Between the hammer and the anvil

Claude Lanzmann’s new film presents the impossible dilemma of Nazi appointed Jewish Council head Benjamin Murmelstein.

Lanzmann arrives for screening of ‘Last of the Unjust 521 (photo credit: JEAN PAUL PELISSIER / REUTERS)
Lanzmann arrives for screening of ‘Last of the Unjust 521
Claude Lanzmann’s film, “The Last of the Unjust,” premieres in Paris on November 13 and revolves largely around Austrian rabbi and historian Benjamin Murmelstein (1905-1989), the only head of a major Judenrat (Nazi-appointed “Jewish Council”) to have survived World War II.
Much of the film is made up of footage of interviews that French-Jewish documentary filmmaker Lanzmann conducted with Murmelstein over a period of a week in Rome in 1975, and that Lanzmann had kept separate from his mammoth 1985 production, “Shoah,” which took him 12 years to complete. Lanzmann has said that “Shoah” would have lasted 20 hours if Murmelstein had been included in the award-winning film, the full version of which is nine and a half hours long. “The Last of the Unjust” runs for “only” three hours and 38 minutes.
Following the war, Murmelstein took refuge in the Italian capital, where he lived as a furniture salesman, after being cleared of collaboration with the Nazis while a member of the Jewish Council of Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, from January 1943 until the war ended in May 1945. As JudenÄleste (Jewish Elder), he headed the council from September 1944, after his two predecessors were executed by the Nazis.
Lanzmann makes clear in the film and in writings that after much thought and long discussion with Murmelstein, his sympathies lie with the latter, accepting that he did the best he could to help fellow Jews and try to shield them from Nazi ferocity. “I was between the hammer and the anvil,” Murmelstein says in the film, accepting that his fellow Jewish inmates often hated him.
The issue of Jews collaborating with the Nazis has long been an explosive one, culminating with the Kastner Affair, in which Israeli government official Israel (Rudolph) Kastner was accused in the early 1950s of having collaborated with Nazi colonel and Final Solution mastermind Adolf Eichmann in Budapest in 1944. Kastner, a Zionist and a leader of the Budapest Jewish community, paid money to Eichmann to spirit more than 1,600 Jews to neutral Switzerland. But many more Jews were sent to death camps from the Hungarian capital, and Kastner was accused of making sure members of his family were among those who went to Switzerland. The affair led to the resignation of the Israeli government. Although his name was eventually cleared by the Supreme Court, Kastner was assassinated by an ultra-rightist in Tel Aviv in 1957.
Murmelstein was arrested by Czech authorities in June 1945 and jailed on accusations of collaboration. He was tried and acquitted in December 1946, at a time when such accusations were not treated lightly. In the film, seen by The Jerusalem Report in a pre-release screening, Murmelstein, then 70, tells Lanzmann that he never set foot in Israel afterwards because he expected to be jailed and tried there too, and that he did not have the strength for new tribulations after those he had already undergone.
Especially interesting in the film are Murmelstein’s accounts of his own negotiations with Eichmann in Vienna, before the start of the war, when Nazi policy was to expel Jews, not yet to kill them, but to extract from them beforehand all possible material goods. Jews had to sign over their property, bank accounts and so on to the state to get exit visas.
MURMELSTEIN WAS then the Viennese Jewish community’s chief negotiator with the ruling Nazis on the issue of emigration.
Lanzmann says Murmelstein can therefore be credited with having saved 120,000 lives.
In Lanzmann’s film, Murmelstein says, “I first met Eichmann in Vienna in 1938 and knew him for seven years. He was not ‘banal’ as Hannah Arendt describes him in her theory on ‘the banality of evil’ (conceived after attending Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1962). He was a demon. And his interest was in robbing the Jews.” It was Eichmann who decided to deport Murmelstein to Theresienstadt in 1943. Theresienstadt is best known for having been the Nazis’ “model ghetto,” where they took delegations from the International Red Cross and from the Danish Red Cross late in the war to try to calm rising fears about the wholesale massacre of the Jews in Europe.
It was also at Theresienstadt, an hour’s drive north of Prague, that the documentary film titled “The Führer Gives a Village to the Jews” was shot in September 1944, directed by Jewish prisoner Kurt Gerron, an experienced film professional. Gerron and other key figures in the film were murdered at Auschwitz soon afterward. The aim of the film was to show that the Jews had a lively cultural life at Theresienstadt, which was partially true, since the camp’s inmates were mostly German, Austrian, Czech and Dutch middle-class Jews, including many intellectuals and artists who were allowed to perform there.
What the Nazi-produced film did not show was that of the 144,000 Jews deported to Theresienstadt during the war, 88,000 were later sent on to be murdered at the Auschwitz or Treblinka death camps, while about 33,000 died of hunger, disease or brutal treatment at Theresienstadt itself. About 17,000 Jews were in the camp when it was freed by Soviet troops in May 1945.
Murmelstein readily agrees that he was the one who directed improvements made in the camp to impress foreign visitors in the last months of the war. Inmates accused him afterwards of being hard on them during the work undertaken at the time. “Yes, I undertook the embellishments of the camp for the visits by the Danish Red Cross and by the International Red Cross. If the Nazis wanted to show us, it meant they didn’t want to kill us. I embellished the camp to keep it that way and I’m happy I did it. The Nazis wanted Theresienstadt as a propaganda object. I made people work so we could keep it that way and keep us alive,” Murmelstein recounts in the movie.
