Claude Lanzmann's Four Sisters

Shoah: Four Sisters (2018)

Director: Claude Lanzmann

Language: French / German / English / Hebrew (with optional English subtitles)

Runtime: 273 minutes

Release Date: 18/02/2019


Jamie Havlin assesses a quartet of documentaries featuring four Jewish women who all witnessed and survived the inhumanity of the Holocaust.

The four films that make up this package are The Hippocratic Oath, The Merry Flea, Baluty and Noah’s Ark. They were filmed by Claude Lanzmann as he began preparing what would become Shoah. Released in 1985, this nine-and-a-half-hours long documentary is surely the most important cinematic history of the Holocaust, and very possibly the most compelling documentary ever made. Its director, though, was unhappy that so much vital material still had to be left on the cutting room floor. He would go on to incorporate some of this footage into related standalone documentaries such as The Last of the Unjust (2013). Sadly, Lanzmann died last summer, aged 92, just one day after The Four Sisters opened in France. This, therefore, will stand as the final chapter in his decades-long quest to preserve the history of the Shoah, a word that means ‘catastrophe’ in Hebrew.

This collection showcases the stories of four extraordinary Jewish women: Ruth Elias, Ada Lichtman, Paula Biren, and Hanna Marton. None are sisters in the biological sense. All four, though, share a deep bond through their experience of living to tell the tale of Hitler’s ghettos and death camps. You won’t be surprised to hear that this is an often harrowing watch. Some of the of cruelty inflicted on these women, friends and families is truly unfathomable.

Lanzmann here occasionally illustrates the women’s stories with some photographs but his main focus is always on the faces and body language of the women as they speak eloquently of their earlier lives. Sometimes he lets the camera linger when the subject is lost for words. Occasionally we also get to see his own face reacting to answers given. Editing looks to be minimal and this suits the subject matter.

Ada Lichtman was transported from Krakow to a camp in Sobibór, where she was instructed to work in the laundry. From there she was forced into a new job – she cleaned and refurbished dolls snatched from the hands of Jewish children. Once completed, these were presented to Nazis who gave them as gifts to their own children. “We even dressed some as SS officers,” she explains. When Lanzmann comments on how unbelievable this is, she replies almost matter-of-factly: “It’s unbelievable being in a concentration camp.”

In The Hippocratic Oath, Ruth Elias, from Czechoslovakia, tells her gut-wrenching story about surviving a number of camps including Theresienstadt and two stays in Auschwitz. During the second stint in the latter, she gave birth. Doctor Josef Mengele took a particular and grotesque interest in this. ‘The Angel of Death’ did so as he was curious to know how long a new-born baby could stay alive without food. Ruth’s breasts were bound and the baby starved. A sympathetic female doctor, who was also a detainee, offered her a terrible moral dilemma. She presented Ruth with an injection needle filled with a lethal dose of morphine, a jab of which would end the poor baby’s wretched existence.

“How can I be the murderer of my child?” Elias asked. The answer she received supplies this documentary with its title.

Ruth Elias wasn’t the only woman faced with a heartbreaking predicament. Hanna Marton from Cluj in Transylvannia, then part of Hungary, tells some agonizing stories, like her husband being used by the Hungarian army (Germany’s allies) as a human mine detector on the Russian front. Her escape from certain death was secured by controversial Jewish leader Rezso Kasztner, who had negotiated directly with Adolph Eichmann to secure a train to neutral Switzerland for 1,684 Jews- in exchange for a payment, of course. Decades later, she is still conflicted about taking advantage of this offer while so many others weren’t lucky.

Paula Biren, from Poland, was likewise burdened with guilt for the remainder of her life to the extent that she has often wondered why she didn’t kill herself. Obviously, relating their testimonies to Lanzmann on camera must have been a painful experience for each of the women. Biren tells of how she clammed up in the years following the traumas of her time in the Lodz ghetto of Baluty and then Auschwitz. “The feeling is that nobody wanted to listen. So I shut up.” Thankfully, she eventually spoke out on the human hell she was put through. Hopefully many, many people will listen to what her and her three ‘sisters’ have to say here.

This release includes a booklet featuring new writing by Stuart Liebman; Claude Lanzmann’s director’s statement; notes from the producer; and biographies on all of the Four Sisters.

For more on the documentary:


All words by Jamie Havlin. More writing by Jamie can be found at his Louder Than War author’s archive.

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