The Silence of Abraham Bomba

Images of a hair salon. Opposing mirrors multiply these images, the chairs, the men waiting in back, the barbers busy, on their feet, great white aprons knotted around their customers' necks. Over these images, Abraham Bomba's voice.

He was selected to be part of the Sonderkommando when he arrived at Treblinka. A barber by profession, he was chosen, with others, four weeks after the first selection, to cut women's hair before these women were gassed. For a week or ten days, they had to work inside the gas chamber itself, before it was decided that they would cut hair in the undressing barrack.

Claude Lanzmann, the director of the film Shoah, made him revisit that first week.

Here we are, inside the gas chamber.

Lanzmann found Abraham Bomba in retirement, in Israel. He rented a hair salon to film his face and voice. Abraham Bomba grips his scissors and pursues his work about a man's gray-haired head. Guided by Lanzmann's meticulous questions, he tells his story. He reaches the part when the women and children enter, completely naked.

What did you feel the first time you saw all these naked women coming?1

But Bomba doesn't answer the question. He keeps describing, in detail, how the barbers cut the hair, what instruments they used, what the gas chamber was like, where the women sat, how many women in each batch…Several minutes later, Lanzmann comes back to the question that the witness brushed aside:

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 feeling 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.

Did you know 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? A friend of mine worked as a barber— he was a good barber in my hometown—

 

when his wife and sister came into the gas chamber…2

His voice broke.

The voice was broken.

He's stopped speaking. He's taken a step back. He's crying. He wipes his eyes.

"I tell you something," he said. No, it cannot be told. Not from any made-up impossibility, not because language has theoretical limits, not because what must be said seems, when considered, beyond the reach of words. Not at all. What's unspeakable here is, as in the rest of the film, extremely concrete: it is he, Abraham Bomba—the Abe his friends from Czestochowa recognized, the friend of the man who was reunited with his wife and sister inside a Treblinka gas chamber—he is the one who cannot speak. He is the one who was forced to silence. He is the one who collapses when he has no more words, nothing to convey what he's lived through: "What could you tell them? What could you tell?" This is silence, faced with extremity: Abraham Bomba's broken voice. Yet no one can speak in his stead. His solitude is endless. When he spoke before, his voice—cold, mechanical distant—was already informing us: this man has gone beyond all solitude. But he has gone even farther, he's walked through the ring of fire, he's relived his actions as the barber of Treblinka, the piles of bodies, the terror, the faces, the voices. And he stopped talking: he was reunited with his inner silence. That memory is beyond reach.

He is quiet now, before us. We are quiet with him. Imagination runs riot, nothing reins it in, not a word from Abraham Bomba or Lanzmann. Or from me, all I can do is keep staring at this face and writing to say that this silence continues, it establishes itself on screen and in the world, it is here. It always will be.

Yes, this is the place.

Here I am. Here we are.

The eye of the camera keeps watching. More silence. The snip-snip of the scissors, his hand passing once, again, over the gray hairs he's cutting. But not a word. The silence is long. Very long. Abe circles the man's head in a hair salon in Israel—the countless heads of Jewish women from Czestochowa in the gas chamber at Treblinka—we see him from behind, from the front, he does his job, says nothing, and continues to say nothing.

Why doesn't the film end here? Why not? What sense could there be in trying to go further? Further towards what?

Out of the question: Lanzmann does not espouse silence. He films it. He gives it form. He reveals it. He is its guardian. He frames it and keeps it at the epicenter of cinema. He passes it on. He incontestably declares: one sole witness is enough. But there is a contract, and Abraham Bomba knows it. I know it, right here, right now, in my fear. This is the contract with Bomba, with me: the telling of this impossible memory will not stop. Lanzmann:

Go on, Abe. You must go on. You have to.

Trapped and aware of it, Abe makes one more round of the man's head, his sharpened scissors in hand, his gaze fixed on the gray hairs. For a fleeting moment I thought he looked right at the camera and into my eyes. He's a trapped man, trying to escape:

It's too horrible…

But Lanzmann reminds him of the contract:

We have to do it. You know it.

Abe tries to defend himself one more time. From whom? Lanzmann? From me, listening in the dark? From his own voice? From memory? Silence, silence… He insists:

I won't be able to do it.

That's when I realized Lanzmann—a voice offscreen the whole time, without a visible source—is speaking to him with infinite tenderness. He caresses the man with his voice:

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.

I told you today it's going to be very hard.

At this moment Abraham Bomba takes a few steps to the side, forcing the camera to follow him; he comes toward us, to the left of the frame, no longer circling the man's head, no longer speaking to us in the mechanical voice from before: his tone takes on confidence and he addresses Lanzmann directly—addresses me, still trying myself to force him to speak since here I am, my eyes fixed on his face:

They were taking that in bags and transporting it to Germany.

