The last Jewish leader of Terezin grapples with the past
Hero or villain?

The last Jewish leader of Terezin grapples with the past

‘Shoah’ director Claude Lanzmann revisits the killing fields in his new film about the camp’s surviving ‘Elder,’ who proves an elusive witness

Scene from 'The Last of the Unjust' by Claude Lanzmann. (photo credit: courtesy)
Scene from 'The Last of the Unjust' by Claude Lanzmann. (photo credit: courtesy)

There are three actors in Claude Lanzmann’s “Last of the Unjust”: Benjamin Murmelstein, the last surviving Elder who administered the “model” Theresienstadt ghetto, the detached reporter Lanzmann-1, who interviews him in 1975, and the aging Lanzmann-2, well into his eighties, a sage offering talmudic commentary on his earlier work, and a prophet raging at the horror that still echoes in the camp’s walls.

The transformation from journalist to Jeremiah and back provides a jarring juxtaposition in what is one of the most extraordinary films to essay the Holocaust.

Lanzmann is best known for “Shoah,” the 9-1/2-hour 1985 documentary that is unsurpassed in its wide-ranging oral testimony on the destruction of Europe’s Jews. “The Last of the Unjust,” runs for almost four hours, yet its minimal cast manages to compress in focused intensity what the earlier film addressed in a more ambitious scope.

The title refers ironically to Andre Schwarz-Bart’s 1959 Holocaust novel “The Last of the Just,” who’s protagonist — one of the 36 Just Men on whom the world’s existence depends — embodies the travails of his doomed people. Benjamin Murmelstein is not cut from this cloth. Rather he describes himself as a Sancho Panza, a pragmatic realist who leaves others to tilt at windmills.

Murmelstein was tried for collaboration after the war but the charges were dropped for lack of evidence. His detractors in the Viennese Jewish community insist that he collaborated, but the record is murky.

As Murmelstein observes, all the victims of the Shoah were martyrs but they were not all saints. Lanzman-1 in patient, lengthy interviews seeks to unearth the uncomfortable truths that motivated a man who may have been a bit of both.

Murmelstein observes all the victims of the Shoah were martyrs but they were not all saints

Theresienstadt, located 80 miles northwest of Prague, was billed by the Nazis as Hitler’s “gift” to the Jews. During its existence from November 1941 until it was liberated in May 1945, 140,000 Jews, mostly from the dismembered Czechoslovakia, Austria and Germany, passed through its gates.

A significant number were “people of merit” — World War I veterans, prominent figures in the arts, academia and commerce, and the aged. Of this number, 33,000 succumbed in the camp, 88,000 were deported to “the East” and 19,000 survived.

Theresienstadt was also the site of an infamous 1944 film — made to subvert reports of the gas chambers — showing Jewish inmates working industriously at their lathes, attending lectures and cheering at soccer matches. Upon completion of the movie, most of the cast and virtually all of the children were sent to Auschwitz.

There were three successive “elders” of Theresienstadt, the Czech Zionist Jacob Edelstein, the German sociologist Paul Eppstein and Benjamin Murmelstein who, in his words, had been a rabbi in pre-Anschluss Vienna. The first two were executed by the Nazis for trying to shield Jews from the deportation quotas and falsifying the lists that they were required to furnish the SS. Murmelstein became the third and final elder in September 1944 and continued at his task until the war’s end.

But while most members of the Jewish Councils were rooted in their ghettos — Warsaw, Cracow, Vilna — Murmelstein traversed a considerable swath of territory. He was dragooned to work in what was to become the killing fields, and is thereby a rarified witness to the scope of Nazi genocide.

Lanzmann-1 (right) sympathetically interviews Murmelstein. (photo credit: courtesy)
Lanzmann-1 (right) sympathetically interviews Murmelstein. (photo credit: courtesy)

Murmelstein possesses another unique vantage point: He lived under the shadow of Adolf Eichmann from the outset, in 1938, until almost the very end in 1944.

Their relationship goes back to Anschluss when Eichman, as head of the SS in Vienna, supervised the despoliation of the city’s Jews. Murmelstein, then a prominent member of the Jewish community, describes how he was compelled to mediate between the Nazis and the Jews, a one-sided and futile process.

