The Holocaust Historiography Project


The Survivor

  • THE SURVIVOR, by Jack Eisner. New York: Wm. Morrow, 1980, 320 pp., ISBN 0-688-03741-0.
  • WAR AND LOVE, directed by Moshe Mizrahi, screenplay by Abby Mann, produced by Jack Eisner, released by Cannon Group,1985. Running time 112 min.

Reviewed by Arthur R. Butz

In late 1980 I was contacted by a Chicago TV station with a proposal that I appear to discuss a newly published book with it’s author, New York businessman Jack Eisner. Accordingly the station sent me a copy of the book, The Survivor, a vanity publication (though issued by a regular New York publisher), which ostensibly gives an account of Eisner’s activies as an adolescent smuggler and black marketer in the wartime Warsaw ghetto, his arrest and incarceration at the Majdanek concentration camp, his transfer to Flossenburg, and his liberation at the end of the war. I read the book and was generally agreeable to appearing on the TV show, but that event never materialized. I have a hunch on the reasons why the appearance was proposed in the first place, which I shall get to.

The book turned out to be a more crudely constructed opus than I expected. Consider Eisner’s account of his arrivial at the “reception depot” for Majdanek:

Suddenly, as though a fairy tale had come to life, a beautiful white horse and rider appeared in the distance. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I watched the animal gallop closer and closer. In the saddle was an majestic, monocled figure in an SS general’s uniform decorated with red velvet lapels, topped by a striped SS cap. A long white cape lined with red satin floated behind him. Several SS officers, using their whips and guns, cleared a path for the “emperor.” Standing in the stirrups, he rode through the masses of “rubbish,” assessing the scene.

The text then identies the general as Odilo Globocnik, described as “Himmler’s chief executioner in Southern Poland” (Globocnik was SS and Police Leader in the Lublin district)

In the book it is typical that SS officers appear on the scene wearing monocles, supplemented with white gloves and miscellaneous fancy vestments. For me this evoked images from some of the horrid movies I saw as a child during the war, in which German officers often wore monocles. Those Hollywood gimmicks were, in turn, throwbacks to the anti-militarist, anti-Prussian reaction in the Weimar Republic, in which a monocle was associated with Prussian militarists.

I wonder why Eisner adorned his text with monocles, but in any case they are ludicrous on several grounds. First, the monocle had become in Germany a symbol of a reactionary attitude and the Nazis and the SS represented themselves as revolutionaries; no SS officer would have been caught dead wearing a monocle. Second, Globocnik was no Prussian but an Austrian of Croatian ancestry. His wearing a monocle would have been preposterous on ethnic grounds — something like a Brooklyn Italian affecting a Southern colonel. Third, Globocnik didn’t wear a monocle.

That Globocnik scene is typical of the book. Much more comparable fantasy is to be found there and the above quotation would have been much funnier if I had included a few more paragraphs. I had to stop somewhere. Caroline Latham, a freelance editor Eisner hired to help him with his book, commented that “A number of us who read the early manuscript felt that believability was one of its greatest problems … Jack had performed so many heroic deeds and had so many close brushes with death that he tended to stretch his credibility.” [1]

After such admissions, what is left for the critic to say? I shall only add tbat the Globocnik scene is followed by some exterminations in gas chambers that “were long wooden structures with too many windows … sealed and taped,” with a monocled SS doctor presiding. Wooden gas chambers with windows are features of the legend that we encounter now and then, but what seems particularly odd in Eisner’s account is that this gassing scene is followed by an enigmatic reference to “the camp where the real gas chambers, the concrete ones, are.” There is no elaboration or attempt to answer the questions begged. Of course both wood and concrete, on account of their ventilatory and absorptive properties, are unsuitable as walls for gas chambers.

The TV appearance did not materialize. After I read the book and communicated my agreeability to appear with Eisner as originally proposed, preferably live, the station representative said that there would be an additional guest to support Eisner. Sensing a move to take the focus off the book, I rejected such an arrangement. I now believe that there was never a serious intention to have Eisner confront me on TV. Eisner is unpopular in some Jewish circles and I suspect that the whole episode was put on only to teach Eisner that his book was a piece of junk that a revisionist would have no trouble handling.

Eisner’s next project was the funding of the “American-Jewish Commission on the Holocaust,” to study the behavior of “American Jewry during the Holocaust.” Eisner got former Supreme Court Associate Justice Arthur J. Goldberg to chair the Commission, and Seymour M. Finger, Professor of Polticial Science at CUNY (City University of New York), to serve as research director. The Commission became publicly active in 1981.

Many Jewish leaders did not like Eisner’s Commission; e.g. the 1983 article by Lucy Dawidowicz, Commentary magazine’s most reliable hatchet person. [2] Eisner’s intellectural sloppiness was probably one of the reasons for this hostility. The major reason however must have been that the Commission’s subject was, shall we say, delicate. Whatever the general U.S. Jewish population thought of the atrocity and extermination tales, the wartime Jewish leaders certalnly did not take claims of “extermination” seriously; that is completely clear from Yehuda Bauer’s American Jewry and the Holocaust, Detroit 1981 (see also my remarks on this subject in the Winter 1982 Journal of Historical Review, or in Supplement B in recent printings of The Hoax of the Twentieth Century). The controversy over the Commission became so intense that early in 1983 it had even been declared dissolved with Goldberg and Finger claiming that Eisner had welched, on commitments of financial support, and Eisner claiming that Goldberg had bowed to pressure from Jewish groups. [3] However, the Commission was eventually reassembled, and its report was issued in 1984. [4]

Eisner had more vanity productions in the works. In 1985 he appeared as producer of a film entitled War and Love, an adaptation of his book The Survivor. To provide the background music (Mahler) he hired the Israel Philharmonic, no less, and his director was the respected Moshe Mizrahi, thus proving again that money can buy almost anything. Most of the film was shot in Budapest (resulting in a last minute litigation by Hungary over the rights), with a side trip to Auschwitz in Poland.

