Content Warning: Discussion of Holocaust
ON A RAINY Sunday morning in early February, I went to the Portland Art Museum (PAM) to see a rare screening of “Shoah.” The French documentary about the Holocaust spans almost 10 hours, and was put on by the NW Film Center as part of the museum’s multimedia Holocaust commemoration. After 11 years of filming and editing, it was released in 1985. I learned too much to describe in one article, but I will do my best to scratch the surface.
The film begins at a Polish camp called Chelmno, the first in which Jewish people were exterminated in gas vans. Simon Srebnik, one of only two survivors of the 400,000 people who were transported to Chelmno, recalls singing beautiful songs on the river.
He was forced to sing by the Germans for the sole purpose of their entertainment. As someone commented during his interview, “He sang, but his heart wept.”
The film is comprised largely of interview footage from the 1970s accompanied by panning views of nature scenes where the concentration camps once stood. The camps, even in the ’70s, were overgrown, but will never be forgotten.
But not everyone wants to remember, either. At multiple points, I thought the filmmaker, Claude Lanzmann, was being uncomfortably pushy when people did not want to answer the questions he was asking them. The second interview of the movie is with the other Chelmno survivor, Michal Podchlebnik. Lanzmann asked his translator, “What died in him in Chelmno?”
“Everything died,” the translator said. “But he’s only human, and he wants to live. So he must forget.”
Concentration camps were everywhere during the Nazi occupation of Europe — right next to farms, houses, civilization. At Sobibor in Poland (another camp explored in the film), the camp bordered the ordinary train lines. You could walk there from the train station in under 30 seconds. Farmers and ranchers lived next to the train lines that brought the cattle cars, as well as the Jews, to the camp. Jewish people were dying while the farmers were working, and after a while they were accustomed to it. They got used to people dying.
About an hour and a half into the movie, there is footage of a train slowly approaching a station. The camera continues filming as the train gets closer and closer until the only thing that can be seen is a hook, presumably used to connect the cattle cars to the locomotive. This image stands as one of the 10 hour film’s most memorable because throughout most of the movie, there is background music of some sort. But during this scene, the only audible sound was the movement of the train.
At the art museum (PAM), there were three intermissions — coming halfway through each of the two “Eras,” plus an hour-long break between the two for dinner. Each time I went back into the theater, fewer and fewer people came with me. The film would certainly be difficult to sit through with no intermissions, but it should be watched all at once, if possible, as the film’s powerful moments are better understood when viewed in sequence.
To the Nazis, the Holocaust was not a horrible period in history, but the Final Solution. For me, the most impactful moment comes about three hours in, when Lanzmann interviews Raul Hilberg, one of the most prominent scholars of the Holocaust.
“And the final solution, you see, is really final,” Hilberg says. “Because people who are converted can yet be, in secret, Jews, people who are expelled can yet return, but people who are dead will not reappear.”
Yet somehow, as the interviewees say multiple times, they always managed to keep their hope, even in the face of death and destruction — and they made it out. In their interview, Lanzmann asks Podchlebnik, “Why do you smile all the time?” Podchlebnik responds, “If you’re alive, it’s better to smile.”
“Shoah” is a movie that I’m going to remember watching for a long time, and I implore you all to experience this extremely important film about an unforgettable period of history.