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Abraham Bomba, Barber of Treblinka
I have now seen the complete nine and one half hour documentary, Shoah, which purports to be "An Oral History of the Holocaust." It was produced, directed, narrated and is now being promoted by Claude Lanzmann. From the newspapers I gather that Lanzmann is an assimilated French Jew who speaks neither Hebrew nor Yiddish. He is presently 60 years old. He worked as a journalist for many years in association with Jean Paul Sartre and Les Temps Modernes until 1970, when he turned his attention to making movies.
That is, Claude Lanzmann worked for twenty-five years in the eye of the intellectual storms that swept across France following the end of World War II. As a journalist he certainly learned during those twenty-five years how to conduct professional interviews. He certainly learned, through his associations with Sartre, de Beauvior, Camus and those who criticized the great triad, how to pursue a train of thought, considering the high-powered company he kept. It's a real eye-opener then to watch Lanzmann reveal his intellectual corruption in scene after scene of this shoddy movie, which he claims took ten years to complete.
My favorite interview in Shoah is the one with Abraham Bomba, the Barber of Treblinka. I'm not alone in my fondness for Bomba either. Many critics have commented on his performance. They gave him rave reviews. George Will of ABC Television, for example, wrote in the Washington Post that Bomba's narrative was "the most stunning episode in this shattering film." Some alleged eyewitnesses to gas chamber horrors recount stories that are so lacking in credibility that they can be dismissed out of hand. Others repeat stories that cannot easily be shown to be false but reveal the characters of the tale-bearers to be so sniveling and shameless that one feels compromised by even listening to them. Bomba is becoming an important character in the Holocaust-survivor-eyewitness scenario in that he embodies much of both of these characteristics.
The way Bomba tells the story, he had been interned in Treblinka about four weeks when the Germans announced that they wanted some barbers for a special detail. Bomba volunteered, of course, then helped the SS identify 16 other Jewish barbers among the internees. They were all taken to the second part of the camp where the alleged gas chamber was. They were led inside the gas chambers where a Kapo (almost certainly a Jew) explained that the 17 barbers were to shear the hair from the women who would arrive to be gassed.
Here, Lanzmann asked Bomba about the greatest murder weapon of all time, the German homicidal "poison gas chamber."
How did it look, the gas chamber?
It was not a big room, around twelve feet by twelve feet.
And there you have it. Claude Lanzmann is finished with his in-depth investigation of how the Treblinka gas chamber looked. It takes all kinds. If I had been in Lanzamann's shoes I could have thought of a few more questions to ask about "how it looked." Particularly if I had some feelings about the stories that maybe a million of my kinsmen had been exterminated in it. Maybe I would have wanted to know what Bomba could tell me about what material the walls of the gas chamber were made of – what the roof was made of. How would Bomba describe the ventilation system? Where and how, exactly, did the "gas" enter the room? Maybe Bomba would have remembered if the room had been illuminated or not. If it had been, how? What were the doors made of? How did they seal so that the "gas" could not escape? As historians have not bothered to ask these simple questions, Lanzmann could have done their work for them and helped uncover one of the great mysteries of the 20th century – how the fabled Nazi gas chambers really looked. As to whether Bomba is being honest about having seen a gas chamber at Treblinka consider Rachel Auerbach's description of that gas chamber in her The Death Camp Treblinka. Auerbach is given a place of honor in this, the most comprehensive book published on the camp. As she was (she died in 1976) a permanent research staff member of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem, her description of the gas chamber should not be dismissed out of hand.
... The floor of the gas chamber was sloping and slippery. The first ones in would slip and fall, never to rise again. Those who followed would topple over them ... About 25 to 45 minutes later – [after the "gassing" began, that is] – the chutes on the other side could be opened and the corpses tumbled out."