As should be expected the movie resembles the book, but the most ludicrous scenes are dropped. No monocled SS officers, and no Globocnik scene as above. The principal difference between book and film is that the portion devoted to concentration camp experiences was greatly reduced. Indeed Eisner does not arrive at Majdanek but at Auschwitz, and the action of the film does not tarry there long. There are no great gassing or extermination scenes. The generally moderated tone of the film, in relation to the book, is to be expected. It is far harder to get away with absurdities when they dramatized in visual form than when they are claimed in print.

Nevertheless the more influential critics received the film with contempt. Vincent Canby of the New York Times described it as “shockingly inept,” while David Edelstein of the Village Voice was more lucid: “Junk … How cheap.” [5] I wonder how the critics would have reacted to a faithful adaption of the book!

It is worth pausing over the film’s failure to dramatize the mass gassings, which are, after all, the kernel of the whole legend. It is now 42 years since World War II ended, and for about 10 years we have been on the Great Binge of “Holocaust remembrance.” The Great Binge is probably a reaction to Revisionism, but that is beside the present point. Commissions have been organized, conferences and symposia have been held, massively publicized TV spectacles have been shown, the most politically tainted of the Nobel Prizes has been given to a raving novelist, special investigating and prosecuting units have been formed in several countries to pursue aged alleged “Nazis,” and a journal of scholarly format has been launched (Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Pergamon Press). I could go on.

We seem to have actually gotten accustomed to getting these half-century-old atrocity tales for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so it may be seem paradoxical that to date the number of attempts to actually dramatize the mass gassings of the legend could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. All such attempts have in technically poor productions. For example, NBC’s “Holocaust” series of' 1978, though courteously plugged everywhere, was not well received by serious critics and was quickly forgotten.

As I wrote at the time, “the extermination legend entails dramatic impossibilities.” That resistance to transport was rare, and that there were no riots by transports of Jews on arriving at camps, are very evident historical data. Thus the legend claims, as it must, that the Jews did not resist being gassed. The problem is that while while a reader of a book, might be persuaded that, for a period of two or three years, at some place in Poland, thousands of Jews were delivered every day by railway trains and marched quietly and peacefully (for they are supposed to have thought they were getting showers)', to their deaths in gas chambers, the belief would vanish if that reader saw a serious effort to depict such events on film. Surely some of the victims would had to have known, through rumor, or through taunting by guards. But then one would have the situation, of NBC’s “Holocaust,” in which some are presented as knowing; thus making the peaceful submission of the mass to death quite incredible, and even in that NBC production only the initial events, in only one instance of an imagined mass gassing, were depicted. Something like this was probably comprehended by Mizrahi, and he edited Eisner’s vanity movie accordingly. As for the ludicrous title, perhaps it was Mizrahi’s revenge.

At this writing Eisner seems to have no further projects of interest to us, although the “Jack Eisner Center for Holocaust Research” that he established at CUNY is listed in Holocaust and Genocide Studies as a “major research centre.” His productions are not even bad history or bad autobiography, and it is understatement to designate them bad fiction. One may wonder why they are worth noting at all. I believe they are worth noting as a puzzling contemporaty cultural phenomenon, specifically, that of normally inarticulate people from the world of business or finance attempting to participate prominently in the Great Binge.

It is at least simplistic, and probably erroneous, to explain Eisner’s activities in terms of pure financial motivation. Not only am I confident that Eisner lost a good deal of money on his stinkers, I also suspect that he never expected to make money on them, at least not in the sense of direct profit from the specific productions. If that seems implausible, consider the example of the super-crook, Ivan F. Boesky, former member of the U.S. Holocaust Commission, and generous contributor to Jewish philanthropy. Associated with the American Ballet Theater, Boesky sought to “finance a production of a ballet on the Holocaust.” [6] Fine arts performances are notoriously unprofitable, and could not exist without infusions from generous benefactors. Boesky could not have made any money on the ballet. The motivations for such enterprises are no doubt political, but certainly in Eisner’s case the politics are not those of the Jewish community as a whole; Eisner’s unpopularity there proves that.

My guess is that intra-Jewish politics underlie such projects, and that consequently they are impenetrable to me in fundamental respects. I will have to leave the subject there, as an unresolved and probably unresolvable puzzle. What is certain, however, is that there is a calculation, in the minds of people who have proved their considerable business acumen, that the decade-long Great Binge invites them, for specific reasons I can only guess at, to participate.


  1. Publishers Weekly, September 12,1980, p. 48.
  2. Commentary, June 1983, p. 36.
  3. New York Times, January 4,1983, p. l.
  4. Seymour M. Finger, ed. American Jewry during the Holocaust, American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust, New York,1984.
  5. New York Times, September 13, 1985, p. C6. Village Voice, September 24,1985, p. 64.
  6. New York Times, November 21, 1986, business section. Jewish Chronicle, November 28,1986, p. 3.