September 23, 2019

Nazis’ stooge or well-meaning Jew?

When the French director Claude Lanzmann completed the editing of his eight-hour epic documentary, “Shoah,” in 1985, he still had stashed away nearly 11 hours of interviews with one man.

That man was Benjamin Murmelstein, the last president of the Judenrat (Jewish Council) in the Theresienstadt (Terezin) ghetto, and the only Nazi-installed “Elder of the Jews” not killed during the Holocaust.

Lanzmann has now compressed those interviews, conducted in 1975, into the more-than-three-and-a-half hour documentary “The Last of the Unjust.” The film reveals a then-70-year-old man, who, in Lanzmann’s estimation, was highly intelligent, ironic, didn’t lie, was hard both on others and on himself, and who was blessed with total recall.

Murmelstein also displayed a sardonic wit, upending the title of Andre Schwarz-Bart’s novel “The Last of the Just,” into the self-designated “Last of the Unjust,” which Lanzmann has adopted as the title for his film.

The roles played by the Elders of the Jews in the Nazi-controlled ghettoes of Lvov, Warsaw, Vilna and Lodz are still the stuff of debates, books and plays. Were these men stooges who did the Nazis’ dirty work to save their skins and to allow them to enjoy the illusion power? Or were they brave, well-meaning men who sacrificed themselves in the hope of saving at least some of their fellow Jews?

Murmelstein, like most humans, comes across as a mixture of motives, hopes and ambitions, though apparently more intelligent and self-aware than other ghetto leaders.

A Viennese rabbi and deputy to the Jewish community president, Murmelstein first met Adolf Eichmann in 1938, after the Nazi takeover of Austria.

Eichmann ordered Murmelstein to organize the forced emigration of Austrian Jews, and even his detractors acknowledge Murmelstein’s role in helping more than 120,000 of Austria’s 200,000 Jews flee the country.

Over the next seven years, until the end of the war, the Viennese rabbi and the Nazi Holocaust organizer met and sparred again and again, and, arguably, Murmelstein got to know Eichmann better than any other Jewish leader.

As such, Murmelstein thoroughly demolishes philosopher Hannah Arendt’s portrait of Eichmann as a mere bureaucrat carrying out orders and the personification of “the banality of evil.”

In reality, Murmelstein testifies, Eichmann was a “demon,” and a thoroughly corrupt one at that, who was also a fanatical and violent anti-Semite, participating directly in the burning of Vienna’s synagogues during Kristallnacht.

Director Claude Lanzmann

Murmelstein lambasts Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Jerusalem as “a poor trial run by ignorant people,” and approvingly quotes a newspaper critic on “the banality of Mrs. Arendt’s own conclusions.”

While obviously trying to cast his own role as ghetto “Elder” in as favorable a light as possible, Murmelstein, under sharp questioning, acknowledges his own shortcomings.

He owns up to enjoying a sense of power and, oddly, even of adventure, as well as to his reputation among his Jewish “subjects” as tough and mean.

But, mainly, he sees himself as a pragmatist among the self-deluded, noting that “if a surgeon starts crying during an operation, the patient dies.”

In general, he holds a high opinion of his importance, arguing that “I had to save myself to save the ghetto.”

After the war, Murmelstein, who held a diplomatic passport from the International Committee of the Red Cross, easily could have fled Europe. Instead, he chose to remain in Czechoslovakia and stand trial on allegations of collaborating with the Nazis. After 18 months in prison, he was acquitted of all charges. He died in Rome in 1989, at 84.

“The Last of the Unjust” is, above all, a fascinating examination of the human condition in extremis, especially in clinging to hope when every escape seems barred.

For example, when Eichmann and the Nazi propaganda initially painted Theresienstadt as a lovely spa that lucky Jews could enjoy if they turned over all their money to the “Eichmann fund,” 40,000 elderly Jews eagerly signed on.

In a lengthy interview with Lanzmann in the production notes for the film, the director notes that even Murmelstein, who had no illusions about Nazi cruelty and trickery, “said he didn’t know about the gas chambers, and that’s absolutely true.

“In Theresienstadt, the Jews were afraid of deportation to the East, but they couldn’t imagine the reality of death in the gas chambers,” Lanzmann noted in the interview.

Lanzmann illustrates the desperate longing for survival in the ghetto by quoting one inmate, who said that “he who wants to live is condemned to hope.”

And in words all latter-day analysts of Jewish action and inaction during the Holocaust might take to heart, the film concludes, “The Elders of the Jews can be condemned, but they cannot be judged.”

“The Last of the Unjust” opens Feb. 7 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles and Town Center in Encino, as well as the Regal Westpark in Irvine.