LOS ANGELES (Feb. 2)
Spielberg’s `The Last Days’ highlights stories of survival “There was no magic to our survival. It was sheer, pure, unadulterated luck, for men and women infinitely more worthy perished,” said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) last week at an advance screening of “The Last Days,” the first feature documentary by Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Project.
“Life is unfair, and there is no more dramatic example than the lottery of death we call the Holocaust,” Lantos said.
The “lottery” favored Lantos and four other Hungarian Jews, who relive their intensely personal stories of survival — and ultimate regeneration in America — in the wrenching film.
“The Last Days” premieres Friday in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, before opening in cities across the United States in subsequent weeks.
The film’s title refers to the final phase of World War II, when Germany had clearly lost the war on the battlefield. Instead of husbanding every resource and man for the defense of his shrinking Third Reich, Hitler redoubled his efforts to complete his campaign to exterminate European Jewry.
His last major target was the last intact Jewish community in occupied Europe. As an Axis ally, Hungary had more or less managed to protect its 825,000 Jews until German troops marched in on March 19, 1944.
Racing the clock against advancing Soviet forces, Nazi-butcher Adolf Eichmann and his cohorts deported, within three months, 440,000 Jews to Auschwitz, where almost all perished. Ultimately, 565,000 Hungarian Jews did not survive the Holocaust.
Among the survivors were five men and women, whose testimonies were collected by the Shoah Foundation alongside the video records of 50,000 other surviving victims of the Nazis.
“The Last Days” presents the stories, and the return to