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Excerpt 3 from Shoah

Excerpt from Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (1985).  Interview with Abraham Bomba.  Pages 111-17 of the text (Shoah: An Oral History of the Holocaust [New York: Pantheon, 1985]).

In this sequence the director Claude Lanzmann interviews Abraham Bomba in a barbershop in Israel.  In a seminar at Yale University in April 1990, the transcript of which was published in Yale French Studies (79 [Nov. 1990]: 82-99), Lanzmann explained how he set up this scene:

Here is the text of this scene.  Lanzmann's words are in italics.  Slash marks (/) show where the page breaks are.  This excerpt starts on page 111 and ends on page 117:


/111 How did it happen?  How were you chosen?

There came an order from the Germans to take out the barbers they could get--they need them for a certain job.  The job they were needed for we didn't know at that time, but we got together as many barbers as we could.

How long did it happen after your arrival in Treblinka?

This was about four weeks after I was in Treblinka.  It was in the morning, around ten o'clock, when a transport came to Treblinka and the women went into the gas chambers.  They /112 chose some people from the working people over there, and they asked who was a barber, who was not a barber.  I was a barber for quite a number of years, and some of them knew me--people from Czestochowa and other places.  So naturally, they chose me and I selected some more barbers who I knew, and we got together.

Professional barbers?

Yes.  We got together and were waiting for the order.  And the order came to go with them, with the Germans.  They took us in to the gas chamber, to the second part of the camp in Treblinka.  It was not too far from the first part, and it was all covered with gates, barberd wire and trees covering the gates so that nobody should see there is a gate, or a place going into the gas chamber.

Is that what the Germans call the Shlauch--the "funnel"?

No, the Germans called this the "Road to Heaven"--Himmelweg.  And we knew about it because we worked for quite a time before going to work in the gas chambers.  Going in over there, they put in some benches where the women could sit and not get the idea that this is their last way or the last time they are going to live or breathe or know what is going on.

How long did the barbers cut the hair inside the gas chamber, as that was not always the case?

We worked inside the gas chamber for about a week or ten days.  After that they decided that we will cut their hair in the undressing barrack.

How did it look, the gas chamber?

/113 It was not a big room, around twelve feet by twelve feet.  But in that room they pushed in a lot of women, almost one on top of another.  But like I mentioned before, when we came in, we didn't know what we were going to do.  And then one of the kapos came in and said:  "barbers, you have to do a job to make all those women coming in believe that they are just taking a kaircut and going in to ttake a shower, and from there they go out from this place."  We know already that there is no way of going out from this room, because this room was the last place they went in a live, and they will never go out alive again.

Can you describe precisely?

Describe precisely . . . .We were waiting there until the transport cam in.  Women with children pushed in to that place.  /114 We the barbers started to cut their hair, and some of them--I would say all of them--some of them knew already what was going to happen to them.  We tried to do the best we could--to be the most human we could.

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.

And suddenly you saw the women coming?

Yes, they came in.

How were they?

They were undressed, naked, without clothes, without anything else--completely naked. All the women and all the children, because they came from the undressing barrack--the barrack before going into the gas chamber--where they had undressed themselves.

What did you feel the first time you saw all these naked women?

I felt that accordingly I got to do what they told me, to cut their hair in a way that it looked like the barber was doing his job for a woman, and I set out to give them both, to take off as much hair as I could, because they needed women's hair to be transported to Germany?

Did you shave them?

/115 No, we didn't.  We just cut their hair and made them believe they were getting a nice haircut.

You cut with what--with scissors?

Yes, with scissors and comb, without any clippers.  Just like a man's haircut, I would say.  Not a boy, to take off all their hair, but just to have the imagination that they're getting a nice haircut.

There were no mirrors?

No, there were no mirrors.  There were just benches--not chairs, just benches--where we worked, about sixteen or seventeen barbers, and we had a lot of women in.  Every haircut took about two minutes, no more than that because there were a lot of women to come in and get rid of their hair.

Can you imitate how you did it?

How we did it--cut as fast as we could.  We were quite a number of us professional barbers, and thie way we did it, we just did this and this and we cut this like this here and this side and this side and the hair was all finished.  With big movements, naturally, because we did not waste any time.  The other party was waiting already outside to do the same thing, the same job.

You said there were about sixteen barbers?  You cut the air of how many women in 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.  After we were finished with this party, another party /116 came in, and there were about 140, 150 women.  They were all already taken care of, and they told us to leave the gas chamber for a few minutes, about five minutes, when they put in the gas and choked them to death.

Where did you wait?

We waited outside the gas chamber and on the other side.  On this side the women went in and on the other side was a group of working people who took out the dead bodies--some of them were not exactly dead.  They took them out, and in two minutes--in one minutes--everything was clear.  It was clean to take in the other party of women and do the same thing they did to the first one.  Most of them had long hair--some had short hair.  What we had to so was chop off the hair; like I mentioned, the Germans needed the hair for their purposes.

But I asked you and you didn't answer.  What was your impression the first time, you saw these naked women arriving with children?  What did you feel?

I tell you something.  To have a feeling about that . . .  it was very hard to feel anything, because working there day and night between dead people, between bodies, your feelings disappeared, you were dead.  You had no feeling at all. As a matter of fact, I want to tell you something that happened.  At the gas chamber when I was chosen to work there as a barber, some of the women that came in on a transport from my town of Czestochowa, I knew a lot of them.  I knew them; I lived with them in my town.  I lived with them in my street, and some of them were my close friends.  And when they saw me, they started asking me, Abe this and Abe that--"  What's going to happen to us?  What could you tell them?  What could you tell them?

/117 A friend of mine worked as a barber--he was a good barber in my hometown--when his wife and his sister came into the gas chamber . . . .  I can't.  It's too horrible.  Please.

[pause of about 90 seconds.]

We have to do it.  You know it.

I won't be able to do it.

You have to do it.  I know it's very hard.  I know and I apologize.

Don't make me go on please.

Please.  We must go on.  [By now, about 2½ minutes have elapsed since Bomba stopped; Bomba struggles to regain control for another two or three minutes.]

I told you today it's going to be very hard.  They were taking that in bags and transporting it to Germany.  [Bomba finally gestures that he's ready to continue.]

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 them this was the last time they stay alive, because behind them was the German Nazis, SS men, and they knew that if they said a word, not only the wife and the woman, who were dead already [i.e., as good as 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. 


Questions for your journal or the computer forum:  What is your initial reaction to this segment of the film?  What do you think of the way t