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Maurice Rossel - Red Cross

Film | Accession Number: 1996.166 | RG Number: RG-60.5019 | Film ID: 3248, 3249, 3250, 3251, 3252, 3253

As a representative of the Swiss Red Cross in 1944, Maurice Rossel was asked to inspect Theresienstadt. He admits that he gave Theresienstadt a clean bill of health and would probably do so again today. He was also given a tour of Auschwitz, which he did not realize was a death camp. Lanzmann's questioning points to the degree to which Rossel and others were manipulated by the Nazis and to what extent they were willing to be fooled because of their own politics and prejudices. This interview is the basis of Lanzmann's 1999 documentary "A Visitor from the Living" [Un vivant qui passe].

FILM ID 3248 -- Camera Rolls #1,2,3 -- 01:00:12 to 01:33:53
Dr. Rossel is seated in a chair in what appears to be his library, with Lanzmann facing him, back to the camera (when he is on-screen). There are frequent audio problems, with the microphone and also with off-screen distractions. Dr. Rossel explains that beginning in 1942, he was with the International Red Cross, choosing to work for them rather than be in the Swiss army. He was in Berlin with a handful of other Swiss. He stresses that the POW camps were much different than the camps for civilian internees. Statistics for survival in the different camps are mentioned. For POWs, he says that the Germans abided by the Geneva conventions. He explains the purpose of the International Red Cross versus the national versions. He also condemns the Swiss Red Cross for picking sides, sending help only to the Germans on the eastern front.

01:12:15 Dr. Rossel discusses the stance of the Swiss people during the war, saying that they feared communism more than Hitler. He talks about how they would get German military escorts to take them to the camp and guide them to the proper people within each camp. His was a major who often brandished his war medals in order to get what was necessary. He had to talk to the elected leader of the prisoners, as well as a leader of the officers. They moved into a house owned by a German actress, which was wonderful.

01:22:41 Dr. Rossel says that he saw the horrible conditions of the POWs working in the mines of Silesia, and that they were geographically close to the concentration camps. He says that while the camps had become extermination camps, they were simply for political prisoners before the war, and even the French ran a similar camp at the base of the Pyrenees. He insists, sometimes convolutedly, that he had no knowledge of the exterminations even though the prisoners they had spoken to had most definitely heard the rumors of it. The word "extermination" was never spoken, and often they had to swap goods for the right to access the places that they were required to visit. He used such goods to access Auschwitz in 1943.

FILM ID 3249 -- Camera Rolls #4,5 -- 02:00:12 to 02:23:09
Dr. Rossel tells of his trip to Auschwitz. He was able to enter because he had played the fool, unaware that he was forbidden there by both the Germans and his own organization. He met with who he perceived as the camp commander, who carried himself with such pomp that he must have been in command. He asked if the Red Cross could supply their infirmary and asked to see some of the prisoners. He was forbidden to see any prisoners, but was allowed to supply the infirmary if they wanted. They did indeed, though he admits it made little impact.

02:11:28 Audio quality is poor at times. Dr. Rossel talks about these packages that not only made it into Auschwitz, but came back with receipts. The receipts had not only the signature for whom the package was sent, but many other signatures, allowing more packages to be sent to those prisoners. This was the only way more packages could be sent because prisoner lists were not available, and only packages sent to specific people would be received. He saw prisoners, describing them as walking skeletons with only their eyes alive, whom he reported in vain. However, knowledge was limited, especially knowledge that was fully comprehended and accepted, and he never saw the glows of the furnaces nor smelled the burning that is so often reported. The acquisition of knowledge was conflicted, at best. He had wanted to know more, that is why he went back so often with these packages, and yet, he wanted to know as little as possible because of the horrors of life there. Fear kept him away, and morbid curiosity kept him coming back.

FILM ID 3250 -- Camera Rolls #6-10 -- 03:00:18 to 03:34:02
Rossel was present for a tour of Theresienstadt, which was requested by the International Red Cross and allowed by the Germans. Unfortunately, it was a planned visit, and therefore very fake. Everything was a front, says Rossel, and most of the prisoners there were people of importance, and all of them were very passive. He took plenty of photos, which was allowed, but shows how staged everything was. He was not allowed to see the camp of "common prisoners" nearby.

03:11:31 Lanzmann assures Rossel that this was indeed a farce, part of the Verschoenerungsaktion [beautification action]. Rossel is not surprised, though at the time of the tour he figured it was indeed a camp, just one for privileged people. Lanzmann says that he has the records of everything they did to improve this ghetto for the deception, including the rehearsals of the visit. Lanzmann asks him why he did not see through this sham in the first place, as he mentions nothing unusual in his reports.

