August 9, 2007

What Comes in the Wake

The signature of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah is its emphasis on the memory of experience and the landscape of absence rather than on historical recreation. Nonetheless, at one point Lanzmann uses Raul Hilberg, the old scholar in his Vermont kitchen, to paint a portrait so swift, so expansive, so thorough that it seems more cosmological than historical. 

The author of The Destruction of the European Jews, a book that densely catalogs the machinery of genocide, reduces the Holocaust to its essential movements and logic. "From the earliest days, from the fourth century, the sixth century," Hilberg says in a voice of certainty and care, "the missionaries of Christianity had said in effect to the Jews: 'You may not live among us as Jews.' The secular rulers who followed them from the late Middle Ages then decided: 'You may not live among us' and the Nazis finally decreed: 'You may not live.'"

There is an elegance and rhythm in this measured description. In the trio of fearfully symmetrical phrases, Hilberg spans two millennia, sweeping through them with chilling grace. The economy of his summation actually recalls the terse poetry of Edmond Jab├Ęs, who said of the Holocaust and the use of minimal language, "It isn't necessary to go into details. When you say: they were deported--that is enough for a Jew to understand the whole story" (The Sin of the Book).

That brevity bears no resemblance to the great work of archival recreation Hilberg was forced to produce in telling a story of the Holocaust. A notable aspect of that story in The Destruction of the European Jews is an emphasis on Jewish passivity, a posture in the face of horror that aided the dissolution and fragmentation. Hilberg begins famously by claiming that his work is "not a book about the Jews." He says he separates his investigation of "the correspondence, memoranda, and conference minutes which were passed desk to desk" from "the internal developments of Jewish organization and Jewish social structure." The latter, he says, belongs to the category of "Jewish history." 

 But as the people destroyed, their history is being written. Describing the process of killing, Hilberg makes a general claim with a perverse Darwinian inflection about inherent Jewish attributes: "The Jewish crowds which surged into the gas chambers were incapable of striking back. In two thousand years they had deliberately unlearned the art of revolt. They were helpless."

The one Jewish source that stands out in Hilberg's project is the diary of the Warsaw Ghetto leader, Adam Czerniakow. Czerniakow's journal entries provide Hilberg with access to the daily demands of a Jewish "official" engaging the Nazi apparatus on behalf of the ghetto. Imagining Czerniakow's privileged perspective allows Hilberg to feel he regains the past as it unfolded in the present tense:
The diary became a place, a strange locality that I was entering for the first time. I was a voyeur, a ghost inside Czerniakow’s office, unobserved. . . . I dwelled with him to grasp his struggle with problems of housing, food, starvation, disease, taxes, and police, and to observe him while he had to listen to the incessant wailing of Jewish women beseeching him for help outside his office door. (The Politics of Memory)
Hilberg translates the image of the written diary so that he, Hilberg, observes Czerniakow listening to the wail of the beseeching Jewish women. It is as if Hilberg, as a historian of the destruction, cannot bear hearing them himself. They are background. There, but effectively silenced; a mass of undistinguished Jewish suffering held at bay by an office door. This is a fitting picture of Hilberg's own work that must reconstruct the killers methods and the vast system of collaboration engendered by the givens of European societies. Its focus on the procedural demands caught in the documents of official sites must be deaf to the echoes of wailing outside those sites.

It was, of course, the wailing that proved the end for Czerniakow. When he could not protect the children of the ghetto he killed himself. Hilberg's portrait emphasizes Czerniakow's complicity in bridging victim and perpetrator while praising him for carrying out the (necessary) administration of the doomed ghetto with steadfastness and wit. He describes Czerniakow's capacity to make a joke, to acknowledge the affirming qualities of people in the midst of the disaster. It feels, however, as if Hilberg relates this side of Czerniakow's character to suggest that he too has an ability to find a humane lightness in the horror. Hilberg says that Czerniakow always had strange descriptions of the ghetto: "of a band playing in front of a funeral parlor, of a hearse with drunken drivers, of a dead child running around the grounds. He had rather sardonic comments about death.” When Hilberg recounts these examples to a group in San Francisco he is bemused to note that “the audience sat stunned and silent."  

Throughout his various statements about Czerniakow, the surreal image of a dead child running passes without further comment, even though this stunning description perhaps says more about the conditions Czerniakow faced than all the "dignity" Hilberg might wish to find in the "organizational man," a fellow traveler in the death-drives and death marches and "liquidations."

If Czerniakow's diary has, in its bookish heft, a testimonial presence, its use by Hilberg dissolves that quality. For Hilberg, in the end, does not need his other, the man who was actually there. Czerniakow too disappears. Claiming to have been allowed access into the past, Hilberg writes, "I was a voyeur, a ghost inside Czerniakow’s office, unobserved. . . . I dwelled with him." In The Politics of Memory, Hilberg goes on to describe a moment in Lanzmann’s Shoah when he reads from the diary. "At the end Lanzmann said to me, 'You were Czerniakow.'" The identification is thus complete. The men who survive, who organize, who remain true to the necessities never mind the screams.

Through Hilberg, the ghetto leader's words are reanimated for the future, Hilber's voice forever there to not only speak over the words of Czerniakow, but silence those other voices, "the incessant wailing of Jewish women" outside the door. It is precisely at that point where the singular comes to stand for the masses, and the logos of a ghetto leader's desperate attempts to make sense of a catastrophe eclipses the mere wail, groan, or cry that history itself appears. The dead thus pay the price for their exclusion, and the scribe, like Czernaikow, eventually finds it unbearable. What comes in their wake is the translation.