It is 2am when I come across Shoah. The 1985 documentary directed by Claude Lanzmann demands my attention, practically reaching out from the screen to give me a good shake. Maybe it’s the 9+ hour runtime, or the shadowy film poster featuring a train conductor with a nightmarish look in his eyes, or the many reviews calling it the one of the most (if not the most) important documentary ever made. Whatever the exact reason, I make my decision. It is 2am on an eerily quiet night in late August and I am about to watch the first two hours of Shoah.
“Shoah,” the hebrew word for catastrophe or destruction, is synonymous with the Holocaust. Lanzmann’s documentary bearing the same name focuses solely on testimony from eyewitnesses and bystanders to the Jewish genocide. Lanzmann explains that when watching, “one bears witness for nine hours 30 minutes to the incarnation of truth, the contrary of the sanitisation of historical science.” This I can confirm. Here there is no background music, no black and white archival footage, no comfortable distance between these individuals and the viewer. Lanzmann forces his audience to see as they did. At times, we literally walk in their steps.
The film opens with Simon Srebnik, who was 13 when he was sent to Chelmno (the first place in Poland where Jewish people were murdered with gas). He was one of 2 people who survived the extermination camp, and was often forced to sing military songs for the Nazis. After being placed in a work detail, the SS tried to execute him with a shot to the head, but he survived when the bullet missed his brain. “It was always this peaceful here,” he says, walking with Lanzmann. “When they burned 2,000 people…every day, it was just as peaceful. No one shouted. Everyone went about his work. It was silent. Peaceful. Just as it is now.”
We follow train conductor Henryk Gawkowski, a wizened Charonic figure who transported innocent people to their deaths at Treblinka when he was only 20 years old. In one chilling moment, he re-enacts his arrival to the death camp on a train similar to one he operated in his youth. Upon arrival he would warn people in the cars behind him by drawing a finger across his throat. He repeats the terrifying gesture with a shaky hand.
We follow Filip Müller, an Auschwitz survivor. Working in the undressing room, he witnessed Czechoslovakian Jews from his own country start to sing as they headed into the gas chambers. Moved by what he saw, he decided he would die with them. Once inside, however, he was pushed out. “You have to tell about our suffering, the injustice done to us,” a group of women told him.
Watching it unfold, I feel like I am traveling back in time and speaking with the individuals myself, as if these are conversations I’m having with my own neighbors. And in truth, these are people who could be your neighbors — barbers, farmers, townsfolk, average working people. Lanzmann interviews anyone who fell in the blast radius of the Nazi killing machine, including resistance leaders and a few Nazis themselves (some of whom were recorded in secret). In doing this, he peels back any veil of separation between then and now.
I remember learning about the Holocaust for the first time not in History class, but my 6th grade English class. We read The Diary of Anne Frank as literature and watched a film version of her story. Looking back, I question the depth of my education on this period in history. Most of what I would later learn would be self-taught. In the years to come I would visit the Holocaust museum in D.C. and Anne Frank’s home in Amsterdam, both of which were unforgettably eye-opening experiences.
Claude Lanzmann’s film is a different animal entirely. After watching it, I realized how little I knew or understood — and how distanced I was from the reality of the horrors committed. I knew little of Treblinka and nothing of Chelmno or Sobibor. I knew nothing of the gas vans. I knew nothing of those outside Poland who were sent to death camps in passenger cars, playing cards aboard with no clue as to what awaited them. Perhaps most disturbing of all were interviews with the people of the Polish countryside. While some tell stories of risking their lives to give the Jews water, others still express antisemitic beliefs. When asked what it was like to work on a field next to Treblinka, where screams could be heard, one farmer said “At first it was unbearable. Then you got used to it.” He says he hardly believes he ever grew accustomed to such a thing, but “it was true.”
This is where hate ends — in destruction, obliteration. It has no other destination. The film does more than show us this, it outright warns us. This warning requires few words; you see it in the eyes of the witnesses. The festering torment and unending confusion there asks the same question on a loop: How? How could this happen? When barber Abraham Bomba stops the interview after speaking about a friend who had to cut the hair of his own wife and sister, Lanzmann gently insists. “We have to do it,” he says. I’m reminded of who this recorded history is for. We are the intended audience, the citizens of the future Lanzmann may have imagined during the 12 painstaking years he spent making the film. This is for us, right now. And the timing could not be more urgent.
This month, the first 50-state study of Holocaust knowledge among younger generations was released. The results were abysmal. 48% of Gen Z and Millennials could not name one concentration camp or ghetto. 56% could not identify Auschwitz. One particularly heartbreaking statistic to read was that only 1% identified Treblinka, an extermination camp described extensively in Shoah. Aside from Auschwitz, more Jews were killed at Treblinka than at any other extermination camp. 63% did not know 6 million Jewish people were murdered. Worst of all, 11% believe Jews caused the Holocaust.
“Not only was their overall lack of Holocaust knowledge troubling, but combined with the number of Millennials and Gen Z who have seen Holocaust denial on social media, it is clear that we must fight this distortion of history and do all we can to ensure that the social media giants stop allowing this harmful content on their platforms. Survivors lost their families, friends, homes and communities; we cannot deny their history.” — Greg Schneider, Executive VP of Jewish Claims Conference
Despite these sobering numbers, 80% also said they believe further education on the Holocaust is needed so it never happens again. Perhaps if we could rely on our leadership to encourage this kind of education, these statistics wouldn’t be so terrifying.
