Mark Lilla reviews the latest film from Claude Lanzmann, The Last of the Unjust, which is based on extended interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein. Murmelstein was the infamous head of the Judenrat, or council of Jewish elders, who worked with Nazi leaders in running the Theresienstadt concentration camp. One fascinating feature of the documentary is that Murmelstein eventually wins Lanzmann over, arguing that his actions “were intended to beat the Nazis at their own game”:
If Eichmann’s strategy was to create in Theresienstadt a model ghetto that would distract world attention from the mass murders committed elsewhere, Murmelstein’s was to maintain that illusion so the camp and its inmates could not be destroyed without setting off an alarm.
If one accepts the soundness of this strategy, his actions appear in a different light. Rules had to be strictly, even brutally enforced to ensure that the Nazis did not transform the ghetto into an extermination camp. To keep the place from succumbing to a typhus epidemic he secretly had all the inmates forcibly vaccinated, denying food to those who refused, so the place appeared healthy. The seventy-hour work week was essential because, at the time he instituted it, the Nazis were worried more about shortages than about world opinion, and Murmelstein wanted the ghetto to appear economically indispensible. “Survival through work,” he says, was his version of the Nazi camp motto “Freedom through work.”
Lilla doesn’t quite buy the defense:
Keeping his camp running efficiently and in the public eye saved it as an institution, but also meant that victims could be processed more efficiently on their way to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other places east. Murmelstein, like everyone in the camp, did not learn about Auschwitz until 1944, but no one was ignorant of the fact that transport nach Osten meant unspeakable suffering and nearly certain death. At times, he speaks as if preserving the ghetto was an end in itself, never considering, as Hannah Arendt had suggested, that less efficiency might have meant fewer deaths overall. In the judgment of Holocaust historian Saul Friedländer, “objectively the Judenrat was probably an instrument in the destruction of European Jewry.” “But,” he added, “subjectively the actors were not aware of this function.”