By Sheldon Kirshner, The Canadian Jewish News, April 28, 2000
In 1979, when he was filming Shoah, his epic about the Holocaust, Claude Lanzmann interviewed 63 year-old Maurice Rossel, a Swiss Red Cross official who had written a rather glowing report about his visit to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in June 1944.
Rossel inspected Theresienstadt - a camp for "prominent" Jews, which funneled its hapless inmates to death camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka - with the consent of the German authorities. Having expected the Red Cross delegation, led by Rossel, the Germans cynically gussied up Theresienstadt so that it would appear to be an innocuous "model ghetto."
Certainly, Rossel was fooled. "I saw a normal small town" he told the incredulous Lanzmann.
Since Shoah was already shaping up to be an inordinately long film, Lanzmann decided not to use the Rossel clip. But now he has released it as a free standing documentary under the title of A Visitor from the Living. Taking the form of a conversation between Lanzmann and Rossel, it will be screened by Cinematheque on Sunday, April 30 at 2:45 p.m. at the Art Gallery of Ontario's Jackman Hall.
The 65-minute film, a deadpan testament to man's capacity for self-delusion, is well worth seeing.
Theresienstadt, 50 miles northeast of Prague, was emptied of its Czech inhabitants and filled with so-called "prominentia." They were assimilated Jews from all over Europe, but especially Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, who had distinguished themselves as high officials, politicians, scientists or decorated war veterans.
Packed into overcrowded barracks, and beset by malnutrition, the largely elderly Jews of Theresienstadt were doomed, destined for trans-shipment to the gas chambers of Poland.
Before Theresienstadt, Rossel had visited Auschwitz, unannounced, in 1943. The surprised commandant, receiving him courteously and expressing his admiration of Switzerland, showed him nothing. Rossel saw no crematoriums, nor could he smell the stench of burning flesh. The few prisoners he passed resembled walking skeletons.
The commandant, however, alluded to the "incredible job" he and his subordinates were performing. Europe, he boasted, would "thank" Nazi Germany one day.
Rossel, the representative of the International Red Cross Committee in Germany, left Auschwitz empty-handed, realizing in his heart of hearts that it was "a terrible place," but still unaware of its real diabolical purpose.
Rossel's visit to Theresienstadt, which lasted about three hours, was carefully stage managed to create a false impression. Rossel, unwillingly, legitimized Theresienstadt as a kind of Nazi Disney World.
In retrospect, he fully understands that he was taken for a fool and/or a naïf. There was, he now concedes, a "tricked-up," manipulative atmosphere in the camp, which the Germans had artfully transformed into a "Potemkin ghetto" for the day.
The tour was conducted by a robotic Jewish doctor who was subsequently executed. The Jews in Rossel's line of vision, wearing yellow stars, were docile and passive. In fact, they were terrified.
Thinking that he had entered a camp for "privileged" Jews, Rossel was impressed by the immaculate facilities - the kindergartens, the parks, the cafes, the synagogue, the living quarters. He could not see beyond the falsified façade. Nor could he have known that 5,000 Jews had been dispatched to Auschwitz on the eve of his brief and unedifying visit.
Looking back at his useless visit, Rossel, his face a passive mask, admits that he was bamboozled by the Germans. "It's amazing that no one ever said, "This is a farce,'" he observes, still amazed by the "play acting" of the Jews.
Smoking a cigarillo, he admits that he would not have written a rosy report about Theresienstadt had he been apprised of its actual function.
It is not exactly a startling admission. But as these words spill out of his mouth, his unblinking eyes reveal a flicker of apologetic emotion for the first time in the interview.