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April 21st, Holocaust Remembrance Day, sees the release of a documentary entitled Swimming in Auschwitz: Survival Stories of Six Women. Films on this subject often attempt to take in the entire scope of this awful chapter in history. The same facts are repeated and in some cases the grave importance of the subject is inadvertently trivialized by an over-emotional treatment. It's a horrible irony that, the more one focuses on individual suffering, the easier it is to forget that the horror was experienced a million times over, on an almost unimaginable scale.
Yet the need remains to re-tell the story and to renew awareness of the Holocaust. Steven Spielberg discovered with his Schindler's List that the public at large was more ignorant of the subject than anyone guessed. Theoretically, it could only take a generation for the Holocaust to be forgotten, and its lessons lost.
Filmmaker Jon Kean began searching in 2003 for six individual Holocaust survivors for a proposed documentary. He sent letters to 1200 people, spoke with 300 and filmed eighteen before arriving at his core group of interviewees. As with any documentary on the WW2 period, time is fast running out. When the eyewitnesses are gone, there will be nobody to answer our questions.
Kean inter-cuts his six interviews with personal photos, relevant historical film and new material shot at Auschwitz - Birkenau, now maintained as a museum-memorial site. The six came from different countries and had different backgrounds, yet their survival had a common theme: each held on to something to hope for. With six separate stories running, we never lose sight of the larger picture of mass suffering. Occasional facts and statistics appear in subtitles, allowing these women to concentrate on their personal memories. They're all very strong women, rightly proud of their status as survivors. At every step of their ordeal -- a nightmare that in some cases lasted six years -- they were the one in ten or the one in thirty that escaped death.
Lili Majzner, Renee Firestone, Erika Jacoby.
(Photo by Gary Leonard)
All of the women are in their late 'seventies, which means that they were at most young teenagers when the Nazis overran their countries. Renee Firestone appears in a TV clip from later years, showing some of the fashions she designed on a talk show. Lili Majzner's parents were labor activists; when war broke out in 1939 she was a nursing student in Warsaw. Rena Drexler's father had a good business, so her childhood was serene until she was suddenly thrust into the ghetto. Eva Beckmann was even more fortunate; her father owned a flour mill in Prague and often traveled abroad. Linda Sherman's childhood in Amsterdam was far more humble. Because her mother couldn't support her large family, she was raised in a children's home. Erika Jacoby came from an orthodox family in Hungary.
The severity of their plight increased in stages. Rena remembers escaping humiliation on the street because she was blonde and blue-eyed. The Jews' sewing machines were confiscated, and she was forced to work to make clothing for German soldiers. Eva emphasizes the fatal mood of complacency in Prague. Czech Jews put faith in their national identity, assuming that they'd be respected first as citizens. They also were convinced that the decent and cultured German people were incapable of cruelty on a mass scale.
Lina was removed to Westerbork and then Theresienstadt, a work camp where conditions were bad, but nothing like what was to come. All six women were transported to Auschwitz on intolerably crowded trains. As they were crammed aboard, conductors (presumably also captives) dropped hints that they were being shipped to their own deaths. The women remember being greeted with music at Auschwitz -- and saw barracks with flowers around them. Before they knew what was happening they were separated into two groups, those that could work and .... others, mostly old people and children. The "others" were never seen again.
They were given one piece of clothing to wear, often a grotesque dress from a pile of rags. Conditions in the barracks were intolerable -- facilities for 52 horses were adapted to hold 800 women. Filth, hunger, no privacy, freezing conditions quickly reduced all concerns down to the basic problem of survival. Individuals were pulled out to be killed at any time, for no reason. Putting on a show of good health was essential, so as not to be culled out by Dr. Mengele.
Few made friends but all tried to be decent. It was not unusual to steal extra food or to cut in line, but one didn't take another's miserable ration. One woman explains that the extreme conditions forced her to get back in touch with her Jewishness, as a bulwark of strength: "That is why we are here." Another survivor had managed to stay with her mother, and made taking care of the now-weakened woman her main goal. In the face of almost certain death, these bonds made the difference. She'd drag her mother out to stand role call, and then slap her in the back so she'd stand straight when the inspectors came by.
All escaped the very worst because they were young and strong, and never gave up hope. As the Russians advanced they were evacuated to work camps and factories closer to Germany, like Gross-Rosen. Those who survived murderous forced death marches, were treated relatively well. One woman remembers being allowed a weekly shower, which seemed a miracle from heaven. They began to reconstruct their personalities and even fight back. The mother that had become apathetic regained her assertive nature, and actively sabotaged German airplane parts.
Some of the memories are about sacrifice and kindness of a life-altering intensity. Yet the witnesses don't claim to be superwomen: "We were probably all animals at some time -- but we tried to stay human." When one prisoner became pregnant, the others hid her and delivered the baby in secret, under appalling conditions. Almost perversely, the German SS men let the baby live, and provided milk and a basket for it. But elsewhere are horrific visions of hell, of women and children being thrown alive into huge fire pits. And when the Russians liberated the camps, they were almost as brutal as the Germans. Swimming in Auschwitz allows its witnesses to tell these extreme stories as they should be told, in search of understanding, not shock value. It's your kindly grandmother, yet she's seen and survived things that one would think had been left behind in the dark ages.
Swimming in Auschwitz is solid first person testimony and irreplaceable prime-source history. The witnesses have a bright attitude but are also tough-minded in spirit. The excellent show makes no fuss about its extreme subject matter yet uses its film and photo resources with discretion. A few strong documentary images are shown, in a non-exploitative context; with its focus on personal experience, this might be a good introduction to the subject for children old enough to be told the facts.
The title comes from a bizarre anecdote in which one of the survivor-witnesses took an opportunity to jump in the Auschwitz pool, provided for recreation for the officers. She was being marched with a long line of prisoners, and couldn't resist. Unbelievably, she escaped punishment. Like the six strong women meeting each other over a picnic table half a century later, the docu has its share of genuine miracles.
Bala Cynwyd's Swimming in Auschwitz: Survival Stories of Six Women is a good-looking independently produced DVD set. Picture quality is generally good and the audio is clear, even with the varied accents of the speakers.
The first disc carries a commentary by the director Jon Kean. He explains that his initial aim was to present a study of laughter as a survival tool, but that his show soon changed into a piece about spiritual resistance. As a featurette extra, Kean narrates his unused Auschwitz footage, describing what remains of the camp today. He observes that the old barracks now look inappropriately pleasant surrounded by green grass; when in operation the grounds were only dirt and mud.
A second disc is a DVD-Rom containing QuickTime Movies of all six of Kean's interviews, full and un-cut. They're a valuable research resource that naturally goes into far more personal detail. They also offer a closer look at the delightful personalities of these remarkable, vibrant women. The director asks for the set to be "locked" down for shooting, and Renee Firestone speaks in her thick accent to someone off-camera:"Now don't move around, Clara!" If we only had oral history interviews like these with all of our beloved relatives.
Swimming in Auschwitz is available on the web through the Swimming In Auschwitz website, where one can also view a trailer and clips. The disc can also be ordered by mail for $20 + $3 shipping per DVD by writing to:
Bala Cynwyd Productions
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Swimming in Auschwitz rates:
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