He describes Eichmann as brutal, ruthless and corrupt. We see here Eichmann as not only the Nazi zealot but as a petty swindler expropriating money to free imprisoned Jews or grant them exit visas and then pocketing the proceeds while leaving them to their fate. As it is, Murmelstein maintains that he managed to help 2,000 Jews escape from the Gestapo’s clutches during this period.

Murmelstein tells us further that Eichmann’s vaunted knowledge of Judaism was a ruse; he was a poseur who couldn’t read Hebrew and whose superficial knowledge of the Jews came from a crash course administered under duress by Murmelstein himself.

But his most important evocation of Eichmann, based on first-hand and long-term experience, is that “he was a demon.” Murmelstein finds Hanna Arendt’s description of Eichmann as a banal, little man, “laughable.”

Lanzmann-1 asks Murmelstein why he was not sought to testify at Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. They are sitting at a rooftop patio in Rome where Murmelstein has
chosen to spend the rest of his days. Murmelstein responds that Israel didn’t take up his offer to testify, nor did it make use of his 1961 memoir which appeared at the time of the Eichmann trial. Lanzmann tries to elucidate why the prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, might not want to recruit such a critical witness but he gets little help from Murmelstein.

Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem, 1961 (photo credit: AP file)
Adolf Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem, 1961 (photo credit: AP file)

There is something incongruous about two men conversing leisurely on a Roman terrace with a postcard view of the Eternal City in the background and the macabre subject of their dialogue. They are, of course, not chatting but sparring, albeit gently.

Murmelstein, then in his seventies, knows this interview will be the last and best opportunity to justify himself to posterity. Lanzmann, for his part, is probing diffidently, but firmly, to delve into the depths of someone who was faced with the most horrific choices in a monstrous universe. He is a sensitive listener whose goal seems not to judge but to understand. His tone — reassuring, confidential, seductive — is reminiscent of Marcel Ophuls’s dispassionate style in the 1970 “Sorrow and the Pity.”

Murmelstien is a formidable respondent, feisty, well-read, articulate. Age has not diminished a combative spirit. Nattily attired in sport jacket and tie, somehow sprightly notwithstanding thick glasses and heavy jowls, he speaks with a lisp that makes him not only sympathetic but strangely authoritative.

He has formidable recall, facts at his fingertips, the air of a professor conducting a tutorial, with Lanzmann serving more as pupil than interlocutor. It is a commanding performance.

The older man plays Virgil to Lanzmann’s Dante, guiding him through
the various circles of the Nazi inferno. A knowledgable cicerone, he holds forth on Nisko a town near Lublin that, after Poland’s conquest in September 1939, Eichmann had envisioned as a dumping ground for the Reich’s Jews.

In Murmelstein’s telling the crumbling railway stop in the nearby village of Zarzecze was to serve as ground zero for a Jewish reservation, a blueprint for what would be the Nazis far-reaching “re-settlement” program of Europe’s Jews. Along with a cadre of Jewish elders, Murmelstein was summoned by Eichmann to establish a transit camp to which about 1,000 Jews from Vienna were sent.

Although, Eichmann’s plan was aborted, the paradigm for “re-settlement” was established. It would ultimately have more ominous consequences.

A pile of prosthesis which were taken by the Nazis from the Jews who were transported to Auschwitz, now presented at the Museum of Auschwitz. (Photo credit: Isaac Harari/FLASH90)
A pile of prosthesis which were taken by the Nazis from the Jews who were transported to Auschwitz, now presented at the Museum of Auschwitz. (Photo credit: Isaac Harari/FLASH90)

Zarzecze is one of the locales that Lanzmann’s camera explores, with Murmelstein providing commentary in a grotesque travelogue. The places are tumble-down, abandoned, overgrown. We see a great emptiness.

Visits to the cities whose Jews were expunged are no better. In Vienna’s remaining synagogue, a lone cantor chants a mournful Kol Nidre to a vacant chamber. Though this is rehearsed, the absence of a community is palpable. In Prague, the forlorn tombstones of the Jewish cemetery ironically offer the ancient dead a measure of dignity not afforded to their martyred descendants. In both cities, the camera lingers over the names of Jewish victims: 50,000 in Austria, 150,000 in Czechoslovakia.

