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I somehow found myself reading Roger Ebert’s review of a 1985 movie called Shoah. It is a documentary movie that is 9 hours long (if you can call that a movie.) It is mostly about the filmmaker interviewing people who worked in Hitler’s Concentration Camps (or people who were in position of observing what happened)

The review includes some of the interviews, and reading that alone gave me the chill, and I can understand how powerful this movie is. As Mr. Ebert stated at the beginning of the review, he was struggling to find a proper response to this film. Nevertheless, I think he found one and included it at the end of his review:

But there is an even deeper message as well, and it is contained in the testimony of Filip Muller, the Jew who stood at the door of a crematorium and watched as the victims walked in to die. One day some of the victims, Czech Jews, began to sing. They sang two songs: “The Hatikvah” and the Czech national anthem. They affirmed that they were Jews and that they were Czechs. They denied Hitler, who would have them be one but not the other. Muller speaks:

That was happening to my countrymen, and I realized that my life had become meaningless. (His eyes fill with tears.) Why go on living? For what? So I went into the gas chamber with them, resolved to die. With them. Suddenly, some who recognized me came up to me. . . . A small group of women approached. They looked at me and said, right there in the gas chamber . . .

Q. You were inside the gas chamber?

A. Yes. One of them said: “So you want to die. But that’s senseless. Your death won’t give us back our lives. That’s no way. You must get out of here alive, you must bear witness to our suffering and to the injustice done to us.”

And that is the final message of this extraordinary film. It is not a documentary, not journalism, not propaganda, not political. It is an act of witness. In it, Claude Lanzmann (the filmmaker) celebrates the priceless gift that sets man apart from animals and makes us human, and gives us hope: the ability for one generation to tell the next what it has learned.

It just happened that (by chance) I was having a discussion with a friend earlier today on this question, what sets man apart from animals? I think what Mr. Ebert said is as good an answer as any… that priceless gift.

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