The Magazine

Witness to History

Claude Lanzmann’s journey to ‘Shoah.’

Oct 8, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 04 • By BENJAMIN BALINT
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Sometimes, a perfectly realized masterwork so far exceeds its mortal creator that it seems something larger and more powerful is speaking through him. 

Claude Lanzmann (right) revisits Auschwitz, 1993

Claude Lanzmann (right) revisits Auschwitz, 1993


For all its virtuosity, little in the first three-quarters of Claude Lanz-mann’s memoir accounts for Shoah, his nine-and-a-half-hour testament to the extermination of Europe’s Jews, an overwhelming film Marcel Ophüls called “the greatest documentary about contemporary history ever made.” The bulk of The Patagonian Hare, published in France in 2009, narrates the transformation of a young man on the make into a jet-set Left Bank intellectual who pops up, Zelig-like, in an astonishing array of loosely connected scenes, wherever adventure beckoned. 

The book was not written, exactly, but dictated to two of Lanzmann’s assistants, and the style is digressive (“I forgot to mention that.  .  .”). The tone rings wistful; it is a book written at the end of a full life. “I love life madly, love it all the more now that I am close to leaving it,” says Lanzmann, now 86.

Here is Lanzmann as a teenaged fighter in the French Resistance, collecting cases of revolvers and grenades and laying crude ambushes for SS convoys. Here he is making love all through the night before the entrance exam to the École normale supérieure, or, after writing a dissertation on Leibniz, teaching philosophy dans le boudoir to a well-connected older woman. He presents himself as a seducer of women, and attests that he loathes “with every fiber of my being, the billing and cooing of courtship.” 

Later, he appears as the bon vivant freelance journalist writing celebrity profiles for Elle, covering sensational trials for France Dimanche, chatting with Sophia Loren in her kitchen at six in the morning, and aboard the Calypso as Jacques Cousteau’s
ghostwriter. Elsewhere we find him sitting on the floor in a bare apartment in a Tunis suburb, entranced by Frantz Fanon discoursing about the Algerian revolution, or at a manor in Heidelberg discussing the monuments to the Thousand-Year Reich with Albert Speer. 

Then he is dining with Kim Il Sung as a member of the first Western delegation to North Korea, enjoying a long audience with President Nasser in Cairo, crossing the Suez Canal with Ariel Sharon hours after the ceasefire of the Yom Kippur War. Above all, here he is with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in the editorial offices of Les Temps modernes, the cultural review they launched in 1945, and which Lanzmann edits to this day. 

“I met them all,” Lanzmann writes. 

Of them all, the existentialist duo made the most lasting impression on Lanzmann, who recounts here both his deepening affection for the combative Sartre, despite the philosopher’s “infantile fits of jealousy,” and his love affair with Beauvoir, 17 years his senior. “I am the only man with whom Simone de Beauvoir lived a quasi-marital existence,” Lanzmann writes. (She described the relationship differently: Lanzmann, she wrote to Nelson Algren in 1954, “is for me rather a kind of incestuous son than a lover. .  .  . He asks for a motherly tenderness rather than something else.”) To make matters even more claustrophobic, Sartre had meanwhile set up Lanzmann’s sister Évelyne as his secret mistress. 

Sartre put his young prodigy on a collision course with what would become his life’s (and this memoir’s) deepest theme. When, at age 21, he came upon Sartre’s description of “Jewish inauthenticity” in his essay Anti-Semite and Jew (originally published in 1946 as Réflexions sur la question juive), Lanzmann writes, “I suddenly found a portrait of myself, perfectly depicted.” On reflection, he adds, “I was identical to the Jew described in it, raised outside any religion, any tradition, any culture that might be called Jewish.” 

Not that Lanzmann hadn’t been aware of his Jewishness. He describes being “profoundly shaken and terrorized by the force and the virulence of the anti-Semitism at [my] Parisian lycée.” But that awareness came accompanied by something else: “I also became aware of the fear and the cowardice in myself. Hiding behind a pillar in the school playground, I watched—petrified, making no attempt to intervene, terrified that I might be discovered—as my classmates all but lynched a lanky, red-haired Jew named Levy.”

Over time, as others noticed him, his fear transmuted itself into rage. In her memoir Force of Circumstance (1963), Beauvoir wrote: 

I could feel, buried inside him, flexing its muscles, a violence always ready to explode. Sometimes in the morning after some disturbing dream, he would wake up shouting at me: “You’re all kapos!”