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SHOAH: Worlwide filmscreening
The Voice on the River

Simon Srebrnik (on the right) in 1977 on the Ner in Chełmno, Poland | © The Criterion Collection
© The Criterion Collection

Claude Lanzmanns 9,5-hour documentary Shoah (1985) confronts the audience with stories of survivors, pertpetrators and bystanders. Which position should we as viewers take 75 years after the liberation of Ausschwitz?

"He was thirteen and a half years old," says one of the interviewees, whose voice can be heard during the first take of Claude Lanzmann's documentary Shoah, premiered in 1985. The man, a Polish farmer living on the banks of the river Ner, still remembers the singing of the young Simon Srebrnik, a Jewish prisoner in the extermination camp Chełmno. In countless nights between 1944 and 1945, the boy had to take sacks of burnt human remains away from the camp by boat and throw them into the river. Flanked by SS guards, Srebrnik sang Polish folk songs in the small boat during the trip. In return, the guards taught him the Prussian military songs of their fathers and grandfathers. "He sang very beautifully," adds another contemporary witness. "And we heard him every night."
The 9.5-hour film begins with the now 47-year-old Srebrnik, who sits in a barge and is driven over the Ner the same distance that he covered himself more than 33 years ago. Srebrnik sings in Polish about a small white house that remains in his memory and of which he dreams every night. The cyclical song meanders along as the barge moves further and further away from the camera. It remains open, which exactly silences the song, but it ends. Srebrnik continues his way in silence.
The river journey has long had a symbolic meaning in religion, literature, film and mythology. It stands for a change, often a transition from one concept to its diametrical opposite. For the people of Israel, the Jordan River symbolized the dichotomy of bondage and freedom. In Greek mythology, the river Styx represented the border between the world of the living and the realm of the dead.
But the river is not only a symbol of division. The river is a threshold state, being in transition, neither located in the here nor the there. In Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the wrath of God, the unpredictability of the Amazon destroys the Spanish conquistadors' ideas of their civilization and the supremacy of Europe. And in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Marlow's journey through the Congo in search of Kurtz extends to a no man's land that is neither rational nor insane, neither cultivated nor uncivilised. In many popular traditions, this borderland is found where the veil between two worlds is thin, where the barriers to revelation are lowered. This space is free of vagueness and performativity, leaving behind only the shades and shades of grey that are necessary to bring truth, absurdity, senselessness and cruelty to light.
Simon Srebrnik, surrounded by SS guards and overheard by Polish farmers from the riverbank, spent every night in this border area. Under cover of darkness, the barge glided across the dark waters that would become the grave of hundreds of thousands who were murdered in Chełmno. Srebrnik, who had watched his father killed in the ghetto of Łódź and whose mother was gassed in a truck on the way to Chełmno, became a henchman of the realm of the dead at the age of only 13 years, accompanying the mortal remains of his fellow prisoners. Srebrnik, a child, bedded the ashes and bones of thousands on the bottom of the Ner for final rest. And while he did so, the guards urged him to sing, the peasants listened in raptures. Henchmen and free men, overcome by the voice of the prisoner? How so?
What made this bizarre interplay, this brief suspension of the ideas and conceptions behind the systematic extermination of millions of people possible? How could this exchange take place during such a horrible and dehumanized mission? The perversion of the childlike urge of the guards to teach Srebrnik their songs, and their desire to hear his songs, the peasants in the distance who listened spellbound night after night - for an unsuspecting observer this may have seemed like a moment of bonding, of overcoming hostility, a heart-warming, friendly event between groups that had divided war and misunderstanding, prejudice, despair and fear. One might have thought that night and river united would have brought down the walls.
But it was not so. There is nothing heartwarming about this moment on the Ner, sometime between the daylight hours, somewhere between Chełmno and the place where the bags are thrown from the crematorium into the water. There is not the slightest trace of humanity among the perpetrators, nor any understanding of the humanity of their victims. It is a moment in which the absolute senselessness of the horrors of the Holocaust could not be clearer to those who hold them: a Jewish boy rowing down the river in a barge with the remains of human beings and, on his way, loving his victims.