‘Shoah: Four Sisters’ Review: Harrowing Tales of Survival in the Holocaust

Posted November 13, 2018 5:15 p.m. EST

Claude Lanzmann, who died at 92 in July, returned to material shot for his landmark film “Shoah” (1985) several times, most recently in the riveting documentary “The Last of the Unjust” (2014).

“Shoah: Four Sisters” — screened at last year’s New York Film Festival, before Lanzmann’s death — consists of four short features taken from interviews he shot for “Shoah” in the 1970s, each showcasing the testimony of a different female Holocaust survivor.Their stories are as harrowing, complicated and rife with imponderables as any Lanzmann filmed. And together, collected in a form that is much less labyrinthine than “Shoah,” they represent an ideal introduction (and capstone) to Lanzmann’s project.

While the installments can be watched independently, they have a cumulative power. Their points of confluence — the deaths of family members, improbable escapes, the hardship of life in ghettos and camps — underscore the horror and, at times, the grim absurdity of surviving extermination.

The subject of the segment “The Merry Flea,” Ada Lichtman, from Poland, recalls how she was forced to clean dolls taken from Jewish children to prepare them for Germans to give to their own offspring. “It’s unbelievable, dressing dolls in a death camp,” Lanzmann says to her. “But everything is unbelievable,” she replies. “It’s unbelievable being in a death camp.”

In “The Hippocratic Oath,” Ruth Elias, born in Czechoslovakia, recalls a journey that took her from the Theresienstadt camp to Auschwitz — where, at eight months pregnant, she barely slipped through selection — to Hamburg and again to Auschwitz, where her return was greeted as a sensation. (No one ever came back.) She soon gave birth with Josef Mengele dictating what would happen to her and her baby.

Elias (one of two women here who also appears in “Shoah”) repeatedly speaks of luck and instinct, of choices that could have gone the other way. But for her, even living came with an unspeakable toll: Her descriptions of the birth and what followed are among the most upsetting of the anthology.

Chance also hovers heavily over “Noah’s Ark,” in which Hanna Marton, often consulting her husband’s diary from 1944, remembers being part of a convoy of Hungarian Jews saved by Rezso Kasztner. Kasztner negotiated with Adolf Eichmann to secure safe passage for almost 1,700 Jews. After the war, he was both branded a collaborator and criticized for not warning others.

Lanzmann, always interested in how survivors processed the moment they were living through (and the extent to which they knew of events elsewhere in Europe), presses Marton on how she felt about being part of Kasztner’s elite. Marton says her husband was a fatalist — he had already survived serving in the Hungarian army, in which Jews were used as human mine detectors — and accepted their luck. Marton herself is conflicted about having known that not everyone would be saved, but emphasizes that she owes her life to what Kasztner did.

Special advantages also figure prominently in “Baluty,” which like the other segments, emerges as a meditation on survivor’s guilt. Paula Biren, who is from Poland, shares memories of attending a special high school within the Lodz ghetto and working for a Jewish women’s police force there, including one night in which she helped take in a peddler for likely deportation.

Did she have a choice but to take part in the ghetto machinery? She has wrestled with that question for years. But Biren shares Lanzmann’s concern for the ethics of bearing witness. (At one point, she declines to respond to a query, saying, “That’s for other people to say.”) And having once felt “very strongly Jewish and very strongly Polish,” she suggests that she has lost her identity, having felt banned from Poland twice — first by the Germans and then by the Poles. She has even forgotten some Polish, her first language.

But thanks to this unforgettable quartet of films, she is not silent.

Production notes:

‘Shoah: Four Sisters’

Not rated. In French, German, English and Hebrew, with English subtitles. Running time: 4 hours 33 minutes.