He moves back to the middle of the shot, the foreground, with a new, resolute look: something's changed. He wipes his face with the towel. He's speaking at last. At last? He murmurs his words. It's not English anymore. What language is it? I don't understand a thing. Lanzmann doesn't subtitle those words. Why? Aren't they words, like any other? Is it Yiddish, Hebrew? German? Polish? Does Lanzmann no longer understand either?

After this uncomprehended murmur, Abraham Bomba takes command. He gives Lanzmann an order, in English now:

Okay, go ahead.

Yes. What was his answer when his wife and sister came?3

Translation, a Figure in the Transmission of Memory

Once finished and ready for screening, was the film shown to the Jewish survivors? When asked, Claude Lanzmann replied in the negative: "What language would they have seen the film in? The original was in French; they don't speak French."

Shoah depicts the reality of the Jewish diaspora destroyed by the Shoah. The witnesses speak several languages: Yiddish, English, Italian, Polish, French, German, Hebrew, Greek. Add to this profusion of tongues the incommensurability of different types of witnesses' words, and the heterogeneity of narrations that shape the story of memory in the film is multiplied. The diversity of languages spoken introduces a new character to the screen: the interpreter. For of all these foreign languages, Lanzmann speaks only English, Italian, and German.

Without translation there would be no film, no transmission in French, an unknown language to most of the witnesses, with a few rare exceptions. Such as D'Armando Aaron, president of the Jewish community on Corfu, who speaks it with some difficulty: like a foreign language. The film came to me in French as well—to me, a foreigner, committed by necessity to the task of translating it in turn.

Thus, for the entire length of the film, translation becomes a figure in the chain of transmission and its consubstantial incompletion. The noun Shoah, a Hebrew word become a French one, whose opacity begs unending inquiry, remains a powerful image of a translation-transmission continually falling short.

When I saw it for the first time, Shoah was a film unknown in Spain and Catalonia, where I live. The book I wrote on the film thus served to reintroduce it to my country. In the preface to Shoah: A Pedagogy of Memory4, Claude Lanzmann asserts: "The first and only time Shoah was screened at a cinema in Madrid, Castilian fascists in brown shirts and swastika armbands set up booths by the theatre doors and passed out the worst revisionist literature to viewers beneath the unruffled gaze of the police, who refused to intervene: they hadn't been ordered to. Such was freedom in the fledgling Spanish democracy! The next day, when the second part was screening, a bomb scare put an end to its run: this time, the police intervened zealously to evacuate the room. Later, Spanish national television broadcast Shoah at the outrageous hour of two a.m., tantamount to censorship. I intervened with the highest cultural authorities in an attempt to secure another broadcast, but in vain. I was told that television was free to choose its shows and schedule.

"What I find devastating in your book, dear Carles Torner, is your solitude, your way of saying 'I,' of personally implicating yourself—your sincerity. The way you compare your encounter with Shoah to the very official screening of Schindler's List in Barcelona is exemplary, for it shows a man searching for the truth, it shows a mind at work, trying to understand. If I had to describe the solitude I just spoke of in a single word, I'd call it 'heroic.' From where you live in Barcelona, it is very hard indeed to conceive and successfully bring to term such a project, a dissertation on the pedagogical memory built around Shoah, a film I know you haven't yet had the chance to see in theatres as I write this. All you have to help you in your work are VHS cassettes subtitled in French, which you translate yourself out loud in Catalan for your students. It seems good and fair to me, therefore, that a Catalan version of your book appear at the same time as one in French."

But my book was also to undertake the journey of translation. Written as a doctoral dissertation at Paris VIII and published in French in 2001, it was translated into Catalan a year later, in collaboration with Annie Bats.5 Though the word Xoà had already appeared in several articles (the Jewish Majorcan poet Arnau Pons first translated the word into Catalan), my work became the first time it was used in a book. It had been seventeen years since Shoah was released. A condensed version of the book finally appeared, translated into Spanish, in 2005.6

Why write about a film almost no one saw in the country where you live? Because when I saw that film, it demanded a response. It demanded translation. The first time I saw Shoah in 1994, at home in Barcelona, on a TV screen, I felt like I'd discovered something almost secret, and I soon organized a screening of fragments of the film during a summer course. I'd bought the videocassettes (DVDs with subtitles in four languages were still far off). Our class took place in the basement. No windows; it was the price we paid for a room that at one end, by the blackboard, had a large, imposing TV on a cabinet full of cables, cassettes, microphones, and a VCR. It wasn't an ideal screening room, but it was almost a theatre. We turned out the lights and remained in the dark, our only light the faces summoned onscreen. There were a good thirty of us: a small community gathered around the witness in the dark of the theatre. It was silent, too—a dense silence, a clear sign of respect. It was almost palpable, the way we listened; you could feel it in the air.

