Film Review: After AuschwitzLively and moving documentary about six women who survived the Holocaust to live fruitful lives that serve to defy the Nazis' extermination plans—and who are horrified to see history possibly repeating itself here.
Beginning where many Holocaust documentaries end, After Auschwitz continues the story of six women who survived not only Auschwitz—a trio of concentration camps in Poland—but also Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany, where many of the Auschwitz prisoners were transferred in a death march in January 1945. The sextet—Erika Engel Jacoby of Hungary, Linda Sheffer Sherman of Holland, Rena Honigman Drexler and Lili Nutkiewicz Majzner of Poland, and Eva Scheck Beckmann and Renee Weinfeld Firestone of Czechoslovakia—were 16 to 23 years old when liberated by Allied troops that year, rescued from the mass extermination of Jews and other "undesirables" by the Nazis. While that particular terror had ended for them, hardship and misery would continue until they eventually immigrated to the U.S. Three have since died, yet three remain who have seen public Nazism and Holocaust denial rise since the campaign and election of President Donald Trump.
"It's scary what's going on politically," Firestone told Women's Wear Daily last year. "The public voted for [him]. I hope people will wake up. When I speak to children in schools, I tell them that they're the ones who have to save this world."
Determined to counter what historians are calling a growing ignorance of the Holocaust—in addition to remarkable, flat-Earth-level denial—the women variously have appeared in other documentaries, including The Last Laugh, have lectured, and have spoken to video archives and many publications. Their memories remain sharp and consistent, and the photos and other artifacts they offer, saved by family members and friends who had escaped, remain poignant and sometimes astounding.
How inhuman were the Nazis? Jacoby recalls how as the Allies advanced, the Germans stepped up the killing of Jews, making them dig their own graves and haughtily telling them they would never be liberated. "They kept repeating it," she says. “‘You're not gonna get away. You'll be dead before they get here.’” But the Soviet liberators were nearing Auschwitz more quickly then expected. Awakening one day to total silence and a camp devoid of guards, "We took the shovels that we used for our graves to dig under the fence."
She was among the luckier ones. The Russians "raped a lot of girls," says Sherman—an especially sickening thought given how many of the prisoners were weak, diseased, almost skeletal. Those survivors who began the long trek hundreds of miles home faced death not only from illness and starvation but from unexploded ordnance in forests. Some trains were running, but many tracks had been destroyed, and even those refugees fortunate enough to catch a ride often had to hang onto the outside or ride on top of overcrowded cars. And horrifically misplaced resentment against the Jews by a war-weary populace resulted in thousands of Holocaust survivors being murdered by mobs.
For those who miraculously made it home intact, home was often gone. Gentiles who had moved into her family's evacuated house, says Drexler, refused her entry. "They were wearing our clothes," she recalls with still-fresh wonder at the audacity. Beckmann returned to Prague and stood in a plaza alone, penniless, wondering what to do next.
She and many other young, resilient survivors would find ways to move on and not let the Nazis win by having broken their spirit. Some entered displaced-persons camps until regaining their strength. Some found mates more from a need for partnership and normalcy than for notions of romance, though that could happen as well. And though it might take years to get a visa, all six came to America.
There was denial here as well—not about the Holocaust's existence, which the world saw in newsreels and radio and newspaper reports and heard about from the liberating troops, survivors and other eyewitnesses—but because the truth was too hard to hear. "Not one person asked me, 'What happened to you?'" Erica recalls. And the women themselves wanted desperately to move on and not relive the horror—at least not until growing older and becoming able to do so in order to remind the world.
Their fates are fascinating. One became the nanny for a movie star's family. Firestone became one of California's top 1960s fashion designers, whose work was exhibited last year at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. One became a successful deli owner. Another became a teacher and social worker. They had children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren—providing a multigenerational legacy that defies the Nazis' attempts to exterminate all Jews and their culture. While the surviving survivors will eventually pass, this lively and moving documentary keeps them alive and speaking out.
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