Claude Lanzmann has gone down in history as the primary film chronicler of the Holocaust, leaving a profound legacy of testimony on screen. The final work he has left us, “Shoah: Four Sisters,” stands as further evidence of how horrors unfolded in different ways. Lanzmann was 92 when he died last July.
The women whom he interviewed in this two-part film are not actual sisters, only spiritual sisters in the sense of what each endured in different ways. There is an installment for each in the footage, which he shot originally for his “Shoah” masterwork. Taken together they are deeply moving.
Symbolically, one episode that haunts me was reported by Ada Lichtman in the part titled “The Merry Flea.” Her job in an extermination camp was to clean and prepare dolls taken from executed Jewish children so that German personnel could give those dolls to their own children. More than the process itself, is the harrowing thought of Germans callously giving such dolls to their own kids, and taking the step further, the thought of German kids innocently playing with dolls that belonged to murdered Jewish children.
More directly obscene was the intimate tale told by Ruth Elias in a section titled “The Hippocratic Oath.” Elias, a Czech Jew, had the misfortune to fall into the hands of Josef Mengele when pregnant. Mengele seemed to befriend her during her pregnancy. But there was something on his mind that he did not reveal. After the birth of the baby, he gave orders not to have the baby fed. He wanted to see how long a baby could live without nourishment. The baby, of course, eventually died as a result of one of Mengele’s experiments, a loss with which Elias had to cope.
Another interviewed was Hanna Marton in the segment titled “Noah’s Ark.” She is a Hungarian Jew saved as a result of a deal negotiated between Rezso Kasnztner and Adolf Eichmann. In another segment, Paula Biren, a Polish Jew and survivor, epitomizes various Jews who managed to come through but harbor guilt about managing to live while so many others died. In her case she functioned in the Lodz ghetto in a Jewish women’s police force and speaks candidly about her experiences there.
Viewing this film, one is subjected to accounts of very different experiences by women with different personalities, adding up to further testament as to the horrors of what the Nazis inflicted. For those revelations we owe thanks to Lanzmann and the four who agreed to tell him—and eventually us—their stories despite the obvious pain they must have felt in digging into their recollections of the suffering they endured. A Cohen Media Group release. Reviewed November 14, 2018.