The following article is extracted from Nathan Abrams’ new book, The New Jew in Film.
Judaism places great importance on the act of going to the toilet and such related concerns as ritual purity and defilement that the toilet produces, as demonstrated in the Torah and later talmudic literature. It even has its own dedicated blessing. Much emphasis is placed in the Bible on personal cleanliness as an essential requirement both for physical fitness and holiness, specifically ritual purity. Consequently, ancient latrines were situated beyond the confines of the military encampment in order to keep it clean, and each soldier was equipped with a spade (spike or trowel) so he could dig a hole to bury his excrement (Deut. 23: 13–15). Later, the rabbis also required that hands be washed after urination and/or defecation, and spent much time discussing whether a Jew could pray in or near a toilet and under what conditions, whether in the presence of urine and excrement. The concern here was that the toilet and/or its contents would defile such a holy act as prayer, and much thought and ink was deployed establishing a clear distinction between sacred and profane (that is toilet) space. Even today, in contemporary haredi culture, much attention is devoted to ‘openings of the body, the flow of fluids in and out of it. Urinating, for example, has become a ‘whole ceremony carried out under precise surveillance’ (Aran 2006: 89).
In films dealing with the Shoah (Holocaust) the bathroom marks the boundary between life and death. Indeed, overall washing facilities coded death in the camps, as the gas chambers were concealed in mocked-up showers. The detailed mechanics of this are depicted in The Grey Zone and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. In Schindler’s List, a group of women inmates is forced to strip and is herded into a large chamber labelled ‘Bath and Inhalation Room’. Thinking they are about to die, they panic and shriek. The camera tilts up to focus on the showerheads. There is a delay as the women wait to see what emerges: water or gas, life or death. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Spielberg uses the shower to ‘induce dread’ (Baron 2010: 456). Elsewhere in the film, when a young Jewish concentration-camp inmate fails to clean the stains of the commandment’s bathtub by using soap instead of lye, Amon Goeth forgives the boy in his bathroom but later changes his mind and shoots him dead. Later, other children hide, literally, in the shit, to escape being rounded up and selected for the gas chambers. A very young boy looks for a place to hide. Finding that his chosen locations are already occupied, he jumps down through the hole of the wooden latrines into the sewage. Covered in faeces, we see that he is not alone, as a group of four other children tell him, ‘Get out. This is our place. Get out.’ The latrines in the camp thus become a place of refuge and safety. A similar scene occurs at the beginning of the film when Jews use the sewers to escape being forced out of the ghetto. At the same time, however, the sewers also lead to death, as other escapees are discovered and shot.
Significant with respect to the Shoah is the use of the toilet as a means of humiliation and degradation. The toilet was very public space, and given the sheer volume of numbers of Jews it was most likely coded as Jewish space. When the Jews were herded into cattle cars and transported to the death camps the trains did not contain any toilets, nor were there any toilet stops, for the Jews at least. Consequently, the acts of defecation and urination are remembered as very public and humiliating spectacles, designed by the Nazis to incrementally and excrementally dehumanise the Jews before killing them. Thus the disgusting physical state of the Jews facilitated the Nazis’ murder machine, for it significantly distanced them from their humanity and therefore helped the perpetrators to believe that they were not killing humans but rather destroying ‘Stücke’ (‘pieces’) – the Nazis’ preferred term for the trainloads of Jews (Levi 2000: 22). An example of such is The Grey Zone, in which an elderly Jewess is shown using a bucket in the midst of a crowded train. The toilet is also used as a site of humiliation in The Counterfeiters when an SS guard urinates on Jewish concentration-camp prisoner Salomon Sorowitsch as he cleans the toilet. This act, and the space in which it occurs, serve to emphasise the unequal power relationship between captor and captive, using the bathroom ‘as the locus for confrontations, both physical and verbal, of who’s in charge’ (Fuller 1993: 226).
In a much discussed and perplexing sequence in his La Haine, Kassovitz deliberately chose the public toilet as the location into which he introduces a Holocaust survivor (Tadek Lokcinski), cementing the association between victimisation, humiliation, toilets and the Shoah, or between ‘God, shit and deportation’ (Rose 2007: 487). It is further significant that it is the bathroom of a Parisian café. The character is clearly coded as eastern European, specifically Polish, by his diminutive stature and Yiddish-accented French. The old Jew tells the three nonplussed youths a story about his shy friend Grunwalski, who, after going to the woods to relieve himself, failed to reboard his train en route to a Siberian gulag because, as the train was leaving, he reaches out his hands to board the train but his trousers fell down. Embarrassed at exposing himself, he pulled his trousers up, thus missing the train and freezing to death. Although the train was en route to a Russian labour camp, catching it could have saved Grunwalski’s life since, like his friend, the majority of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust were those who escaped to the Soviet Union after the German invasion of Poland.
Like the Coens’ ‘Goy’s teeth’ scene from A Serious Man, the moral here is unclear. Is the old man telling the youths that they need to focus on the correct priorities, unlike his friend Grunwalksi; or is he using his Yiddische kopf to get himself out of a potentially threatening situation by bamboozling the three youths, who clearly do not get the point of his story. Loshitzky comments, ‘This thought-provoking narrative digression confronts the spectator with Jewish weakness associated with the Holocaust, of the predicament of being literally “caught with their pants down”.’ ■
Nathan Abrams is the author of The New Jew in Film, of which this is an extract, and is Director of Graduate Studies and Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at Bangor University. You can follow him on Twitter @ndabrams