Murmelstein defends what he claims to be a lesser role in “embellishment”: helping to set up the Potemkin Village produced for film by the Nazis — we see some of the footage — to lull the world into believing that in Theresienstadt, and presumably elsewhere, the Jews were being treated humanely.

“We created a lie,” he declares, But it kept the camp going. “If they showed us,’’ he says, “they couldn’t kill us.” Perhaps not everyone, since the deportations continued.

Although insisting that he refused to provide lists for deportation to the SS,
Murmelstein denies knowledge of the fate of the deportees. At this point, his confidence falters. He acknowledges the mention of gas by terrified youngsters from Bialystok and later Denmark but evades Lanzmann’s questions on what this might signify.

Not that he could have done much to halt the deportations but one wonders if he
might have somehow alerted the visiting Red Cross. Murmelstein doesn’t say.

Murmelstein had exit visas for himself and his wife in 1940 but choose to stay because ‘there was work to be done’

What he does tell us is that he had exit visas for himself and his wife in 1940 but choose to stay because “there was work to be done.”

When Lanzmann raises the specter of Chaim Rumkowski in Lodz and Jacob Genz in Vilna — Judenrat leaders who could reasonably be charged with collaboration — Murmelstien gruffly dismisses their tenures as incomparable with his own.

Told of the historian Gershom Scholem’s opinion that he should have been hanged,
Murmelstein observes that although Scholem is a great scholar of Jewish mysticism
he is out of his depth in essaying the Holocaust. After much similar sparring, Murmelstein plays his trump card: The Theresienstadt ghetto was not cleared; 19,000 Jews survived. This is his legacy.

Lanzmann-1 and Lanzmann-2 alternate throughout the documentary like Hamlet and his Father’s Ghost, but it is in the second half of the film that Lanzmann
the Elder upstages his younger self. Like a reluctant Prospero, he returns to the
scene of his former conjuring and somehow finds it wanting. The detached tone
of the earlier Lanzmann becomes a cry of anguish and outrage.

Theresienstadt’s inmates were disabused from the outset that this was
a model camp. In January 1942, shortly after the first prisoners arrived, the SS
ordered a series of hangings to instill terror into their victims. Lanzmann
enters a barren courtyard where several Jewish prisoners were hung for infractions as inconsequential as writing to their kin. We hear the Kaddish intoned as Lanzmann, a minyan of one, mourns in isolation.

We hear the Kaddish intoned as Lanzmann, a minyan of one, mourns in isolation

Regarding a final judgment of Murmelstein, Lanzmann makes none, nor should he. It would have been feasible at the time, or even more recently, to interview
survivors of Theresienstadt to hear their version of events, but Lanzmann chose not to do so.

“The Last of the Unjust” provides no feel-good “Schindler’s List” ending with the progeny of survivors holding hands in an upbeat finale. We have here only grief and loss. Lanzmann does not offer comforting answers. Rather the film is filled with lacunae, unsatisfactory explanations, unresolved questions. There is no sense of catharsis, rather we are left with a feeling of unease

The director does not explain why he waited more than 40 years before incorporating his earlier footage into the documentary we see, but the delay is to our benefit. It permits Lanzmann to reflect on his work and the events that prompted it.

The film follows the measured pace of an old man’s steps. This is to its credit. It is limited to three characters only in the sense that a drama by Aeschylus is so proscribed. In full throat is a Greek Chorus lamenting a cataclysm. “The Last of the Unjust” in fact is peopled with a host of characters, all the more present for being unseen.

The film ends in Rome, Murmelstein’s place of self-exile. He is accompanied by Lanzmann’s younger self, who has his arm around the older man. They are walking away from the camera toward the Arch of Titus where the Exile began almost 2,000 years earlier after the destruction of Jerusalem. Their backs to the camera, the pair seem to blend into a personification of exile, tentative, deliberate, burdened, yet somehow enduring.

Jack Schwartz was an editor in the culture section of The New York Times and supervised Newsday’s book pages.

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