ‘Als-Ob,’ As-If. The English translation from the German is from Requiem: A Tale of Exile and Return:

I know a little tiny town
A city just so neat
I call it not by name
but call the town As-if

Not everyone may enter
Into this special place
You have to be selected
From among the As-if race

And there they live their life
As-if a life to live
Enjoying every rumor
As-if the truth it were

You lie down on the floor
As-if it was a bed
And think about your loved one
As if she weren’t yet dead

One bears the heavy fate
As-if without a sorrow
And talks about the future
As if there was – tomorrow

Erel Shalit's books can be purchased at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Fisher King Press.

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