The Last ‘Elder’ Of Terezin

Claude Lanzmann’s portrait of Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein is more advocacy than his previous Shoah works.

09/24/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Lanzmann, left, and Murmelstein in scene from “The Last of the Unjust.”
Lanzmann, left, and Murmelstein in scene from “The Last of the Unjust.”

A few years ago, it was noted in this space that the heroic age of  modernism in film, with its accompanying epic running times, had ended with the 1980s. However, it would appear that two of the world’s greatest documentary filmmakers, Claude Lanzmann and Frederick Wiseman, didn’t get the memo. Their new films, part of this year’s New York Film Festival, which kicks off on Sept. 27, are 218 and 244 minutes long, respectively. While neither Lanzmann’s “The Last of the Unjust” nor Wiseman’s “At Berkeley” are among the directors’ best work, each film has considerable merit, raises deeply troubling issues and rewards the patient and attentive viewer. (See Jewish Week website, thejewishweek.com, for review of Wiseman’s “At Berkeley.”)

Lanzmann has probably dedicated more on-screen time to the murder of European Jewry by the Nazis than any other filmmaker of note — not merely the 9 ¾ hours of “Shoah,” but several other shorter films as well. But even he couldn’t hope to cover the horrifically vast scope of these events, and one suspects that, even at 87, the journalist and filmmaker regrets his many necessary omissions. That would, in part, explain the extensive length of “Last of the Unjust,” which focuses on Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein and the Terezin ghetto. As Lanzmann says at the outset, the situation of Terezin was unique, and worth a film of its own, particularly given the availability of Murmelstein for an extended interview. Murmelstein was the last surviving “Elder of the Jews,” the third and final bearer of that title in Terezin, and a figure of some considerable controversy after it was alleged that he had collaborated with his captors.

Given the entirely one-sided nature of the power relationship between the Nazis and the Jewish councils they installed as their apparent puppets, such accusations were inevitable but difficult to prove. Indeed, given the circumstances they faced, the “elders” never really had any remotely positive alternatives, other than suicide, perhaps, for dealing with an enemy whose only real intentions were the humiliation and annihilation of their Jewish captives. Unsurprisingly, Murmelstein was finally acquitted of all charges after 18 months of imprisonment.

I, for one, have never felt entirely comfortable judging the motives or actions of these men. Their situation was uniquely untenable, their options all dreadful and the pressures they faced unimaginable. That would seem to be Lanzmann’s position as well.

But in contrast to “Shoah,” whose immense running time is necessary to accommodate the multiplicity of testimonies and viewpoints expressed, “Unjust” is essentially univocal. The only voices we hear in the film are those of Murmelstein, interviewed by Lanzmann in 1975, and Lanzmann himself reading from Murmelstein’s autobiography, published in 1977. The shorter films that Lanzmann carved out from the footage he shot in the 1970s amounted only to the tip of the iceberg of what he had compiled; they were essentially testimony from witnesses to singular moments in the sorry history of the Shoah, with the filmmaker merely adding facts and figures.

On the other hand, “Unjust” is a piece of advocacy in which Lanzmann either echoes or amplifies the voice of a single witness who is given vastly more screen time than any of the other interview subjects in the previous films. It is also, significantly, the only one of Lanzmann’s films on the Shoah in which he uses, albeit briefly, archival images, including footage from the infamous propaganda film “Hitler Gives the Jews a City.”

Murmelstein is ingratiating, smart and hyper-articulate, as one would expect from a former rabbi known for his politesse and his political savvy. He is witty and self-deprecating. What he never seems to be at any point in the film is emotionally engaged. His light, bantering tone seldom changes. In part this is undoubtedly the result of his having told these stories countless times, whether to prosecutors or journalists. But the cumulative effect is disturbing.

Murmelstein’s predecessors were murdered by the Nazis. His rise to the unenviable position of “elder” came as a direct result of their death, and his was the most unwanted of promotions. But neither those events, nor the murder of his fellow ghetto prisoners, nor even the persecutions he endured after the war seem to have left much of an emotional mark on Murmelstein. And the usually tenacious Lanzmann is dismayingly deferential throughout.

As I have said, it’s hard to judge Murmelstein. Lanzmann is another story altogether. I have been unstinting in my praise of his earlier work and continue to be in awe of  “Shoah” in particular. But “Last of the Unjust” feels like a lengthy case of special pleading, as if Lanzmann has bought Murmelstein’s narrative without reservations and, for all the interest engendered by hearing a survivor of Terezin describing the innermost workings of the camp, one feels a bit queasy at the film’s end.

The 51st New York Film Festival opens on Friday, Sept. 27, and runs through Oct. 13. Most films will be screened at Alice Tully Hall (Broadway and 65th St.), others at the Walter Reade Theater or the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center (both on 65th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam Ave.). For a complete schedule, go to www.filmlinc.com. “Last of the Unjust” will be shown on Sunday, Sept. 29, at 1 p.m. at Alice Tully Hall.
 

Comments

i would be interested after reading about rabbi Murmelstein why he was not asked to testify at the Eichmann trail - was it true that he was rejected or was he afraid to go to isreal.

I tried to find more information on Murmelstein at the ikg-wien.at as i found nothing relating to this man, however i received no information from them/archives.