It would seem that while he was being interviewed for Shoah Mr. Bomba forgot about how slippery the floor is supposed to have been in his little gas chamber. It seems he forgot how it slanted steeply in the direction of the chutes. As a matter of fact, Mr. Bomba forgot to mention the chutes. If Lanzmann had read the literature even superficially he would have been aware that Bomba was leaving a few things out of his story. As Lanzmann claims he worked for ten years on Shoah, I'm going to guess that Lanzmann is aware of Auerbach's description of the Treblinka "gas chamber".
In any event, once Lanzmann's curiosity was satisfied about how the gas chamber looked (not big), he wanted to know happened next.
Lanzmann: Can you describe precisely?
Describe precisely ... We were waiting there ... inside the gas chamber ... until the transport came in. Women with children pushed into that place ... They were undressed, naked, without clothes, without anything else – completely naked – because they come from the undressing barrack ... where they had undressed themselves.
What did you feel the first time you saw all those naked women?
I felt that accordingly I got to do what they ... [Germans] ... told me, to cut their hair ...
There you have in a nut shell how eye witnesses to the gas chamber atrocities typically describe their behavior. They did whatever the Germans or anyone else requested of them. When they received a request to help prepare their kinsmen – and even their own families as well as shall soon see – to be exterminated, or genocided or whatever, these fellows say they hopped right to it. I don't believe them, but that's the persona that they have chosen to project to the world at large. In the neighborhood where I grew up men who behaved like Bomba claims he behaved would have been spit on. In the upside-down world of Holocaust survivordom, however , the Abraham Bombas are seen as martyrs and even heroes. It's a peculiar psychological slant on manly behavior.
Lanzmann expresses a little more curiosity about how Bomba cut his ( for hasn't Bomba according to his own story become a working partner in the alleged genocide of his people?) victims hair than he did about how the gas chamber looked. He asked if Bomba had shaved them, if he had used scissors, and if there had not been mirrors available inside the gas chamber. Bomba said that he did not shave the women, and that the Germans had not provided the barbers with mirrors.
"There were no mirrors?"
"No, there were no mirrors. There were just benches – not chairs, just benches…
There's an interesting note. According to Bomba the Germans had provided benches inside the little gas chamber for the ladies and their children to sit on. We're not told how many benches. There could have been 17 individual ones, but more likely Bomba would have said – if Lanzmann had thought to ask him – that there were maybe four or five, half a dozen perhaps. Two or more ladies with their kids could have sat on each bench. No matter how you slice it, traffic is picking up. Seventeen barbers, the benches for 17, and now the 17 women and their kids are all there together inside the gas chamber, which is about the size of a small bedroom in the rear of an ordinary tract house – and the hair is flying. But we re not finished yet:
"You said there were about sixteen… [Lanzmann has forgotten that Bomba makes the seventeenth]… barbers? You cut the hair of how many women in a one batch?"
"In one day there was about, I would say, going into that place between sixty and seventy women in the same room at one time."
You might think that Claude Lanzmann is about to express some doubt about how Bomba is blocking out this scene for him. Sixty to seventy naked women in the 12-square-foot room. Lanzmann isn't going to express doubt, however, about anything told to him by a survivor. Lanzmann is a Holocaust fundamentalist. The role of the fundamentalist in any cult is to accept absolutely the testimony of those who claim to have been eyewitnesses to the original sacred event. Once the original story is made to fly, the most elegant minds can elaborate on it endlessly in good faith.
Lanzmann urged Bomba to say something more about how he felt as he went about preparing the women and their children to be exterminated. Something more perhaps than the homely: "I felt that accordingly I got to do what they told me, to cut their hair ..."
"I tell you something. To have a feeling about that… It was very hard to feel anything… your feelings disappeared, you were dead. You had no feeling at all.
This is a universal response by eyewitnesses to the alleged gas chamber murders. The claim Bomba makes that his feelings were "dead," that he had "no feeling at all," resembles the "temporary insanity" claim murderers use to diminish their responsibility for their behavior in the eye of the State. The ordinary murderer claims that his mental process was so diminished at the time he murdered that he was not responsible for his act. The eyewitness to the alleged gas chamber murders claims that his sensibilities were so diminished while he worked as a link in the murder process that he was not responsible for his behavior. The murderer was out of his "mind," while gas-chamber eyewitnesses ran out of "feeling." When Bomba describes himself as being inwardly "dead' he is saying that he cannot be judged guilty of being an accomplice to mass murder. He can accuse Germans of whatever he likes – participate in the crimes he accuses them of – yet remain forever innocent while Germans remain forever guilty. It's a nice set-up.
