Holocaust documentary for ‘Struggles of the Spirit’

Matthew F. Smith

The Shoah Foundation, founded in 1994 by Steven Spielberg, has dedicated itself to recording the stories of survivors of the Holocaust. The foundation’s collection of interviews has expanded beyond the testimonies of Jews who survived the genocide and has grown to include accounts from other persecuted minorities and political prisoners, as well as interviews with rescuers, participants in war crime trials and other witnesses. The foundation has crossed the globe to establish a Holocaust database so that the stories of those who survived will always remain available.

“The Last Days,” the 1998 Academy Award-winning documentary and the first theatrical release by The Shoah Foundation, is a moving and shocking look at the stories of five Hungarian Jews who managed to survive the death camps of the Holocaust. Directed with subtlety and sensitivity by James Moll, the film vividly retells the survivors’ stories as it follows them during their return to their mother country. The film is a personal, disturbing and yet ultimately hopeful addition to the spring’s Cultural Film and Lecture Series’ “Struggles of the Spirit” cycle.

Jews had lived in Hungary for thousands of years, even before the Magyar tribes (the ancestors of present-day Hungarian natives) settled in the land during the ninth century.

As the Second World War drew closer, Hungary – a country that had remained relatively unscathed throughout the war – was pressured by the Nazis to deport its Jews, and the Hungarian Jews soon found themselves unable to escape the fate of their Eastern European brethren. Because Hungary had sided with Germany at the beginning of the war, most of the country’s Jews managed to escape annihilation, finding in Hungary a remote island of safety amid the torrent of violence that had engulfed the rest of Europe.

The film recounts the changes in Hungary during the final months of the war, changes that would ultimately include the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Instead of winding down their genocidal practices, the Nazis were able to use the rampant anti-Semitic fervor of the Hungarian officials to redouble their murderous efforts, to make Hungary “Judenrein,” fully “cleansed of Jews.” The horrific result was the murder of three-fourths of the country’s Jewish population (approximately 550,000 people), a number representing over 10 percent of all Jewish Holocaust victims.

Spielberg has claimed that he formed the Shoah Foundation because the Holocaust “happened to real, individual people, not just to faceless millions.” To this end, the film succeeds in personalizing the events of each story, imbuing the retellings with the humanity and devastating truth that only a documentary can provide.

Each of the five survivors in “The Last Days” is a remarkable individual. Arguably the most prominent is U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos who, as a member of the Hungarian underground, furnished Jews attempting to flee their homeland with fake Swedish passports. Another interviewee is Bill Basch, who was also a member of the Jewish resistance. His most telling memory is of the day the Americans liberated the camp. Alice Lok Cahana, another survivor, is an artist who memorializes the dead in her work. The fourth survivor is Renee Firestone, who returns to Auschwitz to uncover details about her sister’s death, even going so far as to question Dr. Hans Munch, the doctor in charge of the section of the camp where her sister was held. (Munch was acquitted of war crimes on the grounds that he used medical experimentation as a way to keep Jews alive.) The fifth survivor is Irene Zisblatt. She tells a moving story about the diamonds she now wears on a tear-shaped pendant, the only tangible keepsake she has of her mother, who did not survive.

The film shows the survivors seeking a sense of closure to the unimaginable horrors they endured, both by retelling their stories and by showing the audience their emotional return to their homeland. The painful truth is that they find no easy resolutions, no answers to their unanswerable questions. However, accompanying them on the trip are their children and grandchildren, and Moll is able to show viewers, wordlessly and with simple elegance, that perhaps one answer lies in the future; the greatest triumph, perhaps, is the hope that the horrific memories of these five will be passed on to future generations.

The hope, the optimism that shines through from the film’s core, is that mankind will never forget what he is capable of. And, surrounded by loving family and outliving the hate and violence, the survivors of “The Last Days” will make sure that we never forget.

“The Last Days” will be screened four times in the Connelly Center Cinema: Saturday, at 7 p.m. Sunday, at 3:30 and 7 p.m. and Monday, at 7 p.m. Admission is $3.50 for students with ID and $5 for all others. Exclusive to the Monday showing will be guest speaker Sheryl Bowen, who will provide an introduction to the film and lead a discussion afterward.

For more information, please call x9-4750 on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., or consult the CFS web site: www.culturalfilms.villanova.edu.