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Survival Tactics

Yehuda Lerner escaped from eight Nazi camps in six months before he arrived at Sobibor, where he participated, at age 16, in the only successful death camp uprising of the Holocaust. In 1979, Claude Lanzmann interviewed Lerner, intending to make the story of the Sobibor insurrection part of his monumental Shoah. But because Lerner's story countered the prevailing belief that Jews went to the gas chambers without resistance, Lanzmann felt that it deserved a film of its own.

Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 P.M. (the title pinpoints the exact moment of the uprising) is a spare, formally ingenious, journalistically acute piece of filmmaking. Lanzmann cuts between interview material and contemporary footage, which follows the route Lerner traveled. Although the sites of various camps and ghettos have been prettified with parks, small museums, and discreet monuments, trains still rumble along the same tracks as when they carried Jews to their deaths, and flocks of screeching geese, gathered on the grounds of a former death camp, are reminders of how the Germans used them to camouflage the cries of the dying in the gas chamber. "Museums and monuments institute oblivion as much as remembrance," says Lanzmann in his grave, gravelly voice at the end of his introduction. "Let us now listen to Yehuda Lerner's living words."

Lanzmann's line of questioning allows Lerner to tell the extraordinary story of his survival while zeroing in on the circumstances that allowed a corps of 20 Jews to overcome their captors and force the immediate closing of a camp where 250,000 had been murdered. While there had been uprisings in the ghettos and isolated instances of resistance in the camps, the efficiency and bravery of the men who executed the Sobibor insurrection were without precedent. The leader, Alexander Petchersky, had been a career officer in the Soviet army and most of the group were Russian-Jewish POWs. Their military experience had prepared them for what Lanzmann describes as "a reappropriation of power and violence." Lerner had no training, but as he had already proved with his multiple escapes, he preferred fighting for his freedom to waiting for an inevitable death. In the chaos that followed the uprising, Lerner fled into the nearby forest, and, as in a fairy tale, lay down and fell asleep.

Living words: Lerner in Sobibor
photo: New Yorker Films
Living words: Lerner in Sobibor

Details

Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 P.M.
Written and directed by Claude Lanzmann
New Yorker
Lincoln Plaza
Opens October 12

Yana's Friends
Directed by Arik Kaplun
Written by Kaplun and Simon Vinokur
Friends of Film
Quad
Opens October 12

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