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Faith After the Holocaust

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Jaclyn Martinelli        

April 6, 2018

Dr. Umansky

Faith After the Holocaust

Shoah Paper

        Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 film, Shoah, really opened my eyes to the horrors of the Holocaust on an extraordinary level.  This film elicited every emotion out of me; from devastation, to anger, to some level of joy.  The dynamic of the film and the structure of how the survivors spoke and relived their stories was done perfectly.  Even though there were a lot of people talking and a lot happening on the screen at one time, it was important to me to see all of the survivors and their raw emotions.  Overall, I think Lanzmann did an exceptional job with this film.

        I have seen and learned so much about the Holocaust before watching this film.  However, this film gave me an incredible perception of how many different people, speaking different languages, of different ages, all entered the same concentration camps.  I think Lanzmann chose the approach of listening to the survivor speak after asking him or her a question, then having a translator convert the message, because it depicts how much goes into a survivor’s life and story.  All the survivors spoke very different languages from French, to English to even German.  Thus, by Lanzmann not cutting out the part of the translation and just putting the English subtitles up, it portrays the struggles all the survivors went through. He did this because it allows the audience to see the emotions on the survivor’s face and you can hear the dismay in their voices when they are speaking.  If he didn’t include that, then part of their stories would be altered, because you wouldn’t be able to see how they are feeling.

        One example from the film is when Lanzmann interviewed survivor Michael Podchlebnik.  This man had a smile on his face from the second he entered on screen, to the last.  It was evident that Podchlebnik never really talked about what he endured because Lanzmann asked him, “Why are you talking about it?” and Podchlebnik’s response was, “Because you’re insisting.”  I could tell that reliving his experience in the Holocaust was almost as traumatic as when he was there.  For Podchlebnik, it wasn’t easy to talk about his experience and the film captured this beautifully.  The smile on his face tried to hide the pain and hurt that he suffered for so long.  When Lanzmann started asking him more questions, I noticed that right when he began to get upset, he reverted back to smiling.  Smiling was almost Podchlebnik’s scapegoat.  This is because he said he smiles because he is alive, and since he was so close to death, being alive is something worth smiling about.  Putting myself in Podchlebnik’s shoes, I don’t think I could ever smile again.  His strength radiates from his body and his positivity inspires me.  Michael Podchlebnik showed me that no matter what darkness you have seen in life, you can always find positivity and happiness.

        Furthermore, another element that Lanzmann captures by not cutting what the survivors say or making the film shorter, is the element of crying.  Throughout the film, so many survivors or in one case, an SS Unterscharführer, were crying when telling a part of their story.  When survivor Michael Podchlebnik was telling his story, he began crying when he relived uncovering corpses.  Unfortunately, he had the cruel fate of seeing his wife and children’s corpses.  As he was telling us the story, not only could I hear in his voice the true terror and heartache of seeing his loved one’s dead in front of him, but I also saw it on his face… tear after tear.  He was so heartbroken that he actually asked the Germans to kill him, after he put his wife down in a grave.  But, they told him no because he was strong enough to work.  I can’t even imagine carrying around the image of my deceased family in my head, for my whole life.  

Yet, Lanzmann didn’t only capture tears from survivors but also from a SS Unterscharführer.  I was very used to knowing and understanding the Holocaust from a survivor perspective, but never from the Nazi perspective.  This film really broadened my horizons and showed me the different perspectives of all those who were involved in the Holocaust.  Franz Suchomel was a former SS Unterscharführer, which meant he was in a paramilitary rank of the Nazi Party.  I think it was so interesting that Lanzmann included him in this story because most people knew what it was like for survivors, but not many knew what it was like on the opposite side.  It is a very good thing that Lanzmann did not cut this out of the film to make it shorter because the Nazis are just as significant in the story of the Holocaust as the survivors.

        I was captivated when Franz Suchomel was talking about his experience and his side of the Holocaust.  I was so intrigued because it’s hard to hear the other side of evil, and he stepped up and willingly told us.  The first thing that really confused me was that he knew he was going to a camp because the Fuhrer, or Hitler, ordered a resettlement program.  However, no one spoke of any killing.  Therefore, Suchomel was trying to say that he knew he was going to a camp to be a guard, but he did not know that he was going to be massacring millions of innocent Jews.  Another thing that stuck in my mind, was when he was talking about his tour of Treblinka when he arrived there.  He said when the doors of the chamber were opened, people fell out like potatoes.  This left such a visual imagine in my mind, because I can only imagine innocent, lifeless bodies, smacking the ground after their treacherous deaths.  

        Moreover, because Lanzmann included both the Nazi side and the survivor side, it gave me the opportunity to compare both experiences.  Evidently, the Nazis overall had a better experience in the Holocaust than the survivors.  The survivors were tortured day and night and succumbed to starvation, dehydration, disease and death.  Franz Suchomel said that some mothers even slashed their own daughter’s wrists at night, and some poisoned themselves, to try to escape the wrath of the Nazis.  However, I would have thought that for some Nazis, this constant murdering would be hard on them.  After hearing Suchomel’s experience, it did not sound like it was that difficult for him.  I was hoping that after he spoke about the horrendous smell of the gas chambers, or how when more Jewish individuals were sent to Treblinka to be killed but they did not have enough capacity for them, he would break down crying.  In addition, on more than one occasion, he and the Jewish survivors had different definitions and numbers for different things at the camp.  For example, Jewish individuals at the camp would say there were five chambers on each side, but Suchomel thought there were only four.  It is very hard to take in, the fact that he did all these things to these innocent people.  It’s also very hard to swallow that when he thinks of the Holocaust, it’s in a very different way than survivors.  I was hoping that he’d be more apologetic and remorseful.



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