The volume was low on the TV because, from the first row, I did simultaneous translation from the French subtitles into Catalan for all the high school teachers in the summer course. In a loud voice—sometimes too loud, for I had to be heard at the back of the room. After a few minutes, my voice settled on that of Abraham Bomba.

A nightmarish screening, you might say. And you might be right. How do you compare an image that goes beyond a movie screen—a face that, facing us, becomes at once horizon and firmament—with an image on a TV at the far end of a classroom? How do you compare the witness's direct voice, understood in English, or even clearly read, calmly and precisely translated French subtitles, with a simultaneous interpretation that no longer allows the original voice to be heard, adding its own fuzziness to that of the image? I'd asked myself the same questions, but the answer was mixed: if I wanted to show Shoah, I had to lay my desire for perfection to rest and accept my task as translator. Was my interpretation of the witness's voice faithful in this context? I wanted it to be.

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? A friend of mine worked as a barber— he was a good barber in my hometown—

 

when his wife and sister came into the gas chamber…7

Bomba's voice broke. That silence had surfaced, untouchable. The silence in the classroom was telling: we had walked through the door of the film with the witness, with the women and children of Czestochowa, to that place no one left. Something had been passed on.

I fell silent in turn, lost. My silence settled on that of Abraham Bomba. How to translate that silence except with my own? What a mad question…But his silence and mine had no common measure. What was I doing there, in the dark, trying to translate? Suddenly I wanted to flee. For a moment I offered myself this possibility: I would go, leave them with Abraham Bomba, they'd figure something out, I couldn't take any more.

No sooner had this doubt arisen than it found a reply: I didn't move. I closed my eyes, I saw the silence of Abraham Bomba, and I stood, ears pricked, ready to respond right away, at the first request. It was Claude Lanzmann's voice:

Go on, Abe. You must go on. You have to.8

I'd decided to go on translating. The decision no doubt took me far. I told myself that this encounter with Abraham Bomba was the experience I'd wanted to remain faithful to.

We must leave the choice between translatable and untranslatable behind, and take charge of the exercise of translation itself, the other choice: fidelity versus treason. Translation is risky. Passing on the collective memory of the Shoah recovers its full complexity in the opacity of the translator's task. Is it a restrictive obligation, a new version of the duty to remember? Rather, it is memory work that needs doing as soon as we recognize our allotted place along memory's journey—our responsibility to see that journey continues, providing places for future generations in turn.

To undertake the task of translating this name: Shoah. Which, in Catalan—Xoà —retains indelible signs of its origin. Indeed, the paradox is that Catalanizing the word (the French is closer to transliteration), instead of making it familiar, only highlights its utter strangeness. A linguistic sign of the opacity that we wished to preserve by naming the film: the name Shoah is, by itself, an entire pedagogy of memory.

This inscription of otherness in a language is a sign of the inner struggle a translator faces—a struggle for anyone who, watching Shoah, accepts the task of viewer-translator assigned to him or her in turn. There, deep in their heart of hearts, the opacity of Abraham Bomba's silence asks questions, points to the unspeakable, and forces each of us to fill the gap in our own language with an act of authorship. An act that in no way abolishes the lack of fundamental measure between the narration of this collective memory each viewer undertakes from his or her own crossroads of memory and the event named Shoah. On the contrary, it radically introduces the heterogeneity of these memories' stories, the uniqueness of the account of any victim whose memory has been erased. The intimate experience of a radical lack of measure. An insurmountable discrepancy forever arising in the dialogue among the tenses of fidelity—memory, vision, plan.

***

1 Claude Lanzmann, Shoah (New York: Da Capo Press, 1995), p. 105. English subtitles by A. Whitelaw and W. Byron. 2Lanzmann, p. 107. 3Lanzmann, p. 108. 4Carles Torner, Shoah, une pédagogie de la mémoire (Paris: Éditions de l'Atelier, 2001). 5Carles Torner, Shoah, una pedagogia de la memòria (Barcelona: Proa, 2002). 6Carles Torner, Shoah, cavar con la mirada (Barcelona: Gedisa, 2005). 7Lanzmann, p. 107. 8Lanzmann, p. 130.

Translation of "Le Silence d'Abraham Bomba." Copyright 2009 by Carles Torner. Translation copyright 2009 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.