I recently received a copy of the transcript of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, his epic documentary about the Holocaust and read over the part of the film which had, on watching it, affected me so much. In that part, historian Raul Hilberg discusses a document, the Fahrplananordnung 587, an innocuous looking typewritten document (save perhaps for the word ‘Treblinka’) which he reveals, bit by bit, as being anything but innocuous; rather it is a document which in the beaurocratic language of timetables, represents the deaths of some 10,000 Jews. It is just one of many hundreds (the number 587 tells us how many); each of which is a cipher for unimaginable misery and suffering. What follows is part of that transcript:
This is the Fahrplananordnung 587, which is typical for special trains. The number of the order goes to show you how many of them there were, Underneath: Nur fur den Dienstgebrauch – ‘Only for internal use.’ But this turns out to be a very low classification for secrecy. And the fact that in this entire document, which after all deals with death trains, one cannot see – not only on this one, one cannot see it on others – the word geheim, ‘secret’ is astonishing to me. That they would not have done that is very astonishing.
On second thought, I believe that has they labelled it secret, they would have invited a great many enquiries from people who got hold of it. They would then perhaps have raised more questions; they would have focused attention on the thing. And the key to the entire operation from the psychological standpoint was never to utter the words that would be appropriate to the action being taken. Say nothing; do these things; do not describe them. So therefore this ‘Nur fur den Dienstgebrauch.’ And now notice to how many recipients this particular order goes. ‘Bfe’ – Bahnhofe. On this stretch there are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and here we are in Malkinia, which is of course the station near Treblinka. But notice that is takes eight recipients for this relatively short distance through Radom to the Warsaw district – eight, because the train passes through these stations. Therefore, each one has to know. Not only that, but of course you’re not going to write two pieces of paper if you can write only one.
Therefore, we find here not only PKR, which is a death train, going here in the plan labelled thus, but we also see the empty train after it has arrived in Treblinka, now originating in Treblinka, and you can always know whether it’s an empty train with the letter L in front of it, leer, and now –
Ruckleitung des Leerzuges, which means ‘return of the empty train’.
– the train returns empty. And now we’re going back. Then we have another train. Now notice that there is very little subtlety to this numbering system. We are going from 9228 to 9229, to 9230, to 9231, to 9232. Hardly any originality here. It’s just very regular traffic.
Death traffic. And here we see that starting out in one ghetto, which is obviously being emptied, the train leaves for Treblinka. It leaves on the thirtieth of September, 1942, eighteen minutes after four o’clock – by the schedule at least – and arrives there at eleven twenty four on the next morning. This is also a very long train, which may be the reason it is so slow. It’s a 50G – fünfzig Güterwagen – fifty freight cars filled with people.
That’s an exceptionally heavy transport. Now once the train has been loaded at Treblinka – and you notice there are two numbers here: 11:24, that’s in the morning, and 15:59, which is to say almost four o’clock in the afternoon – in that interval of time the train has to be unloaded, cleaned and turned around. And you see here the same numbers appear as the Leerzug, the now empty train, goes to another place. And it leaves at four o’clock in the afternoon and goes now to that other place where is yet another small town where it picks up victims. And there you are at three o’clock in the morning. It leaves on the twenty-third at three o’clock in the morning. And arrives there the next day.What is that? It seems to be the same train.
It is the same – quite obviously the same. The number has to be changed quite obviously. Correct. Then it goes back to Treblinka and this is again a long trip; and it now goes back to yet another place – the same situation, the same trip. And then yet another. Goes to Treblinka and then arrives in Czestochowa the twenty-ninth of September and then the cycle is complete. And this is called a Fahrplananordnung. If you count up the number of not empty trains but full ones – PKRs – there’s one – there’s one here, that’s two, that’s three, that’s four – we may be talking about ten thousand dead Jews on this Fahrplananordnung here.
What I saw as being described here was in many respects a gesture of the Holocaust. The gesture of a thing, whether it is an object or a system, is essentially a movement and with this passage, the underlying movement of all the documented horrors becomes apparent. To borrow from Hannah Arendt, it is banal. So can I really discover the gesture of the Holocaust? Or at least a part of it?