The High Court of Justice in London, 1967. Dr Miklos Yaron, a Hungarian gynaecologist, is suing his former assistant Ruth Kaplan for libel. Kaplan has published a pamphlet accusing Yaron of collaboration with Nazi leaders in 1944. As a member of the Central Jewish Council set up by the Nazis, Yaron had known that millions of Jews had already died in extermination camps. Nonetheless he agreed to assist Eichmann with his plan to destroy the Jews of Hungary.
Is there anyone in Britain interested in the theatre, in civil liberties or in Jews who can’t identify this as a scene from Jim Allen’s play Perdition? The successful lobbying by Jews in Britain to have its production cancelled has made it one of the most famous plays of the decade. I have read it and like it very little, but by forcing its cancellation, modern Jewish leaders, Zionists among them, have given credibility to one of the assertions Allen makes about Zionist leaders of the past. A Jewish joke if ever there was one, but not many people are laughing.
As the play is set entirely in the courtroom, I’ll start with a confession: I am the only Jew in England who is not an expert on Zionist politics 1939-1945. Have you put on your picketing shoes yet? Hold on, there’s more. When I was growing up in South Africa I was totally uninterested in – not to say, embarrassed by – Zionism, or, more accurately, by Zionists. How I felt is captured by Lenni Brenner’s account, in Jews in America Todayof the callow youth who are heard to say: ‘I wouldn’t be seen dead with those creeps.’ Reading the correspondence Perdition elicited, it came back to me why I felt as I did.
In the play, Ruth Kaplan charges Yaron with gross self-interest. She claims that Yaron’s reward for keeping silent about the fate he knew awaited the Hungarian Jews in the camps was that he, his family and his associates would be allowed to emigrate to Israel. Yaron’s defence is twofold. If he had not obeyed Eichmann, he would have been executed. Indeed, many other members of the Central Jewish Council had refused and were killed. More important, he had also been a member of the Zionist Rescue Committee which had achieved some success in smuggling Jews out of the country, even in freeing a number from the camps. He believed his duty lay in bargaining with Eichmann for the lives of doomed Jews. To turn his back was to abandon all of them. To collaborate was to give some, however few, a chance of life.
That collaboration such as Yaron’s occurred is not in question. In the course of the play, however, witnesses are wheeled on to bring more complex charges against Zionism and the early Zionist leaders. Allen believes that the roots of Yaron’s collaboration ‘lay in prewar efforts of Zionism to effect an alliance with the Nazis’. It is here that the play’s accuracy and integrity have been challenged.
Allen’s charges are these: Zionists collaborated with Nazis to ensure that the small number of Jews who were allowed to escape would consist of those best-equipped to build up the state of Israel – the young, the strong, the rich. Secondly, believing the Nazi persecution was conclusive evidence that assimilation of Jews by Gentiles would never succeed, they campaigned to prevent Jews emigrating to any country other than Israel on the grounds that it would retard their plans for the establishment of the Jewish homeland. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, is quoted in the play as saying: ‘If I knew that it would be possible to save all the children in Germany by bringing them over to England, and only half of them by transporting them to Eretz Israel, then I would opt for the second alternative. For we must weigh, not only the life of these children, but also the history of the people of Israel.’ The third charge is the most grotesque. It is that some Zionists argued that there was only one means by which Jews could ensure that their claims to the land of Palestine would be heard when, after the war, boundaries came to be drawn and territories apportioned. This was by the shedding of their blood: the more the Jews suffered, the greater would be their moral right to the land they claimed as their ancestral home.
Allen’s charges can be reduced to two assertions: the Zionism of the early leaders was incompatible with basic morality and humanity; the leaders betrayed their people. Many of his claims are disputed, especially those he makes about the relationship between the Central Jewish Council and other Jewish organisations, and the extent to which resistance occurred. As I have said, I don’t know enough about the period to contribute to this discussion: but Allen should certainly have got his facts right. On the other hand, among the Zionists and other leading Jews who pressed for the cancellation of Perdition were publishers, lawyers, members of theatre boards, even playwrights: they support art, books, free speech – until someone says something offensive to them.