1. After the capture of Eichmann Murmelstein offrered twice to give evidence. His cousin had been told by investigating officiers "We know his adress and even his phone number ... " Hausner and Chief Jusice Landau too never aswered the request of Murmelstein to be heard and give evidence. So five important points had not been cleared or even brought to attention of the Court.
2. Hausner and Arendt in their books pubblished in USA made hurting remarks on Murmelstein who, a poor Shoah surviver, could not affort the expensive USA so called, justice to defend his own reputatiom.
3. About Vienna Comunity: A Chatolic On Line Site put the question: "What has the Israelite Comunity to hide?" as president and secretary general refused to make available the Murmelstein Personal File for historical research. Indeed, Vienna Comunity refused the restitution of our personal belongings stored in comunity warehouse after our deportation Januaryu 28, 1943; it is certain that the precious library in 1948 was entirely available.
4. Organizations like WJC and others needed a scapegoat in order to devert attention from their lack of any usefull action in those times of darkness. In 2005 and 2006 I followed with interest on this Paper the reports about the investigation by then New York State General Attorney about the financial handling of WJC.
Clear?

I enjoyed the article by George Robinson, The Last ‘Elder’ Of Terezin [09/24/2013] -- Claude Lanzmann’s portrait of Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein. At then end of the article Robinson says he feels queasy by Lanzmann’s conclusions -- as maybe he should. I am not sure if you have seen this letter to the Guardian from someone named Ernest Seinfeld who says he is a survivor of the same death camps and intimately knew Murmelstein. His comments are startling. I copied them in from the Guardian:

Mr. Lanzmann, a journalist and documentary producer, knows a lot about the Holocaust but seems to understand very little. He collects facts and opinions has limited knowledge of background and concocts an interesting story.

There are several wrong statements in this documentary, and those are probably only a fraction since I saw only a very short excerpts.

Let us start with Murmelstein who is referred to as Grand Rabi of Vienna. Murmelstein was a rabbi of a small congregation in a poor district.

One has to admit that his learning and his intelligence, was outstanding, but so was his shrewdness. In all this he was far superior to Lanzmann and thus was able to lead him around with an nose ring.

Murmelstein was a brutal, violent person, mistrusted and often feared by his colleagues in Vienna and Theresienstadt. Murmelstein did not save one single Jew in Theresienstadt. His name in Theresienstadt was Murmelschwein (Murmelpig). I observed him closely in Vienna and Theresienstadt for three years and knew people who were very close to him in both places. The last time I saw him was on September 28, 1944 from the second floor of the Hamburger barracks exactly above the train in which I was about to be shipped to Auschwitz on that very day. The very few SS-men supervising the loading of the transport behaved practically like gentlemen compared to Murmelstein and his equally brutal assistant Prochnik, both strutting around in their boots and jelling at the prisoners to hurry up. I vividly remember that one of them, to be honest I do not remember which one, actually pushed prisoners who were not fast enough stepping into the wagons.

Up to September 1944, Murmelstein was a Zero in the Jewish administration of this ghetto/concentration camp. He was given minor departments both by Edelstein, an exceptionally decent person, and Eppstein, the first and second heads of the Aeltestenrat (council of elders), respectively. Edelstein knew Murmelstein when both were in charge of a transport to Nisko in Poland in 1939 and distrusted him thoroughly.

Murmelstein became de facto head of Th. on September 27, 1944 when Eppstein was arrested, and nominal leader only in December.

I have documentary evidence how the leading members of the Council of Elders kept him out of the loop regarding important and critical events.

After the last and eleventh transport left Th. on October 28, 1944, Murmelstein was in complete control of the so-called Jewish self-administration. His relationship with Rahm the SS commander from Vienna seems to have been smooth. They both spoke the Viennese dialect and Rahm, as most Nazis at that time, recognized the approaching end and began to change their behavior.

Prior to his assuming the leading role in September 1944, Murmelstein had no access to the camp commander.

Murmelstein was an oversexed brute and acted as such in Th. In his inauguration lecture, when he was appointed lecturer at the Viennese Rabbinical Seminar, he analyzed Origin and could not help to bring up a salacious item regarding when a virgin would lose her virginity after falling from a donkey (I have the original lecture)

A great deal more could (and will) be said about Murmelstein and the history of Th. I had started to write such a history in 1991 but had to stop in 2000 due to the health condition of my late wife. I plan to resume this now.

I was borne in 1924 in Vienna, Austria. I went to school with his lowly helper Eddie Herrman and roomed with him for two years in Th. He was still employed by Murmelstein when he was sent to Auschwitz 10 days after I had been sent. So much for Murmelstein's ability to save anyone; there are more cases like that.

From Auschwitz I was sent to Dachau where I was liberated on April 29, 1945.
While in Dachau, I was fourth clerk in Block 27, probably the only Jew in the history of Dachau who had even so lowly a position. While in Dachau, I gave English lessons to Polish officers and kept a notebook in Gregg shorthand.

After liberation I worked as an interpreter, first for the US army and then for the Military government in Munich. After I returned to Vienna, I was the office manager of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee which was under the authority of the US Military government then. I left Vienna for the USA in November 1946.

When Mr. Lanzmann got the Golden Bear in Berlin in February of this year, and heard about this documentary, I called him and spoke with his assistant, warning to be cautious about Mr. Lanzmann's judgement of Murmelstein and offering to supply additional information. But, without success.

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/may/14/claude-lanzmann-last-unjust

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