December 21, 2006
Swimming in the Holocaust
Recently, I attended a screening of "Swimming in Auschwitz," a still unreleased documentary directed by Jon Kean about the experience in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp of six women -- Eva Beckmann, Rena Drexler, Renee Firestone, Erika Jacobi, Lili Majzner and Linda Sherman -- all of whom survived and today live in the Los Angeles area.|
The film is notable for sharing the woman's experience of the notorious camp.
Kean succeeds at having the women speak with candor about their families and their experiences as the war took hold, and how the Nazis put them in ghettos, on the transports to Auschwitz, as well as about their arrival and their tribulations there.
Kean records their histories with great respect and compassion for the individual spirit of each of the women involved.
The documentary's title comes from an anecdote Jacobi relates about one hot August day when, as she was marched from her barracks, she was taken past the German officers' swimming pool. Although taking any step outside the ranks could have meant death, impulsively, she dove in the pool, swam to the other side, got out and rejoined the march. The guard said nothing.
The anecdote is not meant to serve up any greater truth. It represents just one unusual occurrence. Yet, as a metaphor, to be "swimming in Auschwitz" is an apt description of the experience of watching the documentary.
There is nothing easy about watching a documentary about Auschwitz, not even a well-made one. Already knowing the facts about the camp and what the inmates endured takes nothing away from the shock of hearing the specifics of their experience.
As I watched the film, I was overwhelmed by the realization that the time for such documentaries was almost up; that within a decade or two there will be no more eyewitnesses to the crimes. But I was also thinking about the Holocaust itself, and how my feelings about the events described have changed over time.
That night I went home and fell asleep, only to wake in the middle of the night. I stumbled out to our living room, stretched out on the couch and reached for a book that I had been avoiding for several months, the new edition of Elie Wiesel's "Night" (newly translated from Wiesel's original manuscript by his wife, Marion).
I had read the book in high school but remembered little of it. Now, I read the book in one sitting. "Night" is Wiesel's account of his incarceration in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Wiesel was a teenager at the time, a devout, religious boy, and his account seethes with anger at God and at himself, as he witnesses the death of his family members and as he becomes a person who survived Auschwitz.
In the preface to the new translation was a simple sentence by Wiesel: "Only those who experienced Auschwitz know what it was. Others will never know."
There it was: the truth about the Holocaust. What I realized, and this is something that I have been struggling toward for a long time, is that the more I know about the Holocaust, the more I read, the more documentaries or movies I see, the more I have come to grasp that the Holocaust not only defies understanding; it demands that we admit to and respect the fact that we can never truly understand what occurred.
My parents both lived through the Holocaust (neither in camps), and I grew up surrounded by survivors and their families. I've spent many, many hours listening to survivor accounts. I was active in children of survivor groups and attended several survivor gatherings.
I wrote a book about a Nazi war crimes trial, for which I interviewed several survivors of the Treblinka extermination camp and read the testimonies of many more. There is a sea of Holocaust material in which I have been swimming for much of my life.
As a subject hovering near my consciousness, I have at times attempted to push it away and other times drawn it close. But although it has never been far away, my own thinking has evolved over the years.
My father was a resistance hero, so as a child, I thought of the Holocaust as a James Bond story, where my father vanquished the evil Nazis through his cunning and his smarts; a Purim story in which Hitler was Haman, and the Jews triumphed over their enemies. In my late 20s, I thought of the Holocaust as a call to bear witness and to engage in social action. In my 30s, I came to think of the Holocaust as a diabolical criminal enterprise in which the murder and attempted extermination of the Jewish race was preceded by plundering their wealth and possessions.
All of which is a long way of saying that despite what I've read, seen, heard or learned, or perhaps because of it, I find myself less and less willing to find a moral or a lesson or some meaning to the Holocaust. Perhaps, that's out of increased wisdom or deeper insight. Most likely, it's just my getting older.
But I ask myself: How could so psychologically complex and nefarious a plan have been executed involving so great a mass conspiracy and such mass cooperation, support and acquiescence? How exactly could the architects of the , so called, final solution conceive of and then involve so many in acts that no one believed could possibly occur, while relying on the optimism and disbelief of their intended Jewish victims to lead those unfortunates into the snare of death?
How can one comprehend the levels of inhumanity man could visit against man? How can one imagine the perverse creation of factories of death with their multiplicity of stratagems for humiliation and dehumanization, for turning man against man, and inmate against inmate, for the varieties of death in a system that culminated in murdering Jews and then insisting on killing them again by cremating their bodies (an added affront to Jewish tradition and law)?
How can you understand being there, dying there or even surviving being there? Did the Nazis really believe that they could in this fashion erase all evidence of the murders and of their victim's existence? Even if their purpose was murder, the rituals and routines of Auschwitz made no sense whatsoever. Yet the mountain of facts are alarmingly rational. We, who were not there, can never really enter the nightmare world. Yet the facts of the Holocaust, once known, can never really leave our consciousness.
I have come to resist exactly what I was guilty of, of making the Holocaust into a teaching story. The late Susan Sontag, in her essay, "Against Interpretation," argued that the methodology of art theory is based on a premise that requires art to justify itself. Using her logic, it behooves us to ask ourselves why we expect the Holocaust to have a justification? I believe it is because we, who can never really understand it, feel compelled to create theories about why it occurred for the sake of our own humanity.
What I wish is that we could separate the Holocaust from our response to it. We have the facts. They are enough. We don't need to spin them -- to posit the Jews who were murdered as sheep who were led to slaughter or as martyrs or heroes. We need only pay respect to the facts themselves, free from interpretation.
But I know that it is impossible. The very incomprehensible nature of the events and the legacy of the murder impel us to seek ownership and control of the horror by coloring the events with our response to it. That is as understandable as it is inevitable.
Wiesel writes in his new introduction that "having survived, I needed to give some meaning to my survival." Wiesel became a writer and then an advocate, an outspoken moral voice speaking out against anti-Semitism and the crime of potential genocide wherever it occurred -- for which he received the1986 Nobel Peace Prize.
The women in "Swimming in Auschwitz" became mothers and grandmothers. That, too, is a response. They lived when so many imagined they would not. They have shared their tales as a legacy for the generations to come.
For the survivors, telling their stories, recording their histories and memorializing the dead have given lie to the Nazis' boasts that no one would remember and no one would care. Out of respect for the survivors and for the dead, we, too, are impelled to document, to remind, to remember.
The actual swimming pool
For those born after the Holocaust, those who will only know of the Holocaust from the testimonies of others, from books, and teachers and documentaries and movies and miniseries, I can only hope that when they dive into the pool of Auschwitz information, they will come out the other end and continue to march on, respectful of what they can never understand, not so much changed as needing to respond. Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.