I am a documentary junkie, and an avid enthusiast of knowing everything humanly possible about the Nazi era and regime. This intellectual pursuit is motivated to provide a witness to one of the most dramatic stories in human history. As a Polish person whose family members were personally murdered by the Nazis because of their upper level jobs in the Polish government at the time the Germans came marching through (my family members were also left-leaning, so death was inescapable) I have a duty to my dead family members to understand what happened before, during, and after their murders. As a person who has all the characteristics of what the Nazi regime came to label “Aryan” (blonde hair, blue eyes, tall stature, fair complexion), I have to understand the power of my appearance and what it means to look the way I look. That may sound superficial, but when your face matches the visual representation of what one of the most murderous regimes of the twentieth century considered ideal, you have to look at your appearance if you want to stop it’s disproportionate power that helped cause human suffering. Maybe I still sound conceited, it is not my intention.
A Film Unfinished (2010) by Yael Hersonski is a documentary which I found several years ago on netflix. It’s not there anymore, but youtube sometimes carries it and here is the link through Hulu:
A Film Unfinished explores a set of unnarated film reels that were taken by Nazi propagandists with unclear intentions. Some of the shots are staged, some are direct first-hand visual accounts of what happened in the Warsaw ghetto. Perhaps one of the most notorious pits of human hell before the hellholes that lead to the flames of death at Dachau and Auschwitz, the Warsaw ghetto was a surreal reality of fascist hatred. Confined to just over one square mile with nearly half a million people, the Warsaw ghetto bustled with activity of people who were trying to stay alive by any means necessary. Deference to extreme human agony was a necessary survival tactic, a comment one of the survivor’s show’s barely any emotion about.
Many people do not have adequate imaginative skills to imagine other people’s reality. This is seen when people make insensitive remarks about victims, either rape victims or the black victims of police violence, about what they “would have” had it been them at the hands of a violent assault. People are especially resistant to understanding why victims loose their power, or even give their power over to their abuser. People believe that if it was them, they would fight to the death.
The truth is, few of us fight to the death. Most of us are beaten to death. That is a logical decision for a human to make; instead of making rash, sudden actions in the face of danger, instead to conform to the restrictions of the danger and ride it out until it ends. Because theoretically, it could end. There were holocaust survivors. There are rape victim survivors who went through the darkest parts of human sadism and lived. There are victims of extreme police violence who endure until they are let free again. Except, sometimes, it doesn’t end. Sometimes people get beaten, or raped, or traumatized until they die, and no one wants to think that could be them.
A Film Unfinished shows us those people who were beaten to death by the hatred of the world. Adam Czerniakow, the head of the Nazi set up Jewish Warsaw Ghetto Council (or Judenrat in German). Like Hitler, he would not see the post Nazi German era because he swallowed a cyanide pill on July 23, 1942 after the Nazis carried out “Grossaktion Warsaw” or the total destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. Czerniakow is an extremely important historical figure in understanding the dynamic between power and victim hood, how victims attempt to keep power, and what happens when victims come to understand that they are loosing.
Czerniakow was by no means perfect. He was a complex figure with a problem more intricately poisonous than what many face at the worst of crises. But he did write complex narrative down. He did try to take on the impossible task of creating some way for Jewish persons to be a part of some sort of society. He knew he was fighting a loosing battle. But if not him personally, who else would have been the Judenrat and how would they have led it? Czerniakow is a historical character worth investigating for anyone wishing to read about the complexities of power and victim hood that can sometimes act simultaneously.
Willie Wist, the only German film propaganda crew member to be interviewed for the documentary, agrees that the “documentary” of the Warsaw ghetto has a political agenda, to show the extreme differences between the “rich Jews and the poor Jews”. The two groups were often shown next to one another, pitting deathly poverty against the last shred of humility and dignity a person could have held on to during that time.The effect is startling, sickening, and brutal. If to say anything at the time, the Nazis could have pointed to a number of negative stereotypes against Jewish people at the time. Looking at it now, it is a heartbreaking example of the depths the human mind has to survive.
No one owns the truth, but there are those who monopolize it. If we do not document our own reality, however mundane and otherwise boring we personally see it, we do not contribute to the human narrative. We cannot draw correlations between human behaviors or historical patterns. We cannot see that we and them, we are all not so different. When we document it, we can look at it and revel at how different we are, how different realities are constructed, how different people’s lives are.