At the end of the 5th grade my class was offered the chance to go to Washington D.C. on a school trip. I decided to go and came back in a wheelchair, but that’s a different story. While I was there, I visited the Holocaust Museum. I don’t remember much except for that they had high counters. These counters surrounded four televisions that were mounted on the floor. I was tall enough, with a little work, to peer over the counter and see what was on those televisions. What I saw were horrible things. Masses being led to the gas chambers. People who had been experimented on. All sorts of horrors. When we departed, I had learned that the Holocaust was the mass extermination of millions of Jews. The film Shoah (Holocaust in Hebrew) by Claude Lanzmann taught me that the Holocaust was in fact, the individual murders of millions of Jews. There is a difference, but to get it across required a different approach then the museum. The 9 and 1/2 hour documentary Shoah approaches the Holocaust through the eyes of the present and interviews with people who were actually there. As a result the film doesn’t use a single frame of archival footage. The effect that is created makes the Holocaust personal and specific to an individual or handful of individuals.
The film is fairly large in scope and tends to move around quite a bit. However, it generally moves from the taking of the Jews from their homes. The director actually would go up to people’s doors and ask them if they always lived there. Did Jews live there before you? Did you know them? What did they do? From here the film moves to the transportation of the Jews to the death camps, Treblinka and Auschwitz in particular. He interviews Poles who remember trying to warn Jews onboard about their impending fate by pretending to slit their own throats. He also interviews a man who conducting one of the trains. The train conductor reiterates how much he had to drink in order to continue doing his job. In fact, they paid them in alcohol.
The film then moves onto the death camps. He interviews numerous people, but the most moving interview is with a barber. During the Holocaust he and other barbers were rounded up by the Nazis to cut hair in the gas chambers. He talks about how they were told not to cut all the hair, but to make the people feel that they were just getting a haircut.
From there the film moves onto the resistance and the ghettos. There is one particularly moving interview with a man who was the liaison for the Polish government in exile. He met with Jewish leaders in Poland who tried everything in their power to impress upon him that the extermination of the Jews was unprecedented and demanded special attention by the Allies. They took him to the Warsaw ghetto. I can’t do his description of the horrors he saw justice, but he went back and desperately pleaded the Allies for help. Help that was denied.
The director Claude Lanzmann was clearly angry while making this film, but not just at the former Nazis he interviewed. He was also angry at the survivors, the Poles, just about anyone he interviewed because what they knew had to be said for us and for them. Please see this film at some point, it is absolutely essential.