Monique Mogyoros
Lower Merion

Footsteps of Genocide

Buchenwald survivors arrive in Haifa, July 15, 1945. (public domain)
Buchenwald survivors arrive in Haifa, July 15, 1945. (public domain)

Herman Kempinsky (later changed his name to Zeiring) refused to face the camera when he gave his Holocaust testimony to Claude Lanzmann, the French filmmaker best known for his nine-and-a-half-hour film Shoah, a film of oral Holocaust testimony by survivors and perpetrators. Lanzmann spent 12 years creating Shoah, pushing the witnesses to relive their trauma and preserve their words as an “incarnation of truth.” Yet interestingly, Kempinsky’s interview was not shown in the film Shoah but is among the thousands of hours of outtakes that Lanzmann did not use. Kempinsky, at Lanzmann’s urging, describes his traumatic experience during the Holocaust. The detailing of the depravity and torture that Kempinsky endured seems endless. Shot at by police, chased by dogs, attacked by the Hitler youth, commanded to watch hangings, and forced to stand in front of the Polish police station daily and repeat, “I am the Jewish pig Herman Israel Kempinsky.” Unfortunately, these heinous details are not unique to Kempinsky’s experience.

What is noticeable about Kempinsky’s interview is the atypical cinematic framing of the interviewee. As Kempinsky speaks, his back is to the camera. Most shots are at an angle, mainly showing the back of Kempinsky’s head, his broad shoulders and knitted Kippah overwhelming the screen. This is an odd vantage point for an audience to listen to the testimony of a Holocaust survivor, as facial expressions allow us to better identify with the witnesses and absorb their emotions. Yet, when one of our senses is blocked, the other is sharpened. While unable to see Kempinsky’s face, we are forced to concentrate on his words and subtle inflections of speech. It is not until the end of the interview that Lanzmann asks Kempinsky why he would not face the camera. Kempinsky answers, “God, it is really not important. I do not think a face is important. I think the thing that is important here, if we can give the world a message, what has happened we shall never forget, that people can do the most cruel things in life which no one can believe in his wildest dreams…” Do not look at me, Kempinsky is saying; It will be distracting. Listen, listen to the evil. Know what evil is. Man is capable of evil. Watch for evil; it doesn’t always look the same. Listen for it.

What happened on October 7th is not another Holocaust. Israel will not allow that. But if you listen carefully, you can hear the footsteps of genocide. On October 7th, evil, incarnated as Hamas, rose from the ashes of the Jew’s past tragedies and reared its ugly, depraved head in a way we have not seen since the Holocaust. They infiltrated Israeli kibbutzim and communities along the Gaza border, butchering Israelis in their homes, beheading babies, raping women, and dragging 220 hostages into Gaza. The players and the uniforms may differ, but evil against the Jews has resurfaced. It is a historic evil, echoing  millennium of tragedy, awakening in the Jewish people generational memories of sorrow and fear. It is an evil with great precedent and brings with it the intelligence of previous accomplices. Crafty and cunning, darting in and out of humanity and between the atrocities it commits, this evil hides in the shadows, meandering between civilians, manipulating the media and headlines in major news outlets, and collecting likes on TikTok and Instagram. It infiltrates our universities, sends rockets from schools and hospitals, hijacks words like “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes,” and releases a trickle of hostages, so we believe it is human.

Western World, sharpen your senses! This evil has been here before. We only need to look carefully and see Hamas’s partners.  The Nazis, Isis, and Al- Qaeda  are influencing, whispering in their ears. Watch for this bait and switch. Remove the blindfold of propaganda and the tantalizing buzzwords of dehumanization, apartheid, and occupation. These words are meant to manipulate the intelligent and confuse the uneducated. We must move fast. Hamas’s evil is spreading, becoming an inferno in the Middle East. Left unchecked, destructive, and chaotic, it will spread, ravaging our democracies.

As Israel invades Gaza, I implore you to listen carefully. Hamas calls for the total destruction of Israel. Hamas’s charter forbids and rejects any peace settlements and proclaims that the only answer is Jihad. On the other hand, Israel is a nation built on thousands of years of suffering, with endless enemies, yet its army forges ahead, adamant to uphold a moral code of war. War is terrible and avoided at all costs. But like fire is sometimes used to put out a raging forest fire, war is sometimes necessary to prevent a greater, more catastrophic tragedy. We cannot call a war evil when it is battling evil. We must call it compulsory, and even though war and terrorism may have similar components, beware of not seeing the differences.

The last few weeks have challenged the world to recognize evil and rally behind its demise. History is shouting at us from the past. How will the future judge us? The survivors of the greatest evil in the modern day, the Holocaust, are sending the world a message. Look what man is capable of. Do not look at our faces and believe it can only happen to us. It can happen again, and it will because, as Kempinsky said, “people can do the most cruel things in life that no one can believe in his wildest dreams..” I hope that in the coming weeks, the Western world will listen carefully in the fog of war and have the same clarity that they had in World War II to recognize their enemies and as they watch the battlefield from the comfort and safety of their homes be able to differentiate between good and evil.

About the Author
Monique lives in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, with her family. She has a Masters of Holocaust Studies from the Yeshiva University Emil. A and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and a JD from the University of Pennsylvania.