Is Shoah a Memorial?

Sous-titré “From the ontology of the visual form to the phenomenology of the discourses”, Is Shoah a Memorial ? est une communication effectuée dans le cadre de la journée d’étude History, Memory, Identity, organisée à Varsovie en juin 2011.

I would like to begin by coming back to the title of this presentation [note 1]. Is Shoah a Memorial? There are only four words in that question, but at least two of them have to be explained. Actually, I won’t focus on the first question, what’s a Memorial? I’d just like to specify that, by Memorials, I’m not only thinking of the monuments, in their materiality, but also to symbolic forms such as films, or texts and paintings… Second question: What’s Shoah? First of all, here, it’s a word. Some synonyms could be given, as “Catastrophe”, mainly used in the United States during the first years after the Second World War, “Holocaust,” also used in the English speaking countries after the screening of the TV series Holocaust in 1978, but also “Hurban”, or “Final Solution” / “Endlosüng”, the German word used by the Nazi, “Auschwitz,” which is currently used in Germany, or the words “genocide”, “judeocide” or “Jewish genocide”. Historian Raul Hilberg used the word extermination to qualify the murder of the Jews and Destruction, as in the title of his book The Destruction of the European Jews to emphasize the link between murder and the fact that the Nazi were aiming to eradicate Jewish culture in Europe. But let’s come back to “Shoah”. It’s a Hebrew word, quoted many times in the Bible to describe a natural catastrophe. It was used by some authors during the 30’s to describe the living condition of the Jews in Germany after Hitler came to power [note 2]. After the War, “Shoah” was first used by the Officials [note 3] and then by the whole Israeli society to describe what happened to their people in Europe. It became a day of commemoration at the end of the 50’s known as Yom HaShoah.

Now, I’d like to address the question strictly in the French context. Here, What’s Shoah? reflects What’s Shoah? So, Shoah is a film directed by Claude Lanzmann between 73 and 85. This film, which is 9 hours, long is nowadays considered as one of the most important visual representation of the Holocaust. One of the distinctive characteristic of Shoah is that the director didn’t use archive footage at all, another one is that he included testimonies of different kind of people involved in the extermination camps. He tried to make them relive what happened at the time. He didn’t attain to recollect their memories – their souvenirs – thirty years after the War, but to make them go through this first experience a second time. They have to confront their trauma in front of the camera. So, at the center of the film is the idea that time didn’t pass for the protagonists, linked to the idea that time didn’t pass in Poland either. To come back to the typology, we can name these categories Perpetrators, Victims and Bystanders, as proposed by Raul Hilberg. In my research, I work with a fourth category, the agent of the authorities or the instances. Under this name I group together Alfred Spiess, The prosecutor of Treblinka Trial, Raul Hilberg, historian, and Jan Karski who was a member of the Polish underground State. I think that in the film Shoah they represent Justice, History and the concept of Information. Two more categories could be added to this typology of witnesses. Firstly the role of the translators seems to be quite important throughout the film. Then the testimonies in Shoah are sometimes narrated through the voices of a third person; it is true when Raul Hilberg talks for Adam Czerniakow, head of the Warsaw Jewish Council. It’s also true when Claude Lanzmann is reading a letter written by a rabbi about another testimony. We can name this category, as did Froma Zeitlin, the vicarious witness [note 4].

But Shoah isn’t to be seen as a series of interviews put together, just one after the other. Between 79 and 85 the director and the editor, Ziva Postec, made what they call the architecture of Shoah. It simply means that they chose which interview they would integrate into the film and edited it. Sometimes they chose a more than 2 hours long interview and in the actual film, you only have access to two minutes long excerpts, as it is the case for the interview with Gertrude Schneider and her mother.

Another important aspect of the editing process is that they added to the interview, some views they shot on the sites of the extermination camp and here I am coming back to the question of the Memorial. I am not addressing the question, Is Shoah a Memorial ?, but Are there some memorials in the visual form called Shoah ? At the end of the 70’s when Claude Lanzmann and his team came in Poland they shot a lot of panoramic views and travelings on the extermination camp sites. At the time, most of these places were already Memorials, which mean that the look of the place had changed between 45 and 78. In the whole film, the choice of the director was to do as if the time hadn’t passed. In order to do so, we can think that they would have erased the Memorial during the editing process, but they didn’t. Some of these shots where taken at Auschwitz-Birkenau, some at Chelmno, Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor. Memorials are really often hidden by woods – as in Belzec – or by snow – as in Sobibor, they are in the film, but they seem to disappear. In Chelmno, Simon Srebnik is walking on the ground of the Memorial, but one more time the Memorial seems to disappear under his feet. In Auschwitz, it’s a bit different and there are different interpretations of the view. Let’s take an example.

