The Holocaust Historiography Project



  • SHOAH: AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE HOLOCAUST. THE COMPLETE TEXT OF THE FILM, by Claude Lanzmann. Preface by Simone de Beauvoir. Translated by A. Whitelaw and W. Byron. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985, xii + 200 pp. hb, $11.95, ISBN 0-394-55142-7.

Reviewed by Theodore J. O’Keefe

Since Shoah the movie rolled on for a seemingly interminable nine and a half hours, readers of Shoah the book may be pardoned for surprise on finding that this misbegotten offspring of the movie encompasses every word spoken, sneered, and sung in the original. There’s a lot of white on these two hundred pages, too, together with seventeen uncaptioned stills, which convey a fair idea of the visual insipidity of Shoah.

In his introduction, filmmaker Claude Lanzmann speaks of “this naked and bloodless text,” which he claims “a strange force seems to have filled … through and through.” Without speculating overmuch as to the nature of the strange force, a careful reader will quickly conclude that it wasn’t concern for accuracy. The first line of the text proper (p. 3) places Chelmno on the Narew River rather than on the Ner, where it was actually located. This error is repeated throughout, even in the dialogue (p. 15) of alleged Chelmno “survivor” Simon Srebnik, who is supposed to have regularly paddled up the Ner to gather alfalfa for the SS rabbit hutch. The town of Chelm (German Cholm), near Sobibor, is identified as Chelmno (p. 39), a curious mistake in a book which views the fate of Polish Jewry as its central concern: the proverbial simplemindedness of the Jews of Chelm is a staple of Yiddish folklore.

Similarly, Kurt Gerstein’s “Heckenholt,” the alleged superintendant of gassing at Belzec, here puts in an appearance as “Hackenhold” (p. 62), while his commander, Odilo Globocnik, is referred to as “Globocznik,” even when his name is in the mouth of the German state prosecutor at the Treblinka trial (p. 65). It almost goes without saying that Lanzmann follows many Exterminationist experts in referring to a non-existent Aktion Reinhard (p. 65), their name for the operation which bears its correct name, Aktion Reinhardt, in all but a couple of places in the documents relating to the operation translated in The Trial of the Major War Criminals (vol. 34, Doc. 4024-PS, pp. 58-92). The difficulty Lanzmann and such Exterminationist “scholars as Lucy Dawidowicz, Yitzhak Arad, Martin Gilbert, et al. have in spelling Aktion Reinhardt is exceeded only by their inability to interpret correctly what the operation consisted of.

For the Polish town of Dabie, one finds the semi-phonetic, but otherwise unwarranted, spelling “Dombie” (p. 84). One hopes that Dr. Raul Hilberg didn’t say “Bahnhofe” for “Bahnhöfe” (p. 139), or “Mittel Europäisch Reisebüro” for “Mitteleuropäisches Reisebüro” (p. 143). “Volhynia” (p. 80) is rendered “Wohlnia,” “Heydebreck” appears as “Heidebreck” (pp. 160, 164), and we read Obersharführer” for “Oberscharführer” (p. 147).

Minor lapses? Not in a translation of the “complete text” of a film that was years in the making and lavishly financed from a number of sources, including by American taxpayers, through their subsidization of Israel. As Professor Faurisson has pointed out in regard to Lanzmann’s use of the “gas-van” document, Lanzmann has not shrunk from textual falsification. Nor is that the only place where he misrepresents a text. On page 83, we read: “Claude Lanzmann reads a letter in front of a building that was formerly the Grabow synagogue. On January 19, 1942, the rabbi of Grabow, Jacob Schulman, wrote the following letter to his friends in Lodz:

My very dear friends, I waited to write to confirm what I'd heard. Alas, to our great grief, we now know all. I spoke to an eyewitness who escaped. He told me everything. They're exterminated in Chelmno, near Dombie [sic], and they're all buried in the Rzuszow forest. The Jews are killed in two ways: by shooting or gas. Its just happened to thousands of Lodz Jews. Do not think that this is being written by a madman. Alas, it is the tragic, horrible truth. 'Horror, horror! Man, shed thy clothes, cover thy head with ashes, run in the street and dance in thy madness.' I am so weary that my pen can no longer write. Creator of the universe, help us!

The Creator did not help the Jews of Grabow. With their rabbi, they all died in the gas vans at Chelmno a few weeks later. Chelmno is only twelve miles from Grabow” (p. 84).

There is in fact serious question as to the text of this purported letter, and whether it ever existed. Lucjan Dobroszycki, in The Chronicle of the Lódz Ghetto 1941-1944 (Yale University Press), states: “Grabów’s [sic] letter and the means by which it reached the ghetto have never been thoroughly investigated. Our knowledge of it comes not from contemporaneous sources but from three mutually contradictory post-war accounts” (p. xxi). Doroszycki goes on to supply a translation of “the full text of the letter” which is twice as long as Lanzmann’s text and differs from the version in Shoah in several important particulars. Where Lanzmann has “… they're all buried in the Rzuszow forest,"Dobroszycki’s text, translated from the official Polish Dokumenty i materialy z czasow okupacji niemieckiej w Polsce, vol. 1: Obozy [Documents and Materials from the Time of the German Occupation in Poland, vol. 1: The Camps] (Lodz, 1946), reads “people are kept in the nearby forest of Lochów” (Dobroszycki, p. xxi).

Where Lanzmann reads, “It’s just happened to thousands of Lodz Jews,” Dobroszycki’s text is as follows: “Recently, thousands of gypsies have been brought there from the so-called Gypsy camp at Lódz and the same is done to them.” Other variant texts of this alleged letter are to be found in Walter Laqueur’s The Terrible Secret (Penguin Books, New York, 1982), Léon Poliakov’s Harvest of Hate (Syracuse University Press, 1954), and Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1985). Connoisseurs of Exterminationist absurdity will relish Raul Hilberg at his most absurd in Shoah, as when Hilberg informs readers that the orders relating to what he calls “death trains” — actually resettlement trains for Jews moving eastward — bore a very low classification, "Nur für den Dienstgebrauch" [For internal use only]. The professor proceeds to unravel this anomaly by concluding “that had they labeled it secret, they would have invited a great many inquiries from people who got hold of it. They would then perhaps have raised more questions; they would have focused attention on the whole thing” (pp. 138-139). Those diabolical Nazis! (Here’s grist for a disertation in Holocaust studies: Edgar Allen Poe's The Purloined Letter: A Neglected Literary Influence on Holocaust Planners?)

Dr. Hilberg’s theory in this connection is even more interesting in the light of a recent study of Aktion Reinhard [sic] he contributed to a book entitled Der Mord an den Juden im Zweiten Weltkrieg [The Murder of the Jews in the Second World War] (edited by Eberhard Jäckel and Jürgen Rohwer, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, Stuttgart, 1985). There (p. 130) Hilberg informs us that there could be no budgetary title for the “death camps” of “Aktion Reinhard” — Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka — resulting in Materials for their construction and operation [having been] fragmentary and minimal” [reviewer’s translation], so that they would “remain financially unobtrusive.”

When the reader reminds himself that all this was going on at a time at which Allied propagandists were trumpeting news of the “Final Solution” to the entire world, he will better grasp what Arthur Butz means when he writes of “the remarkable cabbalistic mentality” of Hilberg and his fellow Exterminationists in the foreword to The Hoax of the Twentieth Century. And he will perhaps be reminded of the words of the descendant of a long line of rabbis, Karl Marx, in another connection: “All that is not solid melts into air.”