Known for its theater, its Zinger in the Borscht Belt comedy chic and its rich literature, including the works of Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer, the title language of the veteran Israeli documentary filmmaker Nurith Aviv’s “Yiddish”, which was also used in the 20th century’s greatest avant-garde Poet. Yet some Jews, particularly in Israel, despised Yiddish – a mixture of German, Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic and Romance languages - because, as Aviv says in an introduction, it “symbolizes diaspora and death.”
But a lot of young people have embraced the language lately, and the film Aviv features seven of them, both Jewish and non-Jewish, in various locations including France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, and Poland.
This includes Tal Hever-Chybowski, a Jewish man from Jerusalem and now director of the Paris Yiddish Center. He was drawn to Yiddish from studying Hebrew. His favorite poet is Yehoyesh, who first translated the entire Bible into Yiddish, and he reads Yehoyesh’s sharp rendition of this ultimate ode to human futility, “preacher”.
A gentile woman from St. Petersburg who is now teaching and studying in Paris happened to learn Yiddish after asking her mother about the Holocaust. She took a language course and met her future husband, a French man. Their first common language was Yiddish. Her favorite poet is Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, an American modernist, and in keeping with the somber mood of Yehoyesh’s “Preacher” she recites his poem “Memento Mori”.
Some of the poets championed in the film were victims of the Holocaust or the Stalinist purges. Peretz Markish, known as the “Yiddish Rimbaud”, was shot with other Jewish writers in 1952 in a Stalinist massacre known as the Night of the Murdered Poets. Avrom Sutzkever’s mother and newborn son were murdered by the Nazis, but he and his wife fled the Vilna ghetto and joined the partisans who fought against the German occupation of Lithuania. His poem “In the forest” contains the Blakean line “In everything I meet a splinter / the infinity”. Debora Vogel writes in “A poem about eyes” that the title topic “fall[s] like drops of sweet renunciation / on streets, lanterns and bodies / of which nothing will ever come. “She was murdered in 1942 in the Lviv ghetto.
“Yiddish” is available for purchase on DVD from Icarus Films for $ 29.98. It can also be streamed on iTunes, OVID.tv and Vimeo.
Go to icarusfilms.com/if-yiddi.
Les Films Aleph
Described by Richard Brody by the New Yorker as “one of the peaks in film history” and considered the longest (566) if not the greatest documentary on the Holocaust (I’ll stick it out Alain Resnais’ 1955 Nights and Fog) minutes) , Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” (1985) is available again and digitally.
Unlike almost every other Holocaust documentary filmmaker, Lanzmann did without archival material and instead focused on the remains of the Holocaust. He traveled to 14 countries over the course of 12 years to record the free spaces where mass murders took place, the empty mazes of death camps, the rusted piles of freight trains, and the memories of survivors, witnesses, enablers, and perpetrators.
Among the interviewees is a survivor who worked as a boy in the Chełmno extermination camp in Poland, an empty field where the remains of the former structures protrude from the earth like relics of an archaeological site. He remembers his job unloading corpses from the gas vans and taking them to the ovens, where the flames “reached skyward”. The SS guards kept him alive because they liked to hear him sing Polish folk songs and Prussian military songs.
Another interviewee is a Polish man who drove transport trains to Treblinka. He remembers the cries of the freight cars, which he could barely hear over the sound of the locomotive and the terrible stench of burning flesh when he reached the extermination camp. Nevertheless, enriched with vodka, Lanzmann estimated that around 18,000 Jews were killed.
Also from Treblinka is an SS guard whose interview Lanzmann secretly recorded. He remembers his horror when he first arrived at the camp and saw the floor billow from the gases of crumbling corpses in mass graves. He then describes the process by which an entire trainload of prisoners could be dropped off in two or three hours.
Lanzmann made the film because he feared the Holocaust would disappear from memory. However, the recurring image of the train tracks suggests that history is deterministic and, even if remembered, repeats itself, a fear that current events do little to dispel it.
“Shoah” will be available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV +, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.
Go to www.ifcfilms.com/films/shoah.
Vietnam variety show
By 1971 the futility and waste of the Vietnam War had become apparent to most, including those who fought it. Bob Hope’s USO tours of military bases were becoming increasingly unpopular with the troops, so Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland decided to fill the void with their own tour, which is the theme of Francine Parker’s “FTA” (1972).
It’s a nifty direct cinema documentary that follows the troop as they rule soldiers at bases in Hawaii, the Philippines, Okinawa, and Japan. The title comes from the army motto “Fun, Travel and Adventure”, which the Prankster cast revised in “Free the Army” (and another less printable version). Many of the songs and skits come from underground newspapers published by the troops themselves. For more information on the military’s anti-war movement in Vietnam, see David Zeiger’s documentary “Sir! No sir! “
Sutherland, still wearing the wolf-like grin and cocky demeanor of Hawkeye Pierce from Robert Altman’s M * A * S * H (1970), steals the show along with folk singer Lee Chandler. However, behind-the-scenes encounters with the surprisingly outspoken soldiers are of the greatest interest as they express their views on war, racism and capitalism.
Scheduled for the week Fonda made her infamous visit to Hanoi. The film was withdrawn from distribution but recently restored with a new introduction by Fonda.
“FTA” can be streamed from March 5th via the Brattle Theater’s virtual projection room.
Go to bit.ly/3bckt0k.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.