Here is a now well-known picture of the suitcases in Auschwitz Memorial (ill. 1, A et B). Eric Marty, who’s a French researcher, wrote in a recent article [note 5] that according to him this picture is directly showing the suitcases exactly as they were when the Jews arrived in Auschwitz. For him, the film is giving us a direct access to these artifacts as they were at the time of the jewish genocide (ill. 1, A).

Last year during a conference [Note 6], Annette Becker, who wrote an article about Auschwitz Memorial, addressed him a direct critic. Taking the same example, she explained that according to her, the amount of suitcases is shown in Shoah as a part of an exhibition. By looking at the picture, she explained that not only the suitcases but also the way they are exhibited are shown in the film (ill. 1, B). We can point out, that in the second part of the film, when the spectator watches the pile of shoes, the fact that those shoes are part of an exhibit is also clear (ill.2, A). In Birkenau, Lanzmann also filmed boards clearly showing that Auschwitz was then a Memorial (ill. 2, B). They also filmed the model of the crematorium in Auschwitz and the model of the Warsaw ghetto at the Ghetto Fighter House in Israel (ill 2, C).

Let’s move now to a last example. In the film, Treblinka Memorial is clearly shown and it is at the center of the film narrative. The stones, which symbolically represent the Jewish ghetto in Eastern Europe, are representing in the film, the absence of Jews in current Eastern Europe. So, we can consider that there are Memorials in the visual form called Shoah.

We could now come back once again to the question, Is Shoah a Memorial? A quote from the Bible integrated at the beginning of the film leads us to a positive answer. “I will give them an everlasting name”. To be precise, it’s not the quote, but the fact that this quote is the one used to name the Memorial in Israel : Yad Vashem. In Hebrew Yad the Memorial and Shem the Word. But to be honest, personally, I have no clear answer to that question. An American historian, Dominick LaCapra, who wrote a critic of the film in a 1997 article [note 7] afraid of the reaction he might cause, wrote that the problem was that Claude Lanzmann was thinking of his film as a piece of art, that he, LaCapra, was thinking of it as historical work, but that most of the time the audience experienced it as a ritual. In this perspective we could compare Shoah to an actual place. The question would be for example, What’s Auschwitz-Birkenau? For some visitors the answer is clear, Auschwitz-Birkenau is a Memorial, it’s a place of remembrance, for some other this space will also be considered as a sacred place (a place of mourning). But, for some other, Auschwitz-Birkenau is just one other tourist stop in a tour of Poland’s most interesting places. Last but not least, for historians, Auschwitz-Birkenau may be a place of investigation, an archive center, etc. It’s also possible to think that Auschwitz is now a Museum. There is no “neither/ nor” here, but many competing answers. To come back to the film, an example of this kind of reception is given by Dan Talbot, the owner of New York Film, Shoah‘s distributor in the United States. He explained that in the end of a screening, a rabbi stood in the lobby and when an usher asked him to leave he just stood there. Then he went back to the auditorium and facing a wall, he prayed, by this, blessing the theater. At that time and then in his Memoires, Le Lièvre de Patagonie, Claude Lanzmann wrote about this event under similar terms. I don’t know if this event really happened in November 1985, but the fact is that it became an important part of the storytelling about the reception of the film. In this perspective, Shoah could be seen as an act of mourning. In that case, the film has to been seen as holy and the place where it is screened has to be blessed. Claude Lanzmann often wrote that by coming back to Chelmno with Simon Srebnik, it was metaphorically a way to lead the Jews to a second death. The film could be seen as a second journey, from West to East, from live to death, but this time the Jews wouldn’t be left alone, the director and then the audience would be there to mourn them. If that’s true, the film is a Memorial, it’s the place where Jews without graves could finally found a place to rest in peace and the public a place to think about them.