In the film Bomba goes on to illustrate how dead he was inwardly while working for the SS at reblinka. He describes how he shared the hair from women he knew personally from his home town, from his own street: "… and some of them were my close friends." They would ask Abe: "What's going to happen to us?" But Abe would hold his tongue. With Abe it was just snip, snip, snip. "What could you tell them?," he asks Lanzmann. "What could you tell?"
Snip, snip, snip.
Now Bomba relate to Lanzmann the story that reviewers have remarked on more than any other in Shoah.
A friend of mine worked as a barber – he was good barber in my hometown – when his wife and his sister came into the gas chamber… I can't. It's too horrible. Please.
"We have to do it. You know it."
(holding back tears) "I won't be able to do it."
(very quietly) "You have to do it. I know it's very hard. I know and I apologize."
(struggling) "Don't make me go on, please."
"Please. We must go on."
(unable to control tears, leaving the frame for a moment, returning) "I told you it's going to be very hard. They were taking that… [hair]… in bags and transporting it to Germany."
"Okay, go ahead. What was his answer when his wife and sister came?"
"They tried to talk to him and the husband of his sister. They could not tell him this was the last time they stay alive, because behind them was the German Nazis, SS, and they knew that if they said a word, not only the wife and the woman, who were dead already, but also they would share the same thing with them. In a way, they tried to do the best for them, with a second longer, a minute longer, just to hug them and kiss them, because they knew they would never see them again."
To tell the truth, this is my kind of story, simple and lurid. There is also some new information in it. In addition to the 60 to 70 women and their kids, and the barbers and the benches, there were also "SS men" inside the 12-foot by 12-foot gas chamber. We don't know how many, but as Bomba speaks in the plural he must mean that there were at least two. If Lanzmann had thought to ask him about it, Bomba might have said that there were 10 or 15 SS men in there. And then there is the welcome news that the SS would allow the Barbers to hug and kiss certain of the naked women inside the gas chamber. Bomba speaks only of married couples. Lanzmann might have asked perhaps how the SS were able to identify which of the naked women were married to which of the barbers. It must be doubtful that the naked women entered the gas chamber carrying their marriage certificates. Maybe the barbers had previously petitioned the SS to keep their own copies of their marriage certificates on the chance that just such a reunion as Bomba claims he witnessed would take place. On the other hand, maybe the SS men took the barber's word for who was married and who wasn't. If they did, it would betray a generosity of spirit that is not usually ascribed to the SS by Jewish survivors.
Imagine trying to visualize this scene from the wife's point of view. Try imagining what might have gone through her mind at the moment she spied her husband. The hope that must have jumped in her heart. Then what her thoughts were as her husband sheared off her heir without speaking to her. Imagine what she must have felt as he held her silently for a minute or so, his cheek pressed lovingly against her scalp, then turned with scissors and comb to the next patient lady waiting her turn. Did his wife run her fingers over her skull and think:
"Ah, I've always known what kind of man you are. A schmuck when I married you and a schmuck today."
There are a number of observations that can be made about my presentation of Lanzmann's presentation of Bomba's testimony. It could be observed that while Rachel Auerbach's research suggests that Bomba is inventing his gas chamber story out of whole cloth, it can still be claimed that we are left with Auerbach's scholarly outline of the alleged reblinka gas chambers. Therefore, while Bomba's investigations may destroy his own credibility as a witness, the Treblinka gas chamber story itself remains as it was, an extensively documented story of a weapon used to annihilate about a million Jews. To give you a quick fix on Ms. Auerbach's scholarly instincts and her even-handed objectivity, I will quote from her famous essay "In the Fields of Treblinka."
