The Arty Semite

Friday Film: The Unseen Shoah

By Laura Hodes

  • Print
  • Share Share

Film still courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem

On December 6 I attended a screening of “Shoah, the Unseen Interviews,” sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 epic is more than nine hours long and features interviews with 70 individuals from 220 hours of footage (no documentary images are in the monumental film, only interviews with witnesses and survivors). This was a chance to see outtakes from the 220 hours that did not make the original film, clips which are part of the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive.

More than 500 people filled the auditorium at Am Shalom synagogue in Glencoe, Illinois, to see these unseen interviews. The outtakes, which feature footage from interviews with three individuals, two of whom are in “Shoah,” will also be screened in January in the New York Jewish Film Festival, and have already been shown in Cleveland and Detroit.

The first segments are from Lanzmann’s interview with Abraham Boma, a Polish survivor who was the barber in Treblinka responsible for cutting the hair of prisoners before they were led to the gas chambers. Chillingly, Boma is trimming the hair of a man in Israel as he talks about cutting the hair of women before they were gassed. He explains how working in a barbershop after the war took some getting used to, cutting the hair of “ladies” who were wearing clothes, as they were “meant to,” rather than cutting the hair of women who were stark naked.

He speaks also of cutting the hair of a 17 year old young woman, Sarah Levinson — a “nice, friendly” girl who told him that she knew she was going to die but that he should escape and then tell everyone he could what was happening to the Jews in Treblinka. He said he never forgot this girl, that her face was in his mind when he escaped. He tells of how he told the inhabitants in the Warsaw Ghetto that all the Jews in Treblinka were being killed but they refused to believe him.

The third interview is with Ruth Elias, of whom there is merely a glimpse in “Shoah” itself, who talks about her experiences in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, where she was pregnant and gave birth, before she and her baby became an experiment for Josef Mengele. Elias, preserved at the age when she was interviewed, has a beautiful face, high cheekbones and large brown eyes. Even as she speaks of the horrors she experienced, she speaks in a sweet voice. She talks of being selected to work in the camp kitchen because of her excellent singing, being heard by an SS guard and asked to organize a variety show. The clip ends with her telling how she found her second husband in one such show (she tells her full story in her 1988 book, “Triumph of Hope”). Despite her horrible experiences, the allusion to a story of romance found in the camps seemed a bit like a Hollywood movie about the Holocaust.

Even more chilling and thought-provoking is the second interview, filmed in 1978 with the firebrand Peter Bergson (born Hillel Kook), the nephew of Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. (Outtakes from this Bergson interview were used in the 2009 Simon Weisenthal documentary “Against the Tide.”) Unlike the other two interviews shown, this man is not included at all in Lanzmann’s “Shoah.” Bergson has remained a little-known figure, though a one-hour long documentary, “Not Idly By,” about him will be released in 2012.

Bergson died in 2001, but perhaps now the time is right for his story. Unlike Boma and Elias, Bergson, who is not a survivor, is angry. He’s angry about the lives he couldn’t save because of the reluctance of American Jewish leaders to do anything.

Bergson led the Emergency Committee for the Rescue of European Jewry, but his efforts only upset American Jewish leaders. Why? Because of their fear, he says, that “people will say this is a Jewish war.” He says he asked for an agency and President Roosevelt formed the War Refugee Board. “Jews were afraid to say, Jewish Refugee Board, afraid to say it’s a Jewish war. All the Jewish organizations came to give money so that it wouldn’t be said ‘the American government spent money on Jews.’”

As the night ended, Bergson’s words echoed through the room. This previously unseen footage suggests there is still much Holocaust Museums could teach us about the American Jewish response to the Shoah.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Shoah, Ruth Elias, Peter Bergson, Laura Hodes, Holocaust, Film, Claude Lanzmann, Abraham Boma

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.