Film Review: "The Last Days" (Shoah Foundation)

by Tom Beer

The idea of writing a review of the film The Last Days, did not occur to me until I saw the request in the August newsletter. Had I realised that I was going to do it, I would have tried to take notes and tried carefully to avoid the occasional tear from obliterating my writings.

The film is about the Shoah, about Hungary, and about the stories of five survivors. Its power and poignancy is that it is a documentary that does not try to cover the emotion of the topic with a sanitised narration. The words in the film are the words of the five survivors:

Irene Zisblatt - who managed the incredible feat of hiding a set of diamonds during her time in Auschwitz.

Bill Basch - whose dispassionate academic analysis fell apart when, with his son, he returned to visit the crematoria.

Alice Lok Cahana - who has turned to art as a means for reflecting on her past horrors.

Renee Firestone - who lectures on the Holocaust at the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Tom Lantos - who was inducted into one of the Hungarian forced labour battalions that had been specially set up for Jews and is now a United States Congressman.

Film crews followed both Renee followed both Renee Firestone and Alice Lok Cahana as they discovered, with the aid of meticulous records that the Germans kept, what had happened to their sisters in the camps. Their response to the knowledge was significantly different. Alice has two sons that are rabbis, so she uses the knowledge of her sister's death to mourn for her properly by saying Kaddish at the memorial gardens at the camp site. Renee interviews one of the German doctors who conducted experiments on her sister and finds him to be "evasive". She then lights three candles in the ruins at the camp site.

Much of the background to the film I already knew from listening to my parents and their friends. But the visual representation adds colour and clarity to events that would otherwise have remained murky pasts. My grandmother came from Munkacs and her whole large family perished. They must have been taken to the same brickworks as Irene Zisblatt, and then shipped to the concentration camp with the same lie that they were being sent to pick grapes.

My grandmother survived because she lived in Budapest. The Gestapo's interrogation ensured that her quality of life deteriorated. Tom Lantos also survived because he lived in Budapest. It was the rural Hungarian Jews who were sent to the death camps first. The Red Army liberated Budapest before Adolf Eichmann could get around to exterminating the Jewish population of the capital.

My paternal grandparents survived with the aid of the Swedish protective passes issued by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenburg. Bill Basch tells us that his job was to deliver these passes. One day he was being chased by soldiers and to escape he joined a line of people being marched off somewhere. He discovered, too late, that they were being marched off to a concentration camp. One of the many ironies of the war is that within days of liberating Budapest the victorious Red Army then promptly sent Raoul Wallenburg off to one of their own concentration camps.

The Last Days avoids the "talking heads" format of many documentaries based on testimonies, by interspersing old newsreel footage and by accompanying the survivors back to the camps and their hometowns with their families.

Since I was a youngster I had heard of the Hungarian Nazis as the "Nyilas", which has always been translated as the "Arrow Cross". This film showed me, for the first time, what their emblem looked like and I realise that the correct translation should be the "Pointed Cross" party.

It is evident that each one of the five has to continually come to grips with the unanswerable question - "why did I survive when others close to me did not?" It is a question that haunts every Descendant of the Shoah. Bill Basch articulates the dilemma. He had made a youthful pact with his friends to survive or die together. But when the Germans executed one of the group, they could not go through with their intention to die together.

As I write this, my wife tells me that I should be reviewing the film, not telling its story. What can one say? It is very well made. It is powerful and compelling. It is true. It tries to answer the question of why the Germans allocated troops and machinery to exterminating Hungarian Jews during the closing stages of a war that they knew they had lost, instead of using the troops and the machinery to fight the Allied forces. But it does not and cannot answer the fundamental question. Why, in the language of tradition, did G-d hide his face during the Holocaust?

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