“There is not a single corpse in Shoah!” I heard filmmaker Claude Lanzmann say emphatically to the packed auditorium at Columbia University’s Maison Francaise on March 20th, 2012. [Lanzmann, who died in June 2018, was eulogized by Tablet’s Paul Berman] Yes, there are no corpses to see within that nearly 10-hour monumental, gut-wrenching Holocaust documentary, but there are the souls of millions of murdered Jews—men, women, and children preserved within those reels. The same can be said of his last film, there is not a single corpse to be seen in Lanzmann’s Shoah: Four Sisters, but the voices of those who are no longer here are unmistakable. Opening Nov. 14 in Manhattan at the Quad Cinema, Four Sisters is made up of a quartet of interviews, each comprising its own separate film and given its own name under the film’s overall title. It is composed of footage from the 1970s that Lanzmann did with four remarkable, and at times mind-bogglingly composed Holocaust survivors, that didn’t make the cut into the original work.
In 1985, I saw Shoah with my mother Masha Leon, who was a columnist and Holocaust survivor from Poland. It was playing at Cinema Studio on 66th and Broadway and we sat through every moment of that haunting and harrowing epic full of Holocaust survivor interviews, places in Poland where it happened, as well as conversations with perpetrators and bystanders—Nazis, Poles, and others. There were a number of survivors scattered around the dark theater and two women sitting behind us would hiss, ‘He’s an Austrian’ during Lanzmann’s repeated questions with a high-ranking Nazi concentration camp officer. My mother wrote in her review: “And while you are listening and watching, your mind is operating on a concurrent reel of its own, filling in with memories, photos, recollections and most horrifying—imagination. One finally dares to imagine the unimaginable.” Of the director’s skillful and disarming probing, she observed, “Interviewees are prompted and pushed and questioned, and the past pours out on film until we wonder how come the world did not go mad while this was going on.”
Lanzmann’s statement at Columbia about his world-renowned film was part of his response to the question “What’s the point of Shoah?” asked by interviewer Charlie Rose during their conversation that March evening. The audience, including my mother, was dismayed by the question. “It contains no archival film,” answered the 87-year-old documentarian and WWII French Resistance fighter. He uttered those words with a stunned annoyance as he quantified his reply, “It was a film about extermination on the territory of Poland, not Germany. Vicious people want to prove that it never took place.”
In the Four Sisters, you hear heartbreaking and indelible conversations with Jewish women who were in their teens when World War II began. They were the targets of Nazi terror and brutality—witnesses to torture and executions as well as orchestrated death. Each exhibits extraordinary courage, wrestling with their past in a solitary and heroic struggle. The survivors are: Paula Biren and Ada Lichtman, both born in Poland one from Lodz, the other Krakow; Ruth Elias from Czechoslovakia, and Hanna Marton from Hungary. Respectively, each woman has her own film title: Baluty, The Merry Flea, The Hippocratic Oath, and Noah’s Ark.
Baluty, as Biren explains in the film, was the name of the slum where the Nazis set up the Lodz Ghetto. Lodz was a major Polish city that had over 230,00 Jews who made up a third of the population. Nearly 45,000 died of starvation and disease. In The Hippocratic Oath, Elias offers a rare window into the Czech Jewish experience in the concentration camps of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.
Elias and Biren came from secular but proudly Jewish families that were patriotic. They were 19 and 17 in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. One spoke Czech and German, the other Polish. Both ended up in Auschwitz. Each was traumatized by nightmarish experiences involving children—one her own, the other in the midst of the mass deportation of 20,000 young children from the Lodz Ghetto.
They share a dismay and anguish that, as survivors, people didn’t want to hear about what they had suffered and lost at the hands of the Nazis. In the film, Elias says: “People didn’t understand us! Plenty committed suicide because nobody could understand us.” Biren was burdened with guilt and, for years, couldn’t talk about what she did to survive. “That I am alive and my family is not. I tried so hard to save them.” She explains. “Years ago I felt I had no choice, but later I had a choice, I could kill myself, why didn’t I do that? Maybe because after the war, I and others wanted to talk about it with people who were in other countries like Russia, Israel, and to non-Jews. The feeling was that nobody wanted to listen, nobody wanted to hear. So I shut up. It’s enough that I judge myself.”
The women are not unlike the mothers of my childhood friends with tattooed numbers on their arms from the camps. When I watch interviews with Holocaust survivors, I think of the relatives my mother knew and loved who never got a chance to give testimony. Her family of over 200 souls including her grandparents, 11 aunts and uncles with all their children and families, all those cousins, infants to young children, never survived to be witnesses. They perished in the Warsaw Ghetto and Treblinka, but most were brutally executed and dumped into dirt pits by mobile SS execution squads known as Einsatzgruppen in Poland and Belarus.
Early in the German occupation of Poland, Biren hid her star under a shawl, passing as a Polish Christian so she could make it to Warsaw and see family. Biren recalled, “There was no ghetto at the time, there was panic and uncertainty all the time. Things looked very bad there too.” She returned to Lodz and eventually was forced into the ghetto with her family. The chaotic Nazi-occupied Warsaw that Biren visited was where my mother Masha, then 8 years old and her mother Zelda, were living.
Upon her return to Lodz, Biren tried to convince her family to flee east, her mother said, “‘my parents are here how can I leave them?’” Biren pleaded, “Leave! Don’t you see what’s going on!? My mother said, ‘why should I run, this is home, if you want to go, go.’” Biren stayed. “I felt I had the responsibility, I cannot leave to save my life.”
My grandmother, Zelda, couldn’t convince her younger sisters to leave Warsaw. One gave birth to a beautiful baby girl in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Biren and Elias returned to their hometowns, orphaned. Elias found it painfully lonely, left and moved to Israel, yet still found joy singing Czech songs. Biren came back to Poland after Auschwitz and said: “The Poles didn’t want to look at me. ‘Get out of here!’ The pogroms started, I left. I feel I was banned from Poland first by the Germans, then the Poles. Poland was my country, Polish was my mother tongue. This I couldn’t understand. I know that my ancestors, we were forever back, deeply rooted and that was taken away.” Poland was home to my mother Masha’s family for 400 years.
Karen Leon is a photographer, cartoonist, and illustrator. Her photos regularly accompanied Masha Leon’s columns in The Forward and Tablet.
Karen Leon is a photographer, cartoonist, and illustrator. Her photos regularly accompanied Masha Leon’s columns in The Forward and Tablet. She is currently working on the biography of her mother.