In honor of the great creator of Shoah (a documentary which I review in My Year 2015) I decided to watch his great second documentary, based on interviews with the Viennese rabbi, Benjamin Murmelstein, done in preparation for that earlier film but not included within it. Murmelstein, the only surviving “Elder of the Jews” from the camps—significant Jewish leaders who were forced to become emissaries between the Nazis and the millions of individuals trapped in ghettos and concentration camps, often given the devastating power to make choices about who might live and who might die—was, along with others after the war, perceived by many survivors simply as collaborators, Murmelstein being no exception, being tried and found not-guilty in the Czech courts. It is obvious why Lanzmann deleted this long sequence of interviewing from his original documentary, fraught as it is by so very many impossible moral choices.
On the surface, Murmelstein is not at all a likeable being. Argumentative, often cynical, even irreverent, and speaking emphatically in the very language of the oppressor, he seems, at different moments, self-justifying and yet completely broken by the series of events he had to endure and by what he admittedly did to others of his religion. This is a tale of beings who were forced to pretend to be what, at heart, they were not, simply in order to survive and to help others to live out the devastation of their culture.
At the station, Lanzmann, himself at the time filming now 89 years of age, begins reading from the highly intelligent book, written by Murmelstein in Italian, Terezin, il Ghetto Modello di Eichmann (Theresienstad, the Model Ghetto of Eichmann). Murmelstein had previously been forced to work with Eichmann in Vienna, where he headed the largest city synagogue, when in Eichmann’s early years he had been seeking for ways to get rid of the Jews through mass emigration, first to the Palestine, then, in a kind of mad, made-up project, to Mozambique. Murmelstein became the investigator he needed to explain where, when they emigrated, Jews went. Obviously, this sounds a bit like something Trump himself might have imagined for those he does not like. But, if nothing else, Murmelstein’s experiences and his personal involvement in Kristallnacht make all of Hannah Arendt’s suggestions of Adolph Eichmann’s “banality” pure nonsense. Eichmann, through Murmelstein’s sharp memory, is as knowledgably complicit in the creation of the camps and the killing of Jews as anyone in the Nazi hierarchy.
Whatever one might think of Murmelstein’s actions and motives, he is certainly one of the most knowledgeable and credible historians of the period, describing himself as having to play a kind of Scheherazade in order to rescue Jews, and who rescued himself, by helping the Germans tell a propagandistic story. As long as they were determined to create the myth of a model camp, the Nazis could not totally destroy its inmates, or himself, he argues. They needed him and its distressed citizens to pretend to themselves and others about their good intentions.