In 1975 Claude Lanzmann filmed a series of interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, the last President of the Jewish Council in the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia. Murmelstein was living quietly in Rome at the time, yet after years of silence he agreed to be interviewed by Lanzmann for a film project about the tragedy of the Holocaust. This was a coup for the filmmaker and a stroke of luck for historical recording.
The Murmelstein interviews are just a small part of the 350 hours of footage accumulated for the epic documentary "Shoah." They were never used and remain archived in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. Now, in his late eighties, Lanzmann continues to reedit the outtakes from his initial Shoah production.
In the remarkable documentary film "The Last of the Unjust," Lanzmann has woven his 1975 Murmelstein interviews with present day visits to the places where the events described occurred. In the opening shot of the film, Lanzmann, now white haired, stands on the platform of Nisko station in Poland where the first deported Jews arrived before they were taken to Terezin or Thereinstadt. Theresienstadt, a propaganda brainchild of Adolph Eichmann, was promoted as a “model ghetto” designed to lure Jews to turn over their property and savings to the Nazis and self deport to what they thought was an autonomous zone free from Nazi domination. As the Nazis had done in Poland, they set up a council of Elders made up of 12 Jews with one head known as the "Elder" to oversee day to day life in these camps. In Theresienstadt, during its four years of existence, there were successively three Jewish Elders with Benjamin Murmelstein being the last. The two Elders serving before him were shot by Nazis.
How Murmelstein managed to survive and what he remembers is the essence of this film.
"The Last of the Unjust" is 218 minutes long and is not always easy to endure. Murmelstein interviews well and if the subject was not in itself so horrific, one would find him charming. While concerned with his self defense, he seems honest and intelligent with a big picture story. It is a complex tale that is alternately sad, dispassionate, self serving and enlightening.
Murmelstein knew Adolph Eichmann well and worked with him for seven years while still in Vienna. He disputes some of Eichmann’s testimony at his own trial in Israel. Murmelstein witnessed Eichmann’s participation in Kristallnacht - something Eichmann denied. He refers to Eichmann as a “demon” and refutes Hannah Arendt’s assessment of Eichmann as a “banal” bureaucrat obeying orders. Murmelstein offered to testify at the Eichmann trial but was turned down because many Israelis did not trust him.
According to Murmelstein, the architects of the Nazi state were purely corrupt and principally motivated by greed and a desire to line their pockets with the money they stole from the Jews. Murmelstein was accused of Nazi collaboration by some who survived Theresienstadt. He spent eighteen months in prison and then was cleared of all charges. Hannah Arendt thought he should be executed. Murmelstein does not have kind words for her either.
So what is the take away from these stunning interviews? Murmelstein certainly knew how to get along with the Nazis. Murmelstein says he assisted the Nazis in generating propaganda for the Thereseinstadt “model ghetto” in order to save Jewish lives. He thought keeping Thereseinstadt functioning would save Jews from another fate.
“The Nazis wanted a puppet. I was no fool. I managed to pull some of the strings. It was the whole point. I participated in this theatre, this propaganda of the ‘model ghetto," because I thought that if the world knew about us, the Nazis wouldn’t be able to get rid of us.”
The International Red Cross visited and saw and said nothing. Thereseinstadt was not a spa but another Nazi concentration camp to hold Jews to rot and die.
In the press notes, Lanzmann describes Murmelstein as the most intelligent and the bravest of the three Elders. Murmelstein had a diplomatic passport from the International Committee of the Red Cross and could have fled from Austria. He says in the film that perhaps he stayed because he had a “sense of adventure.” This is a startling comment from a man trying to defend himself.
Perhaps Murmelstein stayed because he thought he could not live with himself if he left. Maybe he thought he could outsmart the Nazis. According to him, while a rabbi in Vienna he was able to help more than 120,000 Jews flee to safety. But he also enforced a 70-hour work week for the Jews at Theresienstadt. Was this a decision of pragmatism for the Jews or one to keep himself alive?
It is a surprise that Lanzman left these interviews untouched for so many years. Today he wants us to reconsider Murmelstein as perhaps a hero. Murmelstein, now dead, had the same objective. Who can be the judge?
The "Last of the Unjust" is an Official Selection of The 51st New York Film Festival. The U.S. Premiere of "The Last of the Unjust" screens at The New York Film Festival on Sunday, September 29, at 1:00 pm at Alice Tully Hall.
Barbara Castro is a Family Mediator and is currently working on a film project to introduce divorcing families to the benefits of mediation rather than litigation. She reviews films at the New York Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival for The WIP.