“These four women allow us to grasp the glowing core of what is most tragic and most noticeable in the human condition, and to me, this is more important than ever today.” – Claude Lanzmann
Shoah: The Four Sisters is a quartet of films compiled from Claude Lanzmann’s extensive collection of video testimonies conducted in the 1970s for Shoah. Produced by Synecdoche – Art France Production company, the docuseries was screened first at the 2017 New York film festival, then on French television, and then released in cinemas the day before Lanzmann’s death in July 2018, aged 92. Much like Sobibór, 14 october 1943, 4 p.m (2001), and The Last of the Unjust (2014), Shoah: The Four Sisters gives Lanzmann’s interviews a specific direction and focus. In this instance, he uses the narratives of four female Jewish survivors to give centre stage to the experiences of women in the Holocaust.
Spanning 237 minutes total running time, the series is separated into four sections, one per testimony, each featuring its own subtitle according to the content of the recording. Opening with ‘The Hippocratic Oath’, the viewer begins by hearing the experiences of Paula Biren, who was pregnant during her imprisonment at both Auschwitz-Birkenau and a subcamp of Buchenwald, where she was liberated. In ‘The Merry Flea’, Lanzmann moves to the remarkable testimony of Ada Lichtman, a Polish Jew who lost her entire family in the Holocaust, and who is one of the few female survivors of the Sobibór death camp. Following Lichtman’s account is that of Paula Biren in ‘Baluty’. Biren was a member of the Jewish women’s Police unit in the Łódź Ghetto in Poland before she was deported to Auschwitz. In the last of the testimonies, ‘Noah’s Ark’, Hanna Marton recalls being part of the infamous Hungarian transport which was headed for Auschwitz but, in agreement with SS Adolf Eichmann and Zionist leader Rudolf Kastner, was diverted to Bergen-Belsen and eventually, neutral Switzerland.
Shoah: The Four Sisters by Claude Lanzmann, Film Poster (Credit: Synecdoche Productions, Arte France, Eureka Entertainment, 2017 ©).
“I thought that death had to come along sooner or later. But we had, in some subconscious way, the desire to go on living. We wanted to see what the future would bring us…” - Ada Lichtman, The Merry Flea.
Ada Lichtman describing the dolls (Credit: Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem ©).
(Credit: Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of Shoah. Used by permission of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem. the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes' ©)
Ada Lichtman was a woman of exceptional character. Her role and presence in Sobibór as a ‘mother figure’ for the other women is often mentioned in the post-war testimonies of the survivors. In the camp, she met her future husband Itzhak Lichtman, who sits beside her throughout the duration of her interview. Lanzmann’s interest in her experiences partly stemmed from her witness testimony at the televised trial of Otto Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. Eichmann, a German-Austrian SS-Obersturmbannführer, was one of the organisers of the Holocaust—the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" in Nazi terminology – for which he was sentenced to death. In a mix of German and Yiddish, Lichtman begins her narrative with the German occupation of Poland in September 1939, ending in 1943 prior to the camp revolt.
Itzhak and Ada Lichtman, participants in the uprising in the Sobibór death camp. Photographed in Lodz on March 24, 1946 (Credit: Ghetto Fighters' House Museum ©).
Lanzmann, Lichtman and her husband sit in a small living space in their family home in Israel. She appears comfortable, unassuming, and calm, while Lanzmann lights a cigarette; the atmosphere is relaxed and informal. The conversation opens with Lichtman’s experiences in Kraków and Wieliczka, where she witnessed the round up and shooting of her father following the Nazi occupation of Poland. After begging for approval from the Mayor, she and other Jewish women received permission to retrieve the bodies of their loved ones to give them a proper burial. Lanzmann listens attentively, while the camera pans to Itzhak who holds his head in his hands, visibly upset by Lichtman’s painful recollections of persecution. We, as viewers, are in the moment too, as though we are also part of the conversation taking place in her apartment. There are no special effects, no cutting of scenes to archival footage or material. Only when the camera zooms into Lichtman’s face as she reaches an intense moment of the story do we feel our emotions are being somewhat manipulated by the camera. Lichtman leads the narrative and needs little guidance from Lanzmann to put herself and her audience back into these moments.