As I read such passages in Rachel Auerbach's essay I take the trouble to remind myself that after the war was she was "one of the first active members of the Jewish Historical Committee in Poland;" that after emigrating to Israel she became a "permanent research staff member of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum," and that this In-the-Fields-of-Treblinka essay was thought worthy of reprinting as recently as 1979 by The Holocaust Library, which was found and is managed by survivors themselves and is distributed by a major Jewish publishing house, Shocken Books.
Polish people still talk about the way soap was manufactured from the bodies of Jews. 'Sent away for soap!' was the expression the Poles would use when they spoke of transports to Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor. The discovery of Professor Spanner's soap factory in Langfuhr near Danzig proved that their suspicious had been well founded. Witnesses tell us that when the corpses were burned on pyres, pans would be placed beneath the racks to catch the fat as it ran off, but this has not been confirmed. But even if the Germans in Treblinka or at any of the other death factories failed to do this, and allowed so many tons of precious fat to go to waste, it could only have been an oversight on their part. They were fully capable of doing things like that. It was entirely in keeping with their proclivities. Only the newness of this branch of manufacturing was to blame for this omission. If the Germans ever would make another drive across Europe, they would not make this mistake again.
Professors Spanner's "soap factory" in Langfuhr near Danzing was apparently an invention of active members of self-proclaimed Jewish historical committees, based upon the entrepreneurial reports of professional slanderers, and has since been kept alive by research staffs at Jewish Holocaust memorials around the world. A photograph of this "factory," with no documentation, appears in the scholarly Encyclopedia Judacia, published in Israel and shelved in many of the larger libraries across the United States.
Polish Jews such as Rachel Auerbach witnessed Germans destroying their culture. They witnessed Germans tearing apart Jewish families during the titanic, brutal resettlement programs. Those Jews can be forgiven their credulity and even some of their hatred, expressed in their eagerness to believe every accusation made against Germans, no matter how corrupt. Americans, however, who suffered nothing of what European Jews suffered at the hands of Germans, have little right to indulge themselves with it. Which brings me to Mr. George Will, Washington Post columnist and ABC Television commentator. I am willing to accept Mr. Will's own assessment of himself. He is a brilliant and principled man. I disagree with some of his viewpoints, particularly with his obsessive-compulsive attachment to the state of Israel, but I can't show that attachment to be morally wrong. As luck would have it, Mr. Will has written a column about Shoah where he makes a remarkable observation.
The most stunning episode in this shattering film lasts about five minutes and involves 'only' the talk of a barber now in Israel. While he clips the hair of a customer he talks, never needing to raise his voice to be heard over the small sounds of a familiar ambiance. He describes his duties in Treblinka, cutting hair from naked women on the threshold of the gas chamber, and the day a fellow barber saw his wife and sister enter the room.
Remarkable, eh? Cutting hair from naked women on the "threshold" of the gas chamber. Do you see it? The threshold is the place directly below the door to a room. A door sill perhaps. An entrance or a doorway. According to Mr. Webster it is a "place or point of beginning." Taking Mr. Will's own obvious assessment of himself, he is the proud possessor of a formidably organized intellect. A man who always distinguishes carefully between similar but different points of fact. While doing so enrages those lesser men who cannot do it themselves, it gives Mr. Will a lot of pleasure, which is why he does it so regularly. That being so, what am I to make of the fact that Mr. Will has changed the wording of Mr. Bomba's testimony?
"Excuse me. How did it happen when the women came into the gas chamber? Were you yourself already in the gas chamber?"
"I said we were already in the gas chamber, waiting over there for the transport to come in. Inside the gas chamber – we were already in."
