Remarks: “Emil Fackenheim on the Film, Shoah”

The following address was delivered by Professor Frederick Krantz, Director of CIJR, at the Montreal Romanian Holocaust Commemoration, Congregation Shaare Zedek, November 13, 2011.

 

A few days ago, a friend gave me an article on Claude Lanzmann’s powerful Holocaust documentary film, Shoah, by the late Emil Fackenheim, the great Jewish philosopher and survivor who was my teacher and my friend.* What Emil says there is, I think, directly relevant to today’s commemoration, organized by Baruch Cohen, also a Jewish philosopher and survivor, and also my friend, and my teacher.

 

Emil calls this Holocaust documentary “the greatest film of all time, on possibly the most horrible subject of all time”, and notes that it should be required viewing for all philosophers, “for without seeing it they will be unable to do what since Socrates all philosophers must do: To put it in Socrates’ own words, to ponder whether Man is a more horrible monster than ‘tryphon’—who one gathers was the most horrible mythical beast he could think of—or perhaps after all, [is] a being of a gentler sort.”**

 

Emil singles out three scenes from the film for discussion, involving a witness, a bystander, and a criminal. The witness is a Jew, Filip Mueller, who had been a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, forced to do the most terrible job, pulling the bodies from the gas chambers. A Czech, Mueller one day had to lead a newly-arrived group of fellow Czech countrymen into the chambers: defiant, singing the Czech national anthem and HaTikvah, they had to be pushed into the chamber, and Filip Mueller finally breaks down and, as he says in the film, says to himself “Why go on living? [so] I went into the chambers with them”.

 

In the second scene, Polish peasants are interviewed by Lanzmann. One volunteers that he heard “for sure” how a rabbi with a group of Jews about to die asks an S.S. officer for permnission to speak to his people, and then says that, since about 2,000 years ago “our forefathers condemned the innocent Christ to death”, we and our children must die. “So let us not resist, but accept the punishment…”, and the peasant concludes, “It was God’s will…”.

 

The third scene—“the hardest part”, as Emil observes—involves a German criminal, Unterscharfuehrer Franz Suchomel of Treblinka, who testifies about how he helped push Jews from the trains to the tunnel leading to the gas chambers. After undressing, the men—whose possible resistance was feared—were led in first, while the women waited, naked, in the snow and cold—and Suchomel adds, “it was cold as hell for us, too. We didn’t have suitable uniforms”.

 

Then Emil pauses, and, paraphrasing Kant, he says that all philosophers, concerned with the Socratic question, What is man, should have to answer how these three scenes were humanly possible. He quotes Simone de Beauvoir, who said that, after seeing Lanzmann’s film, she realized that, despite what she had read about theShoah after the war, “we have understood nothing”.

 

Here, Fackenheim mentions Martin Heidegger, Germany’s most distinguished philosopher who became (an unrepentant) Nazi in 1933. He imagines how Heidegger—who after the war spoke grandly about “the loss of Being”—would react to watching Lanzmann’s Shoah—“I cannot imagine, my mind boggles.” A true German philosopher has yet to confront the Holocaust, he adds, but while rejecting inter-generational “collective guilt”, Germans will, he concludes, nevertheless have for all time to shoulder “collective shame”.

 

Emil’s short, yet characteristically dense and powerful, piece then turns to a consideration of each of the three scenes. Why did Filip Mueller, whose daily life was one of unending horror, not commit suicide, as did so many of the Sonderkommando? Why did he emerge from the gas chamber, the only known such case? Mueller himself tells us: his comrades pushed him out, “in order to be a witness”. It was his duty to live, to be a witness, just as it is ours to listen to him, and to respect the Biblical injunction, zachor, remember!—and “ours” means all of us, Jews and Christians and seculars, all responsible human beings of conscience—including philosophers.

 

Of the Polish bystander’s story about the rabbi, Emil notes that no Jew, let alone a rabbi, would ever accept the Christian Gospel’s vicious slander of the Jews as deicides, and its truly terrible assertion that innocent children inherited that guilt forever. This curse alone does not account for Hitler, he notes; but without it, without the 2,000-year antisemitic indictment of the Jews as a deicide people, neither Hitler nor the Shoah would have been possible. Today, he adds, this is a problem not for Jews, but for Christians—and on this score, says Fackenheim, a Reform rabbi as well as a philosopher, who was in fact famous for initiating and engaging in Jewish-Christian dialogue—were I a Christian, “I would feel like tearing up the New Testament”.

 

Finally, what about “the hardest part”, the criminal? This is the hardest part because we would all like to avert attention from the Suchomels (as Hannah Arendt did, Emil notes, in her Eichmann in Jerusalem book, with its superficial notion of the “banality of evil”, and its heartless view that the “darkest page” in the Holocaust was written not by the German perpetrators and their henchmen and the bystanders, but by the victimized Jewish members of the Judenrate, the Jewish councils forced by the Nazis to run the ghettos and make the initial selections). After all, who wants to belong to the same species as Unterscharfuehrer Suchomel?

 

Yet he, and the millions like him, the Germans and their partners and enablers, are—alas!—part of our species, and Suchomel—who 30 years later is still unrepentant, without pity or remorse—remembers not the terrified women shivering naked in the ice and snow, awaiting their murder, but only how cold he was, in his inadequate uniform! Jewish tradition, Emil observes, teaches that if there is remorse and repentance, sin can be forgiven—but “of the utterly wicked the Talmud says they do not repent, even at the gates of hell”.

 

One can follow this issue of blindness to evil up the ladder of command and across the breadth of responsibility, all the way to Himmler and Hitler and to all the active collaboraters and passive bystanders. For some scholars, including even philosophers, No one “knew”, all were “banal”, the racist ideology itself had been around a long time, Hitler had no conscious plan, other genocides have happened, who am I to judge, they only followed orders, and so on, and on—so that for such people, “wherever [they] look, the evil is someplace else”. But of course, it isn’t anywhere else, it is in the Holocaust as a whole, in which every one of the perpetrators and bystanders was a part, all made it possible, and each was responsible.

 

The evil resided in what Fackenheim calls “planet Auschwitz”, the whole man-made unending nightmare realm of horror, which the philosopher—and we—must contemplate, “if he wishes [and we wish] to pursue Socrates’ ancient quest in terms befitting out time”. Emil’s essay ends with a question, the question, which we here today, thanks to Baruch Cohen, are confronting: has planet Auschwitz in fact been destroyed?

 

Today, this question has once again assumed radical relevance, as the deepening global delegitimation of the Jewish state proceeds, and coincides with and reinforces Ahmadinejad’s soon-to-be nuclear-armed pledge to annihilate Israel. Emil’s answer lay in his creation of the 614th mitzvah, an additional, overriding post-1945 commandment: “Thou shalt not give posthumous victories to Hitler”: a Jewish philosopher’s way of saying, Never again!, it is a commandment that all of us—Jews first, but all persons of conscience as well—must, I think, consciously act upon today.

 

* “Philosophical Reflections on Claude Lanzmann's Shoah,” in Jewish Philosophers and Jewish Philosphy, Michael Morgan, ed. (Bloomington and Indianapolis, University of Indiana- polis Press, 1996).

** The monster Typhon (or Tryphon) is mentioned in Plato’s dialogue, Phaedrus.