03:22:49 Lanzmann continues to push the topic of Rossel not reporting anything out of the ordinary. He does ask about his only negative comment, that of overcrowding, even though just before his arrival, 5000 people were deported and immediately gassed to create more space. Lanzmann continues to explain all these things that had been changed, including the makeshift synagogue. He then talks about the realities of Auschwitz and Rossel says little, appearing stunned at these things, emotionally affected by what Lanzmann says. Rossel has trouble returning to his thoughts from that day so long ago, and Lanzmann struggles for answers to his questions. Rossel simply did not speak up about his true impressions.

FILM ID 3251 -- Camera Rolls #11-13 -- 04:00:10 to 04:33:59
Lanzmann continues asking specifics of Rossel concerning his report of Theresienstadt. Rossel called the economy of the camp "Stalinist", which was quite rare considering the term was not really in use at that point. He was told and therefore reported that wages were given in Theresienstadt that were low, but sufficient considering that many things were provided for without cost. Rossel says hat he was and still is astonished by the passivity of the Jews. Nobody gave any sign that anything was wrong with their situation, not one tip-off or clue, which was quite unusual considering that every other POW camp would have such occurrences. Rossel says that reports had to be objective and could not be open for interpretation, hence his lack of speaking up. Lanzmann asks about some odd wordings, and Rossel tells him that it is concerning the problem of racial segregation, something that made the Swiss hate the Third Reich.

04:11:31 Rossel explains that he left the Red Cross after the end of the war. He began to bury these memories, unable to handle the things he knew. Much of his memories came back only with Lanzmann's talking. He did not even tell his daughters. He says that he never did like the Germans, and is horrified by all regimes of the extreme right. Lanzmann reads him an excerpt of a speech given by Eppstein, the leader of the prisoners of Theresienstadt; it seems to affect Rossel deeply. Rossel says that he still stands behind his report based upon the circumstances under which it was written.

04:22:46 Rossel explains that the International Red Cross had no choice but to go to this farcical visit. They had asked for permission to have such a visit for so long, had been denied for so long, and then suddenly were allowed, there was no other option for them. The International Red Cross knew the same as the governments of all the other nations, that things were happening, and yet, they could not protest based on that knowledge because of the POWs who would have suffered instead.

04:27:42 Rossel says that all Germans were "Hitlerites," and it is wrong to try and separate the two. He also says that, in photos that he has kept, the French had instances where they were just as bad as the Germans with their treatment of POWs. People, he says, "cling to the massacre of the millions of Jews." He condemns the film for which he is interviewing because it will give a distorted picture, focusing on the Jews. He asks about the Russians and others, considering that the Russians did not sign any of the Geneva conventions and believed that the prisoners deserved to die because they had not fought to the death. He also mentions the hatred towards the nations that did not accept refugees, and cites other nations, including Switzerland, which also refused to accept anyone. Lanzmann changes the subject back to medicine, and the roll ends.

FILM ID 3252 -- Camera Rolls #14,15 - 05:00:13 to 05:03:37
Lanzmann is seated in Rossel's library, paper in hand, reading the speech that Dr. Eppstein gave to his fellow people in Theresienstadt. A touching piece comparing them to a ship that waits to enter the harbor but cannot. Only the captain knows the way in, and he must ignore the rigged distractions from the coast. The ship must stay there and wait for orders; the people must have faith in them. Eppstein was killed two days later.

05:01:32 Lanzmann is again seated in Rossel's library, paper in hand, reading the speech that Dr. Eppstein gave to his fellow people in Theresienstadt. This time, he prefaces the speech with background information, and addresses it to be read specifically to Dr. Rossel. A touching piece comparing them to a ship that waits to enter the harbor but cannot. Only the captain knows the way in, and he must ignore the rigged distractions from the coast. The ship must stay there and wait for orders; the people must have faith in them. Eppstein was killed two days later. Lanzmann struggles to put the paper away, describes the text only as "heartbreaking," sets the binder down, and then looks deeply troubled.

FILM ID 3253 -- Camera Roll #15A - 06:00:11 to 06:06:30
Lanzmann sits, listening quietly. Camera zooms in slowly on his face. He begins smoking a cigarette. He takes various poses for several minutes.

Event:  April-May 1979
Production:  1985
Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of USHMM and Yad Vashem
Record last modified: 2021-06-03 12:47:12
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