Lanzmann then rebukes him, saying, “One feels that you don’t recognize Theresienstadt was a hell. You only talk about logistics and organization.” And Murmelstein responds, “If a surgeon starts to cry over his patient during an operation, he kills his patient. What is the use of crying? My job was to keep the ghetto alive. I was like Scheherazade in the ‘Tales of the Arabian nights.’ I told stories to stay alive.”
Lanzmann, in notes released with the film, writes, “Real collaborators – that is, people who shared Nazi ideology like collaborators in France, did not exist among the Jews, except perhaps in Warsaw, for a tiny group called ‘The 13’ because they lived at 13 Leszno Street. Their leader was a certain Gancwajc, who was a traitor who gave information to the Nazis but this was a nearly unique case.
“OTHER JEWS were appointed by the Germans [to Jewish Councils] and refusal meant the death sentence. They [the Council members] tried to save something, they believed the Nazi rationale that the Germans needed Jewish labor and that, if they worked, they would not be killed. But they were mistaken. It was the death of the Jews which was the Nazi priority.
“As far as Murmelstein is concerned, it’s another case. I was struck by his capacity to reply, by his erudition, by his intelligence.
Especially [when interviewing him], I felt him to be perfectly sincere. Very often, he said, ‘We didn’t have the time to think.’ That is precisely the perversity of the Nazis, giving new orders all the time, orders always impossible to carry out.”
Lanzmann, 87, was on holiday in Spain and ill when The Report spoke to him several times by telephone to try to arrange an interview this summer. Well known for his straightforward and sometimes brusque manner, Lanzmann said, “I don’t like the questions you want to put to me, but perhaps we’ll meet when I come back in September or October.” The main suggested question that raised his ire concerned what reaction he expected when his film was shown in Israel, where the population is especially young, and where events are so intense and move so quickly that the Holocaust might be a burning issue now for only a dwindling group of survivors and their families. “I’m sure the Israeli public will receive my film very well. I know Israel and the Israelis very well,” he said.
During his career, Lanzmann has been especially well treated by the Israeli authorities. His first film, “Israel, why?” (1973), was followed by “Tsahal” (1994), in which the Israel Defense Forces gave him unique access to their commanders and bases. He was even strapped into an F-16 fighter bomber for a flight above Beirut.
Lanzmann himself appears in “The Last of the Unjust,” as he never has in his prior films, and is seen walking through the present-day decaying site of the former camp at Theresienstadt, describing tragic past events there. During the war, Lanzmann was a teenage member of a band of maquisards (armed partisans) conducting ambushes against German troops in rural central France.
Possibly the most dramatic event he describes is the execution of a young Jew in which the camp’s Nazi commandant ordered the then-head of the Jewish Council, Jacob Edlestein, formerly a Zionist leader in Prague, to choose the executioner from among Jewish prisoners.
Lanzmann, massive and somber-looking, stumbles about the site, including the gallows, and explains that Edlestein sought to recruit an executioner from among Jewish butchers but all declined. “In the end, a Jewish mortuary assistant named Fischer agreed, but only if he was given a glass of rum just before, and tobacco to chew during, all to give him the strength to go through with it,” Lanzmann recalls.
“As the young man, sentenced to hang for trying to smuggle a letter out of the camp, walked towards the ladder, the camp commandant, that animal [Anton] Burger, shouted, ‘Hurry up you coward!’ The young man then ran up the ladder, put the noose around his neck by himself and leaped from the ladder, shouting, ‘I’m not a coward.’ “BUT THE rope broke. Edelstein was terrified and trembling, but Fischer pleaded with Burger to spare the youth. There’s an old tradition that if a rope breaks, the condemned man is spared. But Burger refused.”
In late 1943, Edelstein himself was sent to Auschwitz, where he was later executed by a bullet to the head after having to watch the Nazis kill his wife and son in the same fashion moments before. His successor, Berlin Jewish leader Paul Eppstein, was executed at Theresienstadt the following year, and Murmelstein was appointed to replace him.
“In the end, the Nazis had no one to replace me,” Murmelstein says, adding, “I’m no hero; either I pleased the Red Cross [when they were invited by the Nazis to tour the camp] or I went to the gas chamber.”
Lanzmann points out – both in the film and in his notes about it – that all the other main Jewish Council heads in occupied Europe came to dramatic ends like Adam Czerniakow, who committed suicide in Warsaw, and Chaim Rumkowski, the controversial “King of the Jews” in Lodz, who died at Auschwitz.
“Benjamin Murmelstein is the only one who survived,” Lanzmann wrote. “[In my film], Murmelstein does not lie; he is ironic, sardonic and as hard on himself as he is on others. “Some of the Jewish Council leaders had huge egos and were delighted to wield such powers even if they had received them from the Nazis. But the Murmelstein case is entirely different because Theresienstadt, the ‘model ghetto,’ was unique.
“This film clearly shows that it is not the Jews who killed their brothers. It makes clear who the real killers were. I think Murmelstein will now be seen with more understanding and empathy and the would-be prosecutors will calm down.”
Murmelstein says in the film that one of his most bitter critics was German-born Israeli philosopher Gershom Sholem (1897-1982) “who I knew personally before the war when he was still called Gerhard. Sholem believed that Eichmann should not have been hanged, but he wanted to hang me and I had been acquitted!” Lanzmann says in the film that “Murmelstein is the one who dubbed himself ‘The Last of the Unjust,’ inspired by [FrenchJewish author] André Schwarz-Bart’s masterpiece about Jewish destiny, ‘The Last of the Just.’ The title of my film came from Murmelstein himself.”