Lichtman describes, without anger or contempt, the mixed encounters she had with her Polish Christian neighbours before she was eventually sent to Sobibór. At times, she received help and acts of kindness. On other occasions, to quote Lichtman: “They provided help in making our lives hell”. She recalls one such encounter when she was carrying a box of her family photos, which a Pole took from her hand and threw away. In that moment, she felt as though she was watching her whole life fly away before her eyes. Newly married and separated from her family, Lichtman also lost her first husband, who was taken away and killed in a nearby work camp. She was completely alone. Another difficult part of Lichtman’s testimony concerns her transport to Sobibór. She refers openly to the shame she felt at being stripped nude and deloused in a mixed group of men and women. The SS guards even set up a gramophone and forced the prisoners to dance; Lichtman managed to hide during this particularly sadistic act. Such episodes of dehumanisation and humiliation are rarely described in the testimonies of male Holocaust survivors, and are fully neglected in Shoah.
Upon her arrival at Sobibór, Lichtman did not notice anything unusual about the camp, as Lanzmann is quick to ask her; only that the guards had rifles and whips. While she was standing on the camp platform, she was taken aside by SS Officer Gustav Wagner, who demanded to know her profession. When she replied that she had been a kindergarten teacher and apprentice, Wagner informed her: “Well, you should be able to do laundry, then”. Though she had arrived alone at Sobibór, she was allowed to select someone to work alongside her. In a particularly heart-wrenching moment of the film, Lichtman explains that she could not choose her friend from the transport, who had already been ushered into the main part of the camp, and then of course, to her death. Of the 7000 people on Lichtman’s transport, only she and two others survived. It did not take long for Lichtman to understand the purpose of Sobibór as a death camp. Another prisoner told her that he had witnessed bodies being buried in the part of the camp which held the gas chambers.
Accordingly, Lichtman reveals how she was forced to wash laundry for the Germans, and clean their living quarters in a farmhouse they called ‘The Merry Flea’:
Lichtman: It was a farmhouse where the Germans lived, the officers. The ones who ran the Sobibór Camp.
Lanzmann: Why the merry flea?
Lichtman: They had painted that on a sign. The Camp was infested with huge fleas. The place was filthy, no one did the laundry. People never washed, they lived like that. […] They had made a sign, and they were merry too. They liked to joke.
Throughout these moments, Itzhak sits in silence. He often moves his hands to his face, with an anguished expression: a silent witness. At one stage, Lanzmann seeks to engage with him about meeting Ada in Sobibór and his own tasks as a labourer. He replies in quiet, one-word answers, with a reluctance to elaborate on his own experiences. In this moment, the viewer can understand his muteness and his role as a kind of ‘secondary character’. He is present, both physically and emotionally, but he willingly and respectfully gives his wife her moment to speak. Though the camera continues to film him, his missing voice only “accentuates the gender reversal underlying the Lichtman material”, to quote film scholar Jennifer Cazenave.
For the duration of the interview, Lichtman sits behind a table full of children’s dolls, handling them as she speaks. She gently touches or engages with them throughout, though the presence of the dolls only becomes clear when Lanzmann moves to the subject of Sobibór. Until then, the viewer remains unaware of their meaning. This mise-en-scène [arrangement of the scenery and props] of Lichtman and her dolls finally comes into play when she describes a specifically harrowing task the SS had demanded of her. When new convoys of Jewish prisoners arrived, their clothes and other possessions were taken aside and sorted. This included the toys of the children. The dolls were then brought to Lichtman and her work unit, to fix up or sew clothes for, so the SS staff could then give them to their own daughters. She speaks softly, as she sews the dress of one of the dolls in front of her:
Lanzmann: The Germans took the dolls of Jewish children?
Lichtman: Yes, they took them as a treat for their own children. […} I dressed the dolls, I made pretty clothes and hats for them. I wasn’t the only one, other girls worked with me. There were a lot of young girls, there were Jewish girls with us. Among them there was a girl who I think was aged 10. Ruschka, Rita or Reiter..something like that. She was little but very pretty. She looked just like a doll herself. She had lovely black hair... She was always the first to take the dolls and she would play with them. She would hug them, like a child playing with dolls.
This moving sequence of Lichtman recalling the young girl’s love for the dolls, as she delicately handles those in front of her, is testament to the emotional devastation of the Holocaust, from which children were not exempt. More disturbing, is the fact that the plundered property of murdered Jews at Sobibór was taken and sent back into the Reich, for Germans to benefit and profit from. This sense of scene ‘recreation’ that Lanzmann has constructed for Lichtman also appeared in Shoah, with the testimony of Treblinka survivor Abraham Bomba who shaved the heads of prisoners. As Bomba gives his testimonial performance, he cuts the hair of a customer in a barber shop in Israel as he recalls his work in the camp. Thus, the presence of the dolls is both a literal and material reference to Lichtman’s experiences in Sobibór, bridging the gap between the past and the present and providing a sense of tangibility for the viewer as a secondary witness. As the interview closes, Lichtman sings a beautiful song of hope that she and others would sing in the camp, about the sun shining again. Both Lanzmann and Lichtman reflect:
Lichtman: We really had the hope that the sun would shine. And that we could return home.