In the end, Allen is interested only in a small group of people, the leaders, and he is interested in presenting them, not within the world in which they lived, with all its hideous complexity and danger, a world of darkness and shadow, but in the cold hard light of the courtroom, the light of ‘justice’. The play occasionally allows Yaron to defend himself by sketching the context in which his choices were made, but he is a man on trial – it quickly becomes Yaron rather than Kaplan who is on the defensive – and whatever he says is likely to be a lie. No, Allen has made up his mind that Yaron belongs in a dock and it is only in the dock that he is seen.
It is charged against these Zionists that they held their followers in contempt not trusting them to find their own best path to salvation. In the face of annihilation they kept their faith in order and hierarchy, in the right of the wise leader to lead; and so they failed to encourage Jews to organise, to take up arms.
Scott: You could have told them to flee, to resist.
Yaron: There was nowhere for them to go. Where could they have fled to?
In a word, the betrayal perpetrated by the Zionist leaders was a betrayal of democracy. This is a crucial point because many of the letters and articles that have been written about Perdition claim that it is anti-semitic. To claim that an attack on Zionist leaders – even on non-Zionist Jewish leaders – is an attack on all Jews is absurd. The theme of the betrayal of ‘the people’ by ‘their leaders’ is an obsession of Allen’s, as of many other Trotskyist writers. It is, for example, a central theme of Days of Hope, Allen’s outstanding television series about the General Strike. To suggest his attack on union leaders in 1926 is an attack on all working people wouldn’t hold water. It is an attack on a system of political representation: so is Perdition.
The extraordinary response which the play elicited – a correspondent in the Stage called Perdition a ‘blood libel’, whatever that is – shows how determined Zionists in particular still are to see themselves as leaders, as spokesmen for all Jews, to interpret criticism as a slight against centuries of history, to present anti-Zionism as though it were anti-semitism. They are not; it is not. It was precisely this arrogance that made me ‘not want to be seen dead’ with them when I was a teenager twenty years ago. Surely people expect that their leaders will betray them. Surely it is one of the glories of democracy that when your leaders betray you you can get rid of them. To identify Zionist leaders with the Jewish people as a whole, as critics of the play have done, is to awaken a brand of nationalism the Second World War was fought to put to sleep for good – though it has done no more than settle into a troubled doze.
One of the sharpest objections to Jim Allen was that he referred to the holocaust as a ‘myth’. This was interpreted by columns of letter-writers to imply that he did not believe that the killing of the Jews actually took place. How ludicrous this is is made clear when Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah, perhaps the most widely-acclaimed record of this particular genocide yet produced, refers to the killings in precisely the same terms. In the Jewish Quarterly he is quoted as saying: ‘The Holocaust today is legendary in all different sorts of ways. It has all the characteristics of a mythical account; as knowledge of the unknowable, it is blurred, vague and stereotyped.’ Lanzmann’s wish is to oppose the myth of the Jewish holocaust with ‘a counter-myth – that is, an investigation of the holocaust’s present’. The film, more than nine hours long and ten years in the making, contains no footage from the archive. Nothing is shown that did not happen before the eye of the camera as the film was being shot. The greater part of it is taken up with interviews with people who were there then, survivors, witnesses, Nazi camp officials, peasants who lived in or near the villages where the camps were sited. They talk, sometimes at great length, about what they did or were forced to do, what they saw, what they felt. And yet, although one might expect the weight of these thirty or forty-year-old experiences to thrust one back into the past, everything that we see, or are told, seems to be happening simultaneously in the past and the present, and sometimes in the time in between as well.
The film begins with one of its most moving sequences. Simon Srebnik was 13 when he was sent to the extermination camp at Chelmno. Placed on a ‘Jewish work detail’, he had as one of his tasks to row up the Narew River under guard to pick alfalfa for the rabbits the SS kept in the camp. As he rowed he sang, and the beauty of his voice made him a favourite. In 1945, two days before Soviet troops liberated the camps, he was shot in the head but survived and emigrated to Israel. Lanzmann persuaded him not only to return to Chelmno but to row up the same river in a similar boat and even to sing. He sings with a faint smile on his face as though in a dream. Then Lanzmann interviews Polish peasants who heard Srebnik sing as a boy and now hear him again as a fifty-year-old man. The legend of the holocaust is distilled into equal parts of suffering and endurance. The effect is unforgettable – which is the point.