If Mr. Bomba swears that he was inside the gas chamber at that particular time, why does Mr. Will write that he barbed those naked women on the "threshold" of the gas chamber? Mr. Bomba can be seen on film saying that he was inside the gas chamber when he did it. In the text of the film published by Mr. Lanzmann, Mr. Bomba again insists he was inside the thing. What happened in Mr. Will's brain as he wrote "threshold" rather than "inside" or "in?" Is it possible that Mr. Will found Mr. Bomba's story ludicrous? He wouldn't want to say so publicly of course as Mr. Will is one of our brightest and best Holocaust fundamentalists. Nevertheless, having the kind of relentlessly rational mind that he does, something at the bottom of it might not have bought Mr. Bomba's story the way Mr. Will would have preferred to buy it. Maybe a single wire got crossed in the depths of Mr. Will's brain, out of the millions that are twisted around in there. Maybe Mr. Will wanted to express some doubt about Mr Bomba's story but could not bring himself to do it. He may have been in that peculiar place where writers sometimes find themselves – where they are smart enough to know that something needs to be said but haven't got enough character to go ahead and say it. When this happens it causes a psychological malfunction described cravenly as writer's block; he's got the habit of full production, but if he wasn't to spill the beans he had to turn somewhere. He turned to invention. I supposed in the moment it was easy enough for a man wired the way Mr. Will is wired to invent a threshold image and use it to replace the one Mr. Bomba invented. You can judge how more intelligent Mr. Will is than Mr. Bomba when you compare the rationality of the two opposing visualizations.
Now that Mr. Will had Mr. Bomba on the "threshold" of the gas chamber rather than "inside" it, Mr. Will could go on indulging his fantasy about Mr. Lanzmann's Shoah. As the "threshold" to an exterior door not only leads inside, but turning about, leads to the great outdoors and indeed to the rest of the planet surface, there would be enough space out there for Mr. Bomba's barbers to ply their trade comfortably for the SS, and for all the naked ladies Mr. Bomba and Mr. Will together can conjure up. Mr. Will can indulge his other fantasy as well – that no serious criticism can be made of the testimony of any of that handful of alleged eyewitnesses who claim to have actually seen a "poison gas chamber." In this scenario, as the eyewitness testimony is not allowed to be challenged, the genocide theory can't be challenged either, and if that is so, then European Jews had every right to conquer Palestine and the U.S. Govemment is morally obligated to protect forever the state of Israel. That's the line of thought programmed into the American citizenry. Mr. Will's threshold caper is a small example of how Holocaust Fundamentalists use invention on the one hand and suppression and censorship on the other to bolster U.S. foreign polcies and cover up hypocrisies and ethnic chauvinism of the largest part of organized Jewry here and abroad.
What could be plainer than that the world-wide Jewish community is being betrayed by this nonsense? Jews are being betrayed by their own leadership, and they're being betrayed by Gentiles like Mr. Will who profess to be friends and allies of the Jewish community but who in reality are merely allies of a disasterous Zionist leadership trapped within its own rhetoric, too ashamed to reveal the immense fraud upon which so much of its influence has been built.
|||Kapo: German for "trustee".|
|||Shoah: An Oral History of the Holocaust, by Claude Lanzmann. Pantheon Books. New York, 1985. Unless otherwise noted, all the passages quoted in this article are from the Pantheon Books edition, pages 111-117.|
|||The Death Camp Treblinka, Ed. by Alexander Donat, Holocaust Library (New York, 1979). See Rachael Auerbach's contribution, In The Fields of Treblinka.|
|||The parenthetical descriptions of Bomba's reactions here are not in the published text. I have added them from memory. While I watched the film I could not help but be touched by Bomba's sincere distress. His tears brought tears to my own eyes. At the same time I was aware of what a laugh I thought his story is. A nice irony for the psychotherapists.|
|||The Washington Post (Nov 15, 1985)|
Additional information about this document
|Author(s)||Bradley R. Smith|
|Title||Abraham Bomba, Barber of Treblinka, Excerpt from Chapter 11 of "Confessions of a Holocaust Revisionist"|
|Sources||The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 7, no. 2 (summer 1986), pp. 244-253|
|Dates||published: 1986-07-01, first posted on CODOH: Nov. 9, 2012, 6 p.m., last revision: n/a|