In order to carry out their policies of death and deportation in the Jewish ghettos of Poland, the Nazis forced the Jews to create councils of Jewish elders to enforce Nazi rule. Many of the Jews who served on these councils did so out of the belief that they could mitigate circumstances for their communities, but they were reviled as collaborators nonetheless. None was despised more than the Judenalteste, or council head. In Last of the Unjust, Shoah director Claude Lanzmann interviews Benjamin Murmelstein, the last Judenalteste of the Theresienstadt ghetto. Lanzmann found Murmelstein living in self-imposed exile in Rome in 1975, and Murmelstein consented to a series of interviews. Lanzmann originally shot the material for Shoah, but he decided against using it…until now. •Availability: In theaters February 7. Check local listings. •Thanks to Aimee Morris and Sophie Gluck, Sophie Gluck PR, for arranging this interview.•
DT: Benjamin Murmelstein worked for Adolf Eichmann for seven years in the Central Office for Jewish Emigration, then as head of the Jewish council of elders at Theresienstadt. Murmelstein knew Eichmann very well and considered him a monster. Murmelstein was not allowed to testify at Eichmann’s trial because he had served as Judenalteste. Hannah Arendt, on the other hand, considered Eichmann banal and covered the trial for The New Yorker. Is there any reason we should adopt Hannah Arendt’s view of Eichmann rather than Murmelstein’s?
CL: It’s very clear: Murmelstein speaks the truth.
DT: Murmelstein had a diplomatic passport. He could have left Europe at any point during the war, but he felt he could save Jewish lives by staying and working for Eichmann. After the war, Murmelstein chose to spend a year and a half in a Czech prison waiting to be cleared of wrongdoing. Why did he do that?
CL: He knew perfectly well that many Jews in Theresienstadt hated him. He knew they hated him because they were stupid and because he screamed a lot. One has to make an effort to understand this man. He could not act in another way. He had to scream in order to silence the Jews and to silence the Nazis. When you are tortured, there are two possibilities. Either you can do this [Lanzmann clenches his fists and clamps his mouth tight] and do everything you can in order not to talk; to remain silent. Or you scream. And sometimes it’s easier to resist if you scream. It was easier for him to deceive the Nazis screaming. And he did scream against the Jews, but he never gave a Jew to the Germans, contrary to the other elders of Theresienstadt who came before him.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Lanzmann’s following remarks refer to an outbreak of typhus in Theresienstadt. To control the outbreak, Murmelstein required all Jews to submit to a typhus vaccine, but many resisted. To force them to comply, Murmelstein informed them that anyone refusing the vaccine would not be allowed to eat.]
CL: In the film, Murmelstein says that people had to be vaccinated in order to fight typhus. The way he invented was to cut the food ration card—if they don’t want to be vaccinated, they don’t eat. And these Jews said, “He wanted to starve us.” Murmelstein says, “I didn’t want to starve them. I didn’t want them to die of typhus.” This is very important, just to give you an example of the reason why he has been so hated. He said that he stayed in prison in Czechoslovakia voluntarily, and it is absolutely true. He wanted to be washed of any accusations. And he was indeed. He stayed in jail for fifteen months. It was very courageous.
DT: There’s a moment in the film when you’re standing under the gallows at Theresienstadt and you’re talking about a brief point in time when the Jews of Theresienstadt could have rebelled, but it was too late. What did you feel at that moment? Frustration? Anger?
CL: The idea that the Jews of Theresienstadt could have revolted was pure illusion. They complied since the very beginning. As soon as the Germans arrived it was pure terror. The Jews were afraid. Naturally. It’s normal. And when I say that when Edelstein, who was the first Judenalteste of Theresienstadt, was obliged to assist with the hangings, I meant that if he had chosen to refuse, the fate of Theresienstadt might have changed because it would have been an act of resistance. Of course, he probably would have been hung himself. The Jews loved life too much.
DT: Eichmann maintained Theresienstadt as a “show ghetto” to demonstrate the Nazis’ good intentions to the International Red Cross. To keep up an agreeable appearance in the ghetto, Eichmann launched a program of “embellishment.” In Last of the Unjust, you ask Murmelstein why he agreed to help embellish Theresienstadt, which kept up the fiction that the ghetto was a beautiful place to live. Murmelstein replied, “If they give me wood, I’ll take it.” He then explained that he took the wood so that he could build decent housing for the elderly. That seeemed like his way of rebelling.
CL: Murmelstein didn’t stop fighting. In the film, he compares himself to a marionette that learned to pull its own strings. He’s a complex man, which you see in the subtle construction of the film.
DT: People say you shouldn’t judge a man until you’ve walked in his shoes. Certainly that applies to Murmelstein, but can’t you also say that about the Jews who accuse him of collaborating?
CL: I don’t understand why you’re saying that. One cannot compare Murmelstein and the people who accused him and who sent him into exile. Somebody is right and somebody is wrong, but not both.
DT: One of the things I found very moving about Last of the Unjust was the affection you felt for Murmelstein when so many other people vilified him.
CL: I show it. I am not ashamed to love him.
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