Lanzmann takes Srebnik to the site of the camp, now grassed over. Only a low brick wall marks the place where the central buildings stood. Srebnik wanders about: ‘It’s hard to recognise, but it was here. They burned people here. Yes, this is the place.’ The camera tracks back and back and back along the soft grassy paths that lead into the camps: this is the path, this is the railway line that brought in the cattle-trucks ... For hour after hour, we see only railway lines, meadows, aerial views of forests, paths through the woods, but the screen is full of horror, a horror of transition; to move from one place or one state to another was to move inevitably out of life and into death. How could these trees have grown? When had the grass time to cover the paths? Simon Srebnik is still here singing in his boat on the river. The peasants are still on the river banks, smiling, chatting, hearing him, watching him pass.
Having invented this, to my mind, extremely important technique, Lanzmann uses it over and over again. When he interviews Polish peasants who, forty years earlier, had watched trains bearing doomed Jews entering the camps, he places them in front of the same railway lines. Trains shunt up and down in the background. One of the most powerful segments focuses on Abraham Bomba, who survived the camps because he agreed to use his skill as a barber to cut the hair of women before their execution – the hair was then sold to help meet the running costs of these self-financing institutions. He is interviewed in his barber shop in Israel and, while cutting his customers’ hair, describes performing his task for the Nazis, sometimes on people from his own village.
In Bomba’s replies is the implication that the scene has been set up. It must have been. It’s scarcely possible that Lanzmann could have arrived unexpectedly and put his uncompromising, relentless questions to the unprepared barber. The scene is a kind of performance, a partial reconstruction, and Lanzmann insists that it be carried through even when Bomba is close to breaking down.
‘But I asked you and you didn’t answer.’
‘I can’t. It’s too horrible. Please.’
‘You have to do it. I know it’s very hard. I know and apologise.’
‘Don’t make me go on, please.’
‘Please. We must go on.’
What is the justification for that ‘must’? Because it’s good cinema? Partly. Because it’s good for Bomba? That would be intolerable. Because it’s good history? It is extraordinary history, but the real point, I would guess, is that Lanzmann feels compelled to record this distress because it is evidence, otherwise easily overlooked, that these lives have passed through death. It is as much a sign of the existence of the past in the present as the name-plate on the truck speeding along an autobahn: Siemens, suppliers of trucks to the Nazis.
Lenni Brenner’s new book is a lament for the failure of so many American Jews (‘the best-educated and richest minority in America’) to hold onto their memories of distress, to broaden the horizons of their compassion, to give support to oppressed minorities of the present day. It is a raucous over- and under-view of where American Jews have got to over the past forty years. The first half deals with the financial and political power Jews have acquired. The second deals with what Brenner sees as the misuse of this power. The chapter on blacks and Jews concludes that ‘the Jewish Establishment have been waging a ferocious economic war against the Blacks, with their never-ending attacks on affirmative action.’
The most passionate chapter, ‘Six Million Skeletons in the Closet’, is a return to the themes of Brenner’s earlier book Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, one of the key sources for Perdition. Here Brenner reviews the efforts of the Jewish establishment of the war years to play down, even to conceal, reports of the camps in Europe for fear of inciting anti-semitism at home. One of his prize quotations is also used by Jim Allen. It is from a letter sent by Rabbi Steven Wise, leader of the American Jewish Congress, to Roosevelt in 1942, the first year of the Final Solution: ‘I have had cables and underground advices for some months, telling of these things. I succeeded, together with the heads of other Jewish organisations, in keeping them out of the press.’
‘I wouldn’t be seen dead with these creeps.’ As I watched Shoah, it came to me that of course in certain circumstances, whether I wished to or not, I would.