When Jews were the Palestinians

PALESTINE / ISRAEL, 30 August 2010

by Sherry Wolf – Socialist Worker

Yael Hersonski’s documentary examines a Nazi propaganda film about the Warsaw Ghetto–and a time and place when Jews were the Palestinians of Europe.

Yael Hersonski’s haunting documentary about the Warsaw Ghetto contributes to our understanding of suffering and resistance in ways that have implications today.

IF THERE is anything more grotesque than the images portrayed in the heart-stopping, Israeli-made movie about the Warsaw Ghetto, A Film Unfinished, it is the notion that the state of Israel might torture a reading of it that justifies its own postwar crimes.

No, Yael Hersonski’s haunting, horrifying and edifying documentary examining a Nazi propaganda film made about the Warsaw Ghetto is not a backdoor argument for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. It is a gripping narrative of a time and place when Jews were the Palestinians of Europe.

In May 1942, the Nazis brought cameramen into the largest Jewish ghetto in Poland, a country where a thriving Jewish population had lived for many generations–and was subsequently wiped out by the Holocaust. Five hundred thousand people were trapped inside less than three square miles of walled city blocks for more than two years.

Jewish Poles and deportees from Germany and elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe were forced into an open-air prison without enough food, clean water or sanitation. Less than two months after these images were shot, the Nazis began mass deportations of Jews to the Treblinka death camp, where the ghetto inhabitants met their final torment.

Hersonski’s film about the never-released, rough-cut, 35-millimeter propaganda movie smartly captures the sighs and faces of five Warsaw Ghetto survivors as they view and comment on scenes from their childhood. A hidden vault containing unreleased reels of film, labeled simply “Das Ghetto,” was discovered in the forests of East Germany in the 1950s. But not until this award-winning documentary was made about it has the public had access to such a rich depiction of twisted Nazi propagandizing about Europe’s largest wartime ghetto.

Modern viewers can only guess at what the Nazis were attempting to accomplish with their film, which intersperses genuine images of the street life of walking or collapsed near-dead skeletons in rags, with staged images of wealthier Jews leading lives of falsely constructed luxury, indifferent to the horrors in their midst.

Like many Jews during the Holocaust who attempted the only defiance they could muster by keeping meticulous journals to document the Nazis’ morbidly creative depravity, the head of the ghetto’s Jewish Council kept a daily journal of the propaganda filmmaking.

A voice narrates his words about how Nazis fabricated vignettes, such as a wine-soaked feast where well-dressed Jews dined on meats and vegetables, smiling as they stuffed themselves while hundreds of thousands barely survived on an estimated 186 calories per day. The ghetto’s commandant kept exact records too, which included the accounting of one-fifth an egg per person, per month, 2.4 eggs per year.

Another staged scene depicts a well-fed crowd cheering and laughing in a theater. We learn from the journal entry that on this day, hundreds were forced to sit for 12 hours straight without food, water or the ability to go to the bathroom while actors and singers, themselves starving and in mourning, performed endlessly on demand. Woe to the audience member who did not scream “Bravo!” enthusiastically enough or belly laugh with gusto.

Was the point to show that rich Jews were the cause of their brethren’s suffering? That Jews are such a hideous and inhuman lot that they imposed misery on their kin to their own enrichment? Who knows? We can only be certain that all the inhabitants of the ghetto, rich and poor alike, were slated for the death camps.

In the end, the Jewish Council leader and chronicler of these events, Adam Czerniakow, could no longer stomach his collaborationist role and took his own life.

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EVEN FOR seasoned scholars of the Holocaust, A Film Unfinished contains scenes that force one to wrestle with whether to turn away or stare–just as the conflicted survivors do in the film, all of them between 9 and 13 when they endured that surreal hell. We’re shown the corpses lain out each morning, every 300 feet, so that a caretaker pushing a crude stretcher on wooden wheels could pick up the latest victims of typhus or starvation.

There are the mass graves of barely distinguishable humans of skin and bone, dumped unceremoniously, eased down wooden slides, covered with paper and doused in chlorine. The city dump serves as a sickening food pantry for the most desperate, and the courtyards of buildings are piled high with human shit.

I find it impossible to write about such a well-made Israeli film as if it has no bearing on the current siege of Gaza, an open-air prison camp of sorts maintained by a state that, in one of history’s sicker twists, manipulates the Holocaust to justify its own walled Palestinian ghetto. Israel’s state Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, is a backer of the film, and some may attempt their own ironic propaganda using this film about propaganda. Life mirroring art mirroring life?

But consistent antiracists–that is, those who oppose both anti-Semitism and the siege of Gaza–can take heart. The filmmaker, Yael Hersonski, is a signatory to the January 2009 statement by 540 Israeli citizens, “A Call from Within,” that unequivocally argues:

In the past, the world knew how to fight criminal policies. The boycott on South Africa was effective, but Israel is handled with kid gloves: its trade relations are flourishing, academic and cultural cooperation continue and intensify with diplomatic support. This international backing must stop. That is the only way to stop the insatiable Israeli violence.

We are calling on the world to stop Israeli violence and not allow the continuation of the brutal occupation. We call on the world to condemn, and not become an accomplice in Israel’s crimes.

Hersonski’s film makes a contribution to our understanding of human suffering, resistance and the lies that states must tell to advance ethnic cleansing. It well deserves our attention.

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Sherry Wolf is the author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation and an associate editor of the International Socialist Review. Her writing has also appeared in the Nation, MRZine and New Politics. She was on the executive committee of the 2009 National Equality March and is on the interim governing board of Equality Across America.

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