Known for its theater, its zingers in Borscht Belt comedy schtick, and its rich literature, including the works of Nobel Prize-winning Isaac Bashevis Singer, the title language of veteran Israeli documentarian Nurith Aviv’s “Yiddish” also used by some of the 20th century’s greatest avant-garde poets. Nonetheless, some Jews, especially in Israel, have disdained Yiddish – a hybrid of German, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Slavic and Romance languages -- because, as Aviv says in an introduction – it “symbolizes diaspora and death.”
But many young people of late have embraced the language, and in the film Aviv profiles seven of these, both Jewish and non-Jewish, in various locations, including France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania and Poland.
They include Tal Hever-Chybowski, a Jewish man from Jerusalem and now director of the Paris Yiddish Center. He was drawn to Yiddish by his study of Hebrew, His favorite poet is Yehoyesh, who was the first to translate the entire Bible into Yiddish, and he reads Yehoyesh’s stark rendition of that ultimate ode to human futility, “Ecclesiastes.”
A gentile woman from St. Petersburg, now teaching and studying in Paris, learned about Yiddish by chance after she had asked her mother about the Holocaust. She took a class in the language and met her future husband, a Frenchman, so their first mutual language was Yiddish. Her favorite poet is Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, an American modernist, and in keeping with the somber mood set by Yehoyesh’s “Ecclesiastes,” she recites his poem “Memento Mori.”
Some of the poets championed in the film were victims of the Holocaust or of Stalinist purges. Peretz Markish, who is described as the “Yiddish Rimbaud,” was shot in 1952 with other Jewish writers in a Stalinist massacre known as the Night of the Murdered Poets. Avrom Sutzkever’s mother and newborn son were murdered by Nazis but he and his wife escaped the Vilna Ghetto and joined the partisans fighting the German occupation of Lithuania. His poem “In the Forest” includes the Blakean line, “In everything I encounter a sliver/Of Infinity.” Debora Vogel writes in “A Poem About Eyes” that the title subject “fall[s] like drops of sweet renunciation/upon streets, lanterns and bodies/of which nothing will ever come.” She was murdered in the Lemberg ghetto, in 1942.
“Yiddish” can be purchased as a DVD from Icarus Films for $29.98. It can also be streamed on iTunes, OVID.tv, and Vimeo.
Described by The New Yorker’s Richard Brody as “one of the summits of cinematic history” and regarded as, if not the greatest documentary about the Holocaust (I’ll hold out for Alain Resnais’s 1955 “Night and Fog”) then the longest (566 minutes), Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” (1985) is again available to own and to digitally.
Unlike almost every other Holocaust documentary filmmaker, Lanzmann eschewed archival footage and instead focused on the vestiges of the Holocaust that still remained, travelling to 14 countries over the course of 12 years to record the vacant spaces where mass killings took place, the empty labyrinths of death camps, the rusted hulks of freight trains, and the memories of survivors, witnesses, enablers, and perpetrators.
Among those interviewed are a survivor who as a boy worked at the Chełmno extermination camp in Poland, now an empty field in which remnants of the former structures poke out of the earth like relics in an archaeological site. He recalls his work unloading corpses from the gas vans and taking them to the furnaces where the flames “reached to the sky.” The SS guards kept him alive because they enjoyed hearing him sing Polish folk songs and Prussian military tunes.
Another person interviewed is a Polish man who drove transport trains to Treblinka. He recalls the screams from the boxcars he could barely hear over the noise of the locomotive and the horrible stench of burning flesh when he reached the death camp. Nonetheless, fortified by vodka, he managed to help convey, by Lanzmann’s estimate, some 18,000 Jews to their deaths.
Also from Treblinka is an SS guard whose interview Lanzmann recorded secretly. He remembers his horror when he first arrived at the camp and saw the ground undulating from the gasses of decomposing corpses in mass graves. He then describes the process by which a whole trainload of prisoners could be dispatched in two or three hours.
Lanzmann made the film because he was afraid that the Holocaust was fading from memory. But the recurring image of train tracks suggest that history is deterministic and even when remembered will be repeated, a fear that current events do little to dispel.
“Shoah” will be available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube.
Go to www.ifcfilms.com/films/shoah.
By 1971 the futility and waste of the Vietnam War had become obvious to most, including those fighting it. Bob Hope’s USO tours of military bases were growing unpopular with the troops, so Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland decided to fill the gap with a tour of their own, which is the title subject of Francine Parker’s “F.T.A.” (1972).
It’s a skilled, direct-cinema documentary that follows the troupe as they regale servicemen at bases in Hawaii, the Philippines, Okinawa, and Japan. The title is taken from the Army’s “Fun, Travel, and Adventure” motto which the prankster performers have revised to “Free the Army” (and another less printable version). Many of the songs and skits are taken from underground newspapers put out by the troops themselves. For more about the anti-war movement in the military during Vietnam, check out David Zeiger’s 2005 documentary “Sir! No Sir!”
Sutherland, still bearing the wolfish grin and cocky attitude of Hawkeye Pierce from Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970), steals the show, along with folk singer Lee Chandler. But behind-the-scenes encounters with the surprisingly outspoken soldiers prove of most interest as they express their opinions about the war, racism, and capitalism.
Scheduled to come out the week Fonda made her infamous visit to Hanoi, the film was pulled from distribution but has recently been restored with a new introduction by Fonda.
“F.T.A.” can be streamed beginning March 5 via the Brattle Theatre’s its virtual screening room.
Go to bit.ly/3bckt0k.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.