However, we cannot. Just recently, our president announced he will ban funding for diversity training and develop a plan for more “patriotic education” in schools. Though labeled as patriotic, this would serve to erase history that places America in a bad light. He labeled the 1619 Project — an interactive New York Times collection that focuses on the vast consequences of slavery in the U.S. — “toxic propaganda” and even blamed leftist education for the mass protests that occurred after the murder of George Floyd. So what does this mean? It means education that is less focused on the struggles of minority groups, less focused on trying to stem the tide of prejudice in our nation. This is the antithesis of education that would help prevent Nazi ideology. And that isn’t all.
Only a few days ago — as I was in the middle of writing this article — our president told his mostly white audience in Minnesota that they had “good genes” and mentioned the eugenics-based racehorse theory (the idea that some horses are born genetically superior to others, and if you breed superior horses you get a superior race of horses). “A lot of it is about the genes, isn’t it, don’t you believe?” He stated, his tone wry. Eric Feigl-Ding, senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, called Trump’s remarks “master race eugenics rhetoric.” “This was how the Holocaust was started,” he urged. “Don’t ignore.”
Though there are a wealth of articles that scoff at the ridiculousness of any comparisons between our current administration and early Nazi Germany, there’s no need to refute them — the president’s actions speak for themselves. In fact they go back as far as September 1990, when Vanity Fair released an article in which it was revealed by then-wife Ivana that the president sometimes read a book of Hitler’s speeches that he kept in his bedside table. The friend who gave him that book confirmed it was My New Order, indeed a copy of Hitler’s propagandist speeches.
As I am writing this article, more women at ICE detention centers are coming forward about unwarranted hysterectomies they received without their consent, given by a doctor called “the uterus collector.” As I am writing this article, the president is causing chaos within the postal service in order to make it harder to vote. The thing is, it doesn’t matter whether or not you agree that these multitudinous parallels warrant alarm bells. We cannot tolerate American leadership that even suggests a debate about whether or not they resemble a 21st century Hitlerian figure. This should not be something we have to debate about in relation to a democratic president.
Sadly, in 2020 we can’t even agree as a society that Nazism is fascism — partly because our leadership sympathizes with it. Though Nazism is factually far-right fascism, many have latched onto the word “socialism” in the National Socialist Party to claim that this alone makes it a far left movement. In actuality Hitler was most inspired by Karl Lueger and his Christian Social Party, who believed in radical nationalism and anti-socialism. They also vehemently opposed the left-wing Social Democratic Workers’ Party and their calls for equality.
It is time to speak plainly, to say: This is not normal. This is not acceptable. We will not tolerate it. And — so long as we have democracy — we have the power to do that through our vote.
We need to wake up.
Driving home from work recently, I got behind a truck with gargantuan capital letters splayed across the back window: “HEY SNOWFLAKES! FUCK YOUR FEELINGS!” I thought long and hard about the angered mental state of the driver (someone with a lot of unresolved feelings, it seems) who obtained these letters and took the time to apply them, who clearly achieved some kind of satisfaction from displaying this kind of message. What does it achieve for them? How did we get here? Where are we headed?
I am not suggesting that we are living in a replica of 1930’s Germany. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be alarmed. This is something else, something we’ve created, and we don’t yet know what the consequences of it will be. But hate fulfilled to its maxim will always have terrible consequences. It is important to acknowledge that the machinations of the Holocaust did not come to fruition overnight. It took years of hatred and a leader who galvanized that hatred into action in order for anything like it to take place. Democracy first had to erode, and citizens had to be made complicit through fear. And they had to believe the lies.
It took me about two weeks to finish Shoah. After watching, I felt an urge to go to everyone I knew and beg them to witness it. I felt shocked and embarrassed that I’ve known about Schindler’s List for as long as I can remember, but not this film.
“Sometimes I think that when [tourists] leave a candle or a stone or they put the flower or they say a prayer and they leave the memorial, and they go back to their lives, they think: ‘Our job is done. We remembered.’ But I think there should be a next step. People should look at this place and think about our moral responsibility. This is not an anthropological discovery of ‘Oh, people 75 years ago were able to do something like this,’ and we are surprised. They [still] are able to do it. They did it before. And people still hate each other” — Pawel Sawicki, Auschwitz guide
Shoah is not just a historical document. When you watch it, I think you’ll agree that there is no such thing as excessive hypervigilance when it comes to ensuring that hatred finds no fertile ground to grow on. Now — in the midst of a chaotic year full of division, desensitization, heightened authoritarianism, racial tension and disinformation — is the right time to bear witness to Shoah as both a reminder and a warning. It is often lamented that the stories of Holocaust survivors are fading away along with them; but this is not true. Due to the efforts of those behind Shoah, and others who are working today to keep us from forgetting, their voices are preserved. They urge us to hit play and listen, to hear the truth. This is the absolute evil humanity is capable of. These are the ultimate costs of hate and bigotry, and we have the ability to choose whether we will continue down that path or find a better way.