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SHOAH: Worldwide Screening
The Voice on the River

Claude Lanzmann’s 9.5-hour documentary Shoah (1985) takes viewers through the stories of survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders. 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, where do we position ourselves as the audience?

By Raleigh Joyner

“He was 13 and a half years old,” recalls an interviewee who narrates over the opening shot of Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary Shoah. The man, a Polish peasant who lives on the banks of the River Newra, still remembers the singing voice of young Szymon Srebrnik – a Jewish prisoner at Chełmno extermination camp – who, on many nights between 1944 and 1945, rowed sacks of burned human remains away from the camp and dumped them into the river. Flanked by SS guards in the small boat, Srebrnik sang Polish folk songs as he pushed ahead; in return, the guards taught him the Prussian military songs of their fathers and grandfathers. “He had a lovely singing voice,” another interviewee witness adds. “And we heard him every night.”
The 9.5-hour film dawns on a now-47-year-old Srebrnik, seated in the bow of a rowboat, taking the same route down the Newra that he had himself rowed over 33 years before. Srebrnik sings in Polish of a little white house that lingers in his memory, “of which I dream each night.” The song is cyclical and meanders on as the boat drifts further from the camera. It is unclear what exactly brings the song to an end, but it does end. Srebrnik sits in silence, continuing to drift.
The journey on the river has long been symbolic in religion, literature, film, and mythology. It represents transformation, often a transition from one concept to its diametrical opposite. For the Israelites, the River Jordan symbolized the dichotomy of bondage and freedom. For the Ancient Greeks, the River Styx divided Earth from the Underworld.
But the river is not only a symbol of division. The river is liminality, the state of being in-between, existing neither Here nor There. In Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, the Amazon unravels along with the Spanish explorers’ constructs of their own civilization and European supremacy. Similarly, Marlow’s journey down the Congo to seek Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness occupies a No-Man’s-Land that is neither sane nor insane, refined nor savage. Liminality strips away artifice and lays bare nuance, greyness, all of which highlights absurdity, senselessness, cruelty. In many folkloric traditions, liminality is where the veil between worlds is thin, where the threshold of revelations is lowered.
It was this liminal space that Szymon Srebrnik, the SS guards surrounding him, and the Polish peasants listening from the riverbank occupied each night under the cover of darkness, gliding over the black waters that would become the dumping site of hundreds of thousands murdered at Chełmno. Srebrnik, who had watched his father killed in the Łódź Ghetto and whose mother had been gassed in a van on the way to Chełmno, became at only 13 an attendant of the Underworld, the steward of his fellow prisoners’ remains. Srebrnik, a child, laid thousands to rest as bundles of ash and crushed bone at the bottom of the Newra. Meanwhile, the guards urged on his singing, the peasants listened, enchanted. The captors, the free, compelled by the voice of the imprisoned. How?
What facilitated this bizarre exchange, this brief suspension of the constructs and conceptions that drove this systematic extermination of millions? How could such an exchange happen during such a heinous and dehumanizing errand? The perversion of the guards’ childlike inclination to share their songs with Srebrnik, their eagerness to hear his own, the peasants in the distance listening in thrall night after night. To an unwitting onlooker, this moment may have seemed like one of bonding, a suspension of enmity that revealed a warm and tender instant between groups pitted against each other by war and misunderstanding, prejudice and desperation and fear. That night and river combined were conducive to such a collapse.
But that is not what it was. In this moment revealed on the Newra, sometime between the daylight hours, somewhere between Chełmno and the spot where the sacks filled from the crematorium are dropped into the river, no warmth is revealed. No unlikely humanity is found in the perpetrators, nor any understanding of their victims’ humanity. It is a moment where the absolute senselessness of the Holocaust’s atrocities could not be more clear to those perpetuating them – a Jewish boy rowing a boat loaded with human remains down a river, trading songs with SS guards along the way. The guards whom Srebrnik entertained with his songs and who taught him the songs they had known as boys, the bystanders on the riverbanks who recalled with fondness Srebrnik’s voice despite knowing – perhaps not knowing where the boat was bound, or what was on it, but knowing nonetheless – there could not have been a better moment than this for those with power to come to and fully comprehend the senselessness of all this.
The villagers who stood listening to Srebrnik’s voice on the riverbank are almost all long dead. But we, viewing Shoah in the liminal space of the darkness of the cinema, are not. We are the ones who must listen now.