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Jan Karski in Yannick Haenel and Claude Lanzmann - polemic


Translator name :Katarzyna Majdan

By the end of January, the French press was bulging with discussion between Yannick Haenel, a young French author of a book called "Jan Karski” (Gallimard, L'infini series), and Claude Lanzmann, a director, known for his opinion-making movie production "Shoah” (1984). It is worthwhile to follow the course of the press polemic, because it shows interesting features of the discourse on Holocaust in France.

In the first of three parts of the 188-page-long publication, Yannick Haenel presents Jan Karski's (Jan Kozielewski's pseudonym) mission concerning acquiring and conveying to the West the information and proofs on the preplanned mass extermination of Jews. The author of the book was inspired by the figure of the Polish patriot after watching "Shoah”. Yannick Haenel saw in Karski a man marked with a personal stigma of failure, squared, stated the author in an interview he gave to the French weekly – Le Nouvel Observateur, by the necessity of over 30 years of silence broken in the conversation with the the author of "Shoah” Claude Lanzmann, or maybe even till 2000. In the second part of the book, the author presents synthetically the main character's reflexions put in Karski's bestseller entitled "Story of a Secret State”, published in the United States in 1944.

A separate, third part of the book, accumulating author's intuitive knowledge on Jan Karski, presents this man's life after the end of the world conflict. It was that part which raised the most controversy and forced Claude Lanszmann to a discussion which ended in a firm dispute between the two authors.

The French movie-maker interviewed Jan Karski in the 1970s. He needed it for his film – a river interview with the victims of the Holocaust. Lanzmann was the first person in 30 years to persuade Karski into a conversation on the Shoah. From a few hours of interview, Lanzmann put only a few chosen minutes into the film. It was these few minutes which provoked Yannick Haenel to undertake a risky action, and consequently, to accuse Claude Lanzmann of abusing Jan Karski's confidence. In the press polemic, the young French proves that the movie-maker persuaded the Pole into confessions promising him not to expose the Polish anti-Semitism. However, the entire message of the movie was opposite. Why did Claude Lanzmann choose the very few minutes and not some other? The answer remains unknown.

The law to base accusations on literary fiction (3rd chapter of the book) by Yannick Haenel was contested not only by the author of "Shoah”. Annette Wieviorka, a historian for monthly L'Historie (No 349, January2010) undermined the weight of the historical testimony – the whole 3rd chapter of the book "Jan Karski”, assuming that literary fiction cannot be taken seriously.

The press also took the floor and supported, with, it seems, small majority,the literature partisans. A German voice is worth examining. Reffering the polemic between the two authors, a “Le Monde” journalist reminded about the bad press following the announcement of the book edition of Claude Lanzman's memoirs (French edition "Le levrier de Patagonie”, Gallimard 2009), which was to be published soon in Germany. It concerns the author's statement from 1948, in which he accused German authorities from Freie Universitat in Berlin of Nazi views, after the young Lanzmann's seminar devoted to anti-Semitism was blocked. The delivery of court coincided with a quick resignation of one of the authorities.

According to Annette Wieviorka, Yannick Haenel's book did not re-echoed in intellectual circles mainly because Jan Karski's figure was liitle known there. It may be the reason why their discussions focus on the debate concerning the limits of the credibility of literary testimony.Yannick Haenel, as Annette Wieviorka, exposed the weakness of "Shoah”, pointing out arbitrary, subjective choice of scenes from interviews prepared by the director. As an answer to author's accusations, Clause Lanzmann promised to present by the end of February or the beginning of march a 52-minute movie "Le Rapport Karski”, which will contain the entire recording with the Polish hero. On the other hand, Pierre Assouline, a columnist of the daily “Le Monde”, defends the right to literary fiction based on the example taken from a novel by Wasilij Grossman "Vie et destin”, in which a Jewish woman waiting for death has nothing to offer to her son but hope contrary to the inevitability of the oncoming events.

As the above account shows, in the times when the last witnesses of the Holocaust pass away, the issue of source credibility must be raised again. Literary fiction as a means of creating attitudes and opinions with regards to historical events becomes an egual form of persuasion. It is not a revealing statement, but in relation to so important an issue as Holocaust, it shows certain changes in the creation of social memory.

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