Why is this holocaust different from all other holocausts? In raw nightmare numbers, the Nazi extermination of 6 million European Jews ranks below the Soviet Union's systematic starvation of the rebellious Ukraine in 1932-33 (10 million by Stalin's count) and Mao's catastrophic Great Leap Forward into prolonged famine in 1957-62 (at least 27 million). Uganda and Kampuchea have produced more recent evidence that Hitler's policy of mass murder as an instrument of statecraft was not unique. Yet the Final Solution remains the archetype of man's bestiality to man, and there are compelling reasons for this to be so. The villain: Hitler still seems the embodiment of melodramatic evil, a spellbinder sent from hell or central casting. The perpetrators: a civilized Western nation conceived the outrage of genocide and executed the plan with technological precision; if the Germans could do it, anyone could. The victims: the Jews, eternal outsiders, were traditionally treated by Christians with an uneasy mixture of respect and enmity. Here was the seed of ordinary anti-Semitism brought to rancid fruition.
But what makes this Holocaust film, Shoah, different from all others? For 40 years the event has been analyzed and dramatized. So the prospect of a 9-hr. 23-min. documentary, comprising no archival footage, only interviews with death-camp survivors and chillingly bucolic vistas of the camp sites today, is likely to raise apprehensions and even yawns. We have seen all that too many times before; next atrocity, please. And in fact the testimony in Shoah (a Hebrew word for cataclysm) does not justify either the film's extraordinary length or French Director Claude Lanzmann's relentless badgering of some of the victims. Still and all, it is salutary to be confronted, hour after hour after hour, with memories horrifying enough to fill a dozen movies. Subjecting oneself to Shoah is like being strapped down for an extended session with the exorcist.
In December 1941, within a few days of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Nazis began gassing Jews and Gypsies at a camp in Chelmno, Poland. More than 150,000 died there; two survived, and both offer their soul-scarred witness in Shoah. One of them, Simon Srebnik, was a boy of 13 at the time. Returning to Chelmno, he visits townspeople who were once enchanted by his beautiful singing voice. They also remember the screams of Jews locked in the local church before being taken away. At Treblinka, site of the Nazis' most efficient gas chambers, villagers recall standing by the railbed watching Jews inside the trains. With a smile, the villagers would draw their fingers quickly across their necks: a warning and a wicked taunt to those about to die.