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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At times, Lanzmann, his profile in the periphery of the frame, finds little difficulty flushing out the witnesses. “I was the first person to return to the scene of the crime, to those who had never spoken and, I was beginning to realize, wanted so much to speak, to speak torrentially.” 

But more often, the on-camera flushing-out appears far from gentle. Take the scene filmed in a Tel Aviv barbershop in which Lanzmann asks Bomba, scissors in hand, to describe what he felt as he was made to shear a woman’s hair in the antechamber of a Treblinka gas chamber. Bomba loses his composure, and lapses into silence. Finally:

I won’t be able to do it. 

You have to do it. I know it’s very hard. I know and I apologize. 

Don’t make me go on, please. 

Please. We must go on.

In another scene, Lanzmann records Suchomel with a hidden camera as the former Nazi cheerfully croons the hymn that the condemned of Treblinka were forced to sing for their guards’ amusement: 


Looking squarely ahead, brave and joyous,
     at the world, the squads march to work. 

All that matters to us now is Treblinka. 

It is our destiny. 

That’s why we’ve become one with
     Treblinka in no time at all. 

We know only the word of our commander, 

We know only obedience and duty, 

We want to serve, to go on serving, 

Until a little luck ends it all. Hurray!

“Sing it again,” Lanzmann demands. In an instant, the tables turn: Now the Jew forces the Nazi to sing, and to condemn himself. That imperative, “Sing it again,” informs Shoah in its entirety, and fashions it into an incomparably haunting threnody of words, images, and silences, utterly singular in its power.

Benjamin Balint, a resident of Jerusalem, is the author of Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right.