Lanzmann: It's unbelievable, dressing dolls in a death camp.
Lichtmann: But everything is unbelievable. It’s unbelievable being in a death camp. And suffering all that.
Ada Lichtman and her husband Itzhak. Ada dresses the dolls as she speaks to Lanzmann (Credit: Screenshot taken from clip created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem ©).
“Even without a lot of cuts for time, each story is perfectly paced, and filled with little details that big-picture histories tend to miss, such as the remembered sounds and smells and textures of a place, or the look in the eye of a menacing or doomed person that the storyteller met briefly but remembered always. […] It's as if the filmmaker, the storyteller and the audience have fused to bear witness” - Matt Zoller Seitz, Review of Shoah: The Four Sisters, 2018
In the accompanying broadcaster’s note to Shoah: The Four Sisters, Fabrice Puchault (ARTE France) emphasised that we should understand Lanzmann’s later edits of footage from Shoah as something which gives meaning to his overall body of work, through which we can see his documentary efforts in their entirety, rather than as a simple addition to his filmography. In this sense, Shoah: The Four Sisters can be understood as being a missing piece of Lanzmann’s vision, at the forefront of which are the voices of women.
Though submerged together in the series as a kind of ‘sisterhood’, the radically different experiences of the female witnesses stand alone as being powerful and gripping testimonies, in a genre where the main voices have often been masculine. This is particularly prevalent in regard to Lanzmann’s interest in the prisoner uprising at Sobibór, as seen in Sobibór, 14 october 1943, 4 p.m. Certainly, Lanzmann has received criticism for this in the past. In his article ‘Four Sisters: Afterthought or After (Much Thought)?’, Professor Stuart Liebman addressed the issue of gender in Lanzmann’s work, referring also to the earlier observations made by Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer, who asked: why had he so exclusively focused on male survivors and marginalised the stories of women, who could speak with special urgency about their experiences during the Holocaust? One plausible explanation for this, asserts Liebman, could be Lanzmann’s desire to focus on the use of machinery and process of killing; the labour roles of which were predominantly assigned to men. Yet, in this decision, much of the intimate details of humanity and survival within the camps and ghettos was disregarded and, in particular, the heightened and specific dangers that women faced, including sexual violence. The all too brief appearances of female witnesses and blurring of gender distinction in Shoah created a kind of ‘dehumanisation’ of his witnesses which, according to Hirsch, followed a similar pattern to that of perpetrator attitudes. After the release of Shoah: The Four Sisters in 2018, Lanzmann reflected: “It was very difficult for me to go back there […] I do not know how to explain this. I did not know what to do with these interviews. Each of these deserved a film of their own. I met these women and I found each capable of providing testimonies that were unique and extraordinary. To have put them in Shoah would not have made any sense.”
Whether or not Lanzmann’s release of Shoah: The Four Sisters was a direct response to the criticism he had faced, it is clear he highly regarded these testimonies and their unique point of view. His admiration for the women’s strength, bravery, and ability to tell their stories with eloquence and poise becomes clear in the editing, as well as in his physical response and respectful questioning. By treating their testimonials separately, Lanzmann provides each of the women adequate time to recall their difficult and traumatic experiences. Concerning Ada Lichtman and her imprisonment at Sobibór, Lanzmann chose to focus on her role as a worker and her experiences with the SS guards, as opposed to her participation in the camp uprising, which remains the subject of her counterpart Yehuda Lerner in Sobibór, 14 october 1943, 4 p.m. In this decision, Lanzmann still assigns the experiences of the uprising to a male survivor, whilst asking Ada, who also participated in the escape, to address the more mundane domestic parts of their lives in the camp. In doing so, it could be argued that this perpetuates gender stereotypes of the Holocaust and Jewish resistance.
Overall, Lanzmann does succeed in highlighting the experiences of the women at Sobibór, while at the same time bringing into public consciousness some of the lesser known aspects of everyday life in the camp, which are often overlooked in favour of the more 'heroic' and male dominated escape narrative. The inclusion of the dolls in Lichtman’s testimony, for instance, provides a glimpse into the dehumanisation process as implemented by the SS, the notion of profiteering by the German Reich during the Holocaust, as well as the emotional turmoil of those who were asked to perform such heinous tasks. Lichtman’s heartbreaking story also reminds us that children were, indeed, a victim of Operation Reinhard. In this sense, Shoah: The Four Sisters can be understood as an important, individualistic representation of Sobibór, both as a functioning death camp and as a place of immense suffering for the survivors of the uprising.