I’d like now to address a new question, could Shoah be a part of an actual Memorial? First answer is yes, the film could be shown for example in the auditorium of a Memorial. The DVD of the film could be sold in the shop of a Memorial, but could it be considered as a part of an exhibition?  Since 2005, in Paris’ Mémorial de la Shoah, two extracts of the film commented by Claude Lanzmann himself are screened in the main exhibition. The second extract is showing  Treblinka’s Memorial. So here we have the film as Memorial, in a Memorial, showing a Memorial. Since 2010, Shoah is also included to another exhibition in the Ghetto Fighter House in Israel. If, in Paris, the whole video is ten minutes long, here the audience is given the possibility to have a look at some longer extracts from the film without comments. The room where they are shown is dealing with Treblinka and most of the extracts deal with this extermination camp. They are screened on small monitors and you may listen through headphones. It seems that in this particular Memorial, the extracts are considered as  a work of oral history, if not as an archival footage, dealing with the extermination camp of Treblinka. It’s quite different from the screening at the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris. It leads me to insist once again on the fact that the way the film is shown and its reception by the audience are part of the answer. That’s why I didn’t wish to focus only on the visual form, but also on the screening and the integration devices of the film in Memorials.

It’s also necessary to notice that the footage films shot between 1975 and 1981 are now preserved in a Memorial. Indeed, at the United States Holocaust Museum Memorial, the 16mm films, the audiotapes and the transcriptions are preserved and communicated to the researchers. It means that the film and the material edited to conceive the film became a part of the archive of a Memorial. This leads us to a new use of the interviews directed by Claude Lanzmann.

For example, since 2005, a film named While the World was Silent by Ayelet Heller, including a part of the interview with Jan Karski and Rudolf Vrba is shown in the main exhibition of Yad Vashem. The reference to Shoah and to Claude Lanzmann’s work is not explicit, but in a way we could consider that it’s also a part of the becoming Memorial of the film. I think that now, we have some elements to address the question, Is Shoah a Memorial? As I said before I am not sure we have an answer, but we have some elements.

To conclude, I’d like to come back to the question, Is Shoah a Memorial?
The word was already being used in Israel for quite a long time when the film was screened for the first time in 1985, but in France, the film and his director participated to impose the word “Shoah” when at the time, the French were still calling it the “Holocaust.” Claude Lanzmann explained that he chose this word because it had no clear meaning in french, as a significant sans signifié. For now twenty five years, most of the historians, the journalists, the film directors have been using the word “Shoah”. The review Le Monde Juif (Jewish World), dealing meanly with the jewish genocide, is since 1997, called La revue d’histoire de la Shoah (The review of Shoah history). The foundation supporting research about the Holocaust is named Fondation pour la mémoire de la Shoah (Fundation for the Shoah memory). And since 2005, the French Memorial is called Mémorial de la Shoah (Shoah memorial). So not only the film could be seen as a Memorial, but the Memorial is now named after this word, which was imposed on the public space after Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah.
To sum up, we may point out that the film as act of nomination became an actual Memorial.

Note 1 : This article is the result of a communication, « Is Shoah a Mémorial », part of a conference called History Memory, Identity: Verbal and iconic Representations in Museum of History (French and Polish contexts), Warsaw, June 1st 2011. The slideshow of this communication is already online:

Note 2: Georges Bensoussan, Un nom impérissable. Israël, le sionisme et la destruction des Juifs d’Europe, Seuil, 2008, p. 40 et p. 56.

Note 3: The term was used in Declaration of Independence (May 14th, 1948). Idem, p. 158.

Note 4 : Froma Zeitlin, “The Vicarious Witness: Belated Memory and Authorial Presence in Recent Holocaust Literature”, History and Memory. Vol. 10, n°2, 1998.

Note 5: Eric Marty, « L’usage des noms : Shoah de Claude Lanzmann », Le Débat, n° 162, novembre-décembre 2010.

Note 6: « La Shoah. Théâtre et cinéma, à la limite de la représentation ? », Paris,  December 8-10th, 2010.

Note 7: Dominick LaCapra, “Here is no Why”, Critical Inquiry, vol. 23, n°2, winter 1997, p. 231-269.

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Rémy Besson (26 novembre 2011). Is Shoah a Memorial? Cinémadoc. Consulté le 16 juillet 2024 à l’adresse

Une réflexion sur « Is Shoah a Memorial? »

Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse e-mail ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *

Ce site utilise Akismet pour réduire les indésirables. En savoir plus sur comment les données de vos commentaires sont utilisées.