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Searching for Feelings: The Scrolls of Auschwitz and Son of Saul

Matters of Testimony: Interpreting the Scrolls of Auschwitzby Nicholas Chare & Dominic Williams

 

Nicholas Chare and Dominic Williams are the authors of Matters of Testimony: Interpreting the Scrolls of Auschwitz and recently published an article about the book on Slate’s blog, The Vault.
 
The Hungarian director László Nemes was moved by writings known as the Scrolls of Auschwitz to create the award-winning film Son of Saul. The Scrolls of Auschwitz comprise a variety of documents composed by members of the Sonderkommando, or Special Squad, a group of predominantly Jewish prisoners who were tasked with running the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau. These writings were buried in the grounds of the crematoria in 1944. Between 1945 and 1980, eight caches of documents by five known authors were recovered. The writings have retrospectively become known as the Scrolls of Auschwitz, as this is how the historian Ber Mark’s book Megiles Oyshvits, which transcribes several of the manuscripts, was translated into English in 1985.

 

The Scrolls include lengthy witness accounts written in Yiddish, letters in Greek and French, and a list of murdered transports written in Polish. Our book, Matters of Testimony: Interpreting the Scrolls of Auschwitz, published at the beginning of this year, is the first to provide an in-depth engagement with all of the extant manuscripts. In Matters of Testimony, we examine ways in which the Yiddish writings of Zalman Gradowski and Leyb Langfus form complex literary works which raise crucial questions about the ethics and limits of Holocaust testimony. We explore how Zalman Lewental provides a history of the failed Sonderkommando revolt on October 7, 1944, which also constitutes a heartfelt memorial to his comrades. Letters by Chaim Herman and Marcel Nadjary offer insight into the heterogeneity and complex group dynamics of the Sonderkommando. Taken together, the Scrolls therefore form a remarkable set of documents. It is unsurprising that Nemes found them significant and inspirational.

 

The Scrolls are, however, demanding material. They are uncommon as witness accounts in that they are composed from within the exterminatory universe of Nazi genocide by authors intimate with the operation of the gas chambers. Primo Levi used the Sonderkommando as an example of the moral quandaries posed by Jewish collaboration in his 1986 essay “The Grey Zone.” He framed their actions in predominantly negative terms. Levi was familiar with the existence of the Scrolls but does not appear to have read them. If he had, he might have formed a more positive view of the Special Squad. Far from the numbed, obedient servants of the Nazis that Levi describes, the prisoners who wrote the Scrolls were engaged in numerous resistance activities of which the writings themselves formed a vital part. Our research draws upon the Scrolls to challenge the kind of perspective offered by Levi and provide a more nuanced understanding of the lives and actions of the Sonderkommando. Some of the myths about the Sonderkommando perpetuated by Levi are also at work in Son of Saul, or at least in many critics’ responses to them.

 

Son of Saul follows the experiences of a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner who works as a member of the Sonderkommando. The film has been taken as a depiction of how the prisoners became deadened to all feeling. The face of the lead actor, Géza Röhrig, is often described as emotionally numb and traumatised. The shallow depth of field, which leaves the horrors taking place around him as hard-to-read blurs, has been interpreted as a symbol of Saul’s cutting himself off from his surroundings. But the film is actually deeply imbued with feeling in both technique and plot.

 

As with any thoughtful artistic approach, the technique Nemes adopts is open to being read in more than one way. Does the restriction of the focus range to an area about three feet in front of the camera suggest Saul’s need to blot out everything that is around him? Or is it the only way we as viewers could engage with him at a human level? Georges Didi-Huberman has pointed out some of the complicated effects achieved by this severe visual stricture: how it distorts the distances between objects, and never allows an image to settle into legibility. In a short book he wrote in response to the film, Sortir du noir (Out of darkness), he reads this ‘indistinctness’ as a ‘visual means of conveying fear’ (un véhicule visuel de peur). Nemes is also subtle enough not to adhere rigidly to the rules he has set himself. At times, the background does come into focus, as when Saul witnesses a child who has survived the gas chamber being killed by German doctors.

 

The Scrolls themselves suggest how not seeing may be an ethical position. One member of the Sonderkommando, Leyb Langfus, wrote how he refused to observe the last moments of a group of women forced into the gas chambers in order to avoid being co-opted for “murderous purposes” by the SS. The true witness to their fate seems to be a Sonderkommando man who bursts out crying, unable to control himself. In response, one of the women expresses wonderment that before her death she has lived to see “a man who feels.” Saul, too, is a man who feels, with all the dangers, responsibilities and absurdities that this state entails. Röhrig himself has said that Saul begins to feel when he sees the boy survive the gas chamber, albeit only to live for a few more minutes. Saul’s drive to give the child a burial is a way of thanking him for enabling him to feel, a goal pursued with a relentlessness that sometimes carries something of the rhythm of his forced labour in the Sonderkommando. The plot suggests the dangers of feeling. His actions endanger the revolt that is in preparation. He is ready to give up the location of the writings buried around the crematoria because of the strength of his emotions.

 

It is through its articulation and exploration of these feelings that Son of Saul comes closest to conveying something of the complex emotional dynamics of the Sonderkommando as they are communicated in the Scrolls. The ethical approach to testimony manifested in the film’s techniques is prefigured in the writings, which in the most horrendous of circumstances sometimes show a remarkable capacity for self-reflection in relation to the portrayal of atrocity. This self-reflection is, of course, also bound up with their feelings. Feelings of revulsion at the actions of the Nazis and of compassion for those murdered inform the form and content of the writings. For those familiar with the writings, the influence of these feelings can be clearly sensed in Son of Saul.

 

Read more about the Scrolls in Nicholas Chare & Dominic Williams’s new article at Slate!

 

Order a copy of Matters of Testimony: Interpreting the Scrolls of Auschwitz through our website in the next two weeks, and get 50% with the code CHA989!

 


 

Nicholas Chare is Associate Professor of Art History at the Université de Montréal. He is the author of Auschwitz and Afterimages: Abjection, Witnessing and Representation andAfter Francis Bacon: Synaesthesia and Sex in Paint, and the co-editor, with Dominic Williams, of Representing Auschwitz: At the Margins of Testimony.

 

Dominic Williams is a Montague Burton Fellow in Jewish Studies at the University of Leeds. He has published articles on modernism, the First World War, contemporary poetry and the Holocaust. In addition to co-editing Representing Auschwitz, he has co-edited, with Fabio A. Durão, Modernist Group Dynamics: The Politics and Poetics of Friendship.