The Holocaust We Don’t See: Lanzmann’s Shoah Revisited

Shoah_jpg_470x367_q85More on Shoah 25 years later by Timothy Snyder in the New York Review blog:

Lanzmann’s aim was to bring the viewer into contact with the seemingly impossible, the unqualified nothingness of mass death, which he called, in a term that is inextricable from Sartre, “le néant.” During the last quarter century, libraries and archives have paid homage to his film by collecting or recording tens of thousands of video testimonies of Holocaust survivors. These are a precious record of individual lives and a valuable bulwark against forgetting, but they present difficulties as material for historians. Very few of them have been transcribed, and watching them all is simply impossible.

The leap to the visual has temporal costs for students of the Holocaust, of which the nine hours of Shoah are only a small taste; the written word has its advantages as a medium, and history (and so perhaps memory) depends upon it. Lanzmann’s marvelous work of research and selection leaves us with scenes around which the memory of the Holocaust has been framed: the former SS-man Franz Suchomel recalling Treblinka to the hidden camera, the calm mien of Treblinka survivor Richard Glazar as he describes the death facility, the Polish railway engineer Henryk Gawkowski’s gesture of a finger across the throat. The hundreds of thousands of hours of Holocaust video testimonies that we now have, precious though each of them is, are not arranged with such artistry and will never be edited with such skill. It is to be hoped that a benefactor will appear who will fund a team of historians, translators, and lawyers to select, transcribe and annotate some of this priceless material. This would add much to the value of the indexes and finding aides already compiled with much labor.

In Shoah, Lanzmann pays tribute to history in his conversations with Raul Hilberg, the man who wrote the first serious scholarly study of the Holocaust. We are reminded, watching Hilberg speak, of his heroic empiricism, his ability to confirm mass killing on the basis (for example) of records of one-way conveyance by rail. Yet between the scholarship of an extremely cautious institutional historian such as Hilberg and Lanzmann’s visual reconstruction of the Holocaust lies a world of valuable written material about the lives and deaths of Jews—much of it, twenty-five years later, still little used.