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Watching Shoah at Easter
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Watching Shoah at ‘Easter’: Scary Polish Peasants

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With the Crucifixion serendipitously falling on Passover and all, and thus carrying sinister echoes of both the ‘blood libel’ and the ‘angel of death’, I could think of no better way to spend the recent Easter weekend than watching Shoah, the nine hour long Holocaust documentary available on Youtube in fifty-nine ten-minute segments...


If you’ve never seen it, Shoah is knitted together with interviews (conducted by its visionary director Claude Lanzmann) with three different archetypes of witnesses to the holocaust – survivors, perpetrators and bystanders. We will concern ourselves here with the bystander category of interviewee, almost unanimously Poles in the film.

Early on we meet a farmer, who arrives riding a cart stacked high with golden hay, though his skin, roasted across fifty Polish summers, is a still deeper gold. As he passes the camera he gestures high with his crop, a picture of rural good health and humour. During his interview itself, you can’t miss his incredibly swollen middle-aged belly, though the impression of slightly obscene health endures. The fields the man has tilled his entire life surround Treblinka’s former train depot, and he claims to clearly remember (and who would dispute it) the arrival of the first soul-packed carriages. “We knew they would be killed,” he explains, “but we did not know how.” The translator relays this to Lanzmann in French, and the subtitles relay it to the viewer in English. Lanzmann generously pats the man’s shoulder, while the camera, more sceptical, scrutinises his face. It is a frog’s, with thick lips and rolls of tanned fat that swallow up his eyes.

His demeanour, as he describes these horrors, seems too neutral. While he remembers the time as a difficult one, he mentions only the fear and inconvenience that the large presence of the SS and Gestapo (alongside many of the infamously enthusiastic Ukrainians drafted into the genocide) brought to the local community. You find yourself leaning in as Lanzmann finally asks the farmer about his feelings for the actual victims of the human abattoir surreally erected in his backyard. The farmer’s answer is long, giving you plenty of time to observe his peculiar manner; his chubby, peasant hands make elegant, almost theatrical gestures as kaleidoscopic Polish tumbles from his fat lips. His long, dispassionate response is whittled down to a single, eloquent subtitle: “Well, it’s like this – if you cut your finger, it doesn’t hurt me.” Our golden frog proves himself something of a philosopher.

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Polish peasants - all heart!

Also on the menu of Treblinka bystanders – and this time teetering into that other, more terrible category – is a Polish train driver, who not only drove the trains (they arrived full, left empty – yet Treblinka did not grow by an inch or an ounce), but also regularly drove the vans that led from the depot to the camp. This old timer is worn, cracked, lithe and grey, and looks every bit like one that has spent their entire working life soaking in steam (not to mention murder). Despite having steered, in his steel snake with its screaming tail, tens of thousands – at least – to their death, he betrays eerie signs of moral life.

A gloomy individual, whose gloom thickens the nearer he gets to what was once his main destination (they travel back to Treblinka by train, Shoah’s crew alongside him in the cab), it seems a wonder that he maintained his job at all, something perhaps owing more to his almost supernatural passivity (a national quintessence, if you will) than it did the vodka provided by the SS.

When the train finally reaches Treblinka, this retired Styx boatman morosely drags two fingers across his throat three times. This gesture was ubiquitous during the killing – the locals’ favoured mode of acknowledgment.

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The retired Styx boatman.

The survivors remember it all too well: peasants greeted them with it as they passed by en route to the death camps, though its delivery was rarely so moribund. Usually, the fingertips were pulled exuberantly across the throat; not quite joyfully, but not without relish, either. Our frog philosopher’s is predictably a beauty, a pantomime decapitation, the rendition of which (presumably for the first time in decades) prompts a rich and high peel of laughter – you cutting your finger can be pretty funny, too.

Other local peasants – Gogolian surfs, these, caked in dirt and with gummy grins – exhume their own slitting motions with differing gusto, and, while expressing their theoretical disapproval of the genocide, cackle at the drop of a hat, with one old peasant betraying a particularly nasty sense of humour as he relates (as if it were an ‘Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman’ gag) how some “foreign Jews” would arrive at their doom in first class dining carts, with fine clothes and fat stomachs – the peasant pushes out webbed fingers to illustrate the latter, his gums glistening with malicious joy.

Overall, I couldn’t but be reminded of being introduced, a few years back, to a schoolfriend’s then new girlfriend, a nineteen year old Polish girl, Felicia, who had recently moved to my hometown with her parents. Felicia, while attractive enough, wasn’t exactly pleasant or intelligent, and as the night ground on I found myself rapidly running out of small talk.

“Whereabouts in Poland are you from?” I asked, scraping the barrel.

“Do you know Oświęcim?” she responded.

“I’m sorry?”

Oświęcim,” she repeated, a bit slower.

“Oh... Auschwitz?”

“It just a normal town!” she said, defensively.

“Of course...” I mumbled.

“People think it’s some terrible place, but it’s just a normal town”


“The only problem there is the Jews.”


“The Jews.”


“We have this disco in the town – the only disco – and they want to turn it into temple.”


The only disco,” repeated Felicia, staring off into the distance.

History can be so cruel.

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