Friday, June 28, 2013

SHOAH Part 3 - "Bureaucrats became inventors."

By the end of 1940, if you were a Jew living in Warsaw, you were forced to relocate to the well-guarded ghetto in the center of the city. You were among 400,000 fellow Jews -- some 30% of the population of Warsaw, occupying less than 3% of its space.

The next few years saw exponential degeneration of your quality of life. Even if you entered the ghetto rich, your funds were soon depleted as the Nazis extorted your rent and living expenses out of you at inflated prices. Within months of entering the ghetto, sickness and death became an ever-present, daily reality. Children born in the ghetto would know no other world. Corpses were stacked in the streets (you weren't allowed to bury your dead unless you could pay the Nazi rates) and typhus and other filth-born illnesses ripped their way through the community. If these didn't kill you, starvation would. Your money could be spent on rent or food but not both. Many Jews opted for the first, preferring to die indoors from starvation rather than roaming the icy streets.

By 1942, about half the people you knew had died agonizing deaths. If you'd survived this long, you'd lived to see your fellow Jews degenerate into desperate beggars -- willing to sell anything for a cup of water or a crust of bread. Uprisings had failed, supplies had been cut off... the Nazis were waiting for you to follow your friends and family into the grave.

However, in the mid-summer of 1942, it was announced that you were to be "deported" or "resettled": stuffed -- with a few thousand others -- into cattle cars on a train bound for "the East." The heat was wretched and the ride interminable. The trains were too packed to sit. No water or food was provided. About one in ten of your travel companions died on the way. The money that the Nazis had extorted from you over the past few years had paid for your (one-way) ticket.

In the middle of the night, your train stopped in the tiny, heretofore unknown backwater village of Treblinka. You were yanked from the train car, beaten and urged forward by machine gun-wielding guards. Dazed by the trip and lack of sleep and sustenance, you blinked at the glaring spot lights, seeing only silhouettes of SS officers, barbed wire twisted at the top of stockade fence, machine gun nests in towers, and -- barely visible, a bit in the background -- a giant smoking monolith, barely casting a red glow.

The beatings and curses moved you forward. One of the SS commanders calmly shouted above the screams and groans that everything would be fine, you were there to work ("labor makes you free"). While this happened, your wife and children were yanked away from you, through the mass of bruised and bleeding people. You had no chance to tell them goodbye or kiss the tops of their heads or offer reassurances. You never saw them again.

You were ushered down stairs, through a tunnel, and ordered -- with hundreds of others like you -- to strip off your clothes. Above you were signs reading: "Clean is good." "Lice can kill." "Wash yourself." Your strangled brain maybe held on to these and the words of the commander -- piecing them together in a flimsy, rational patchwork that said this will be okay. I'll be cleaned and then I'll work and this will be okay; I will go on.

You were pushed out of the undressing area and up a tunnel made of sharp, wiry tree branches and barbed wire. So many of you in a small space (about thirteen feet wide), all of you being pressed into the sides of the tunnel, your naked flesh being torn further.

You wait in the tunnel -- for what? For the showers, you're told. After standing and sweating (or shivering -- if you were here in winter, you waited for your "shower" in temperatures ranging from fifteen degrees Fahrenheit to negative four), crammed up against your bleeding companions for another eternity, you were shoved into a small room. The dimly lit room smelled of human waste -- shit and vomit -- and another, hard to place sweet smell that hung over everything else. The guards told you to wait.

The doors were locked. The lights went off. Terror struck. "The alarming nature of darkness," as one Nazi memo put it, "drives the load toward the doors." You are part of this "load". You start pushing in the pitch dark, your companions push you down, climb on top of you, trample you. The sweet smell is intense now, tickling then burning your nostrils and then your lungs. You scream but less and less oxygen means the sound fades.

It takes about ten minutes. You cease. You don't go on. You're unloaded by other Jews in an adjoining room. They work unceasingly for days, removing bodies like yours from the gas chamber and shoving them into the oven. If they don't, they will be shot and thrown in the oven themselves (or just thrown in the oven alive). Within about three or four hours of your arrival at Treblinka, you are reduced to ashes.

Why did this happen to you? Because you were Jewish. Where the Pharaohs, the Babylonians, the caliphs, the Czars, etc. had failed, the Nazis had (nearly) succeeded.

This was the Shoah (inasmuch as I'm able to approximate it). 

In the end, SHOAH's death fugue sears some version of the above experience on your soul. Lanzmann keeps going over the same details -- getting them from the survivors AND the SS who worked in the camps -- to create what he calls a gestalt of the Shoah.

I was struck by the mathematics of it all. Nazi memos urging greater efficiency: reduction of size in the gas chamber so there's less room for "the merchandise" to move around, figuring out which speed to drive the gas vans so that "the load" was "no longer moving" when it reached its destination. As historian Raul Hilberg says in one of fascinating interviews in the film (I could have just listened to Hilberg for nine hours; he's a highlight), it was important to the Nazis to "do the things" but "do not describe them." All of the bland, clinical interoffice memos describing numbers and train routes, then, barely hint at their sinister purpose. "This one paper," Hilberg says, holding up a innocent-looking train schedule, "equals ten thousand dead Jews."

One thing I found noticeably lacking was any discussion of faith in light of this. God is barely mentioned, as an agent of solace or object of contempt (also conspicuously absent is much mention of Hitler; his name barely comes up in all nine hours). There is a scene at synagogue in Corfu with an impressive and imposing group of Jewish men (among the 5% still alive) enacting some sort of sung rite. But that's about it. The Jewish religious response to the Shoah is one of the many subjects I'll be looking into following this (I've already heard the "Christian" one; a quasi-Zionist, almost bizzarro anti-Semitic philosophy based on extremely flawed theology that wrongly suggests the book of Revelation is discussing the Holocaust and not this).

I'll be digesting SHOAH for years to come. Right now, it's still a bit suffocating. Watching it is a supernatural experience and one that I can't recommend enough (with all the obvious caveats; it's a severe commitment). There are about 2000 words of notes left that I haven't even touched but I'm a bit tapped out on this one. See it and remember.

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