A Claude Lanzmann documentary film is coming out in a few weeks that examines over three hours (that’s like a short for Lanzmann) the life, personality and Holocaust role of Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein. Lanzmann originally interviewed Murmelstein (who died over 20 years ago) as part of his work for the film Shoah, the monumental documentary of Holocaust suffering, ‘collaboration,’ and complicity that was released in the 1980s.
Murmelstein was the third and only surviving Jewish Council leader of the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia (there called Terezin). Theresienstadt was a mock-concentration camp used by Adolf Eichmann to show Red Cross visitors that in fact Jews in camps throughout occupied Europe were living splendidly — hence its sardonic nickname, the “Paradise Ghetto.” Murmelstein helped spread this fiction about Theresienstadt, ran the camp, and drew up lists of Jews for deportation. The title of Lanzmann’s film, The Last of the Unjust, is how Murmelstein referred to himself. According to a Jan. 26 article in the New York Times, he has been considered variously a scheming friend of Eichmann and a forced collaborator who did more for others than for himself. Lanzmann adopts the latter view.
The discussion about Murmelstein got me thinking about the human desire to decide what someone is. We want our pantomime characters no matter how awful the story is: our damsels, our heroes, our villains. In a genocide, surely the only people to whom can be affixed a label, or judgement, are the perpetrators.
But to make such a statement is to tell the survivors and refugees and chroniclers of the Holocaust that they, (being part of the humanity I address), may or may not judge Rabbi Murmelstein. Who am I to do that? It seems that with each ethical question or discussion about the Holocaust, we open another Chinese box. To paraphrase Theodore Adorno: After Auschwitz, no more poetry — nor mathematics, nor logic, nor law, nor history. Nor answers.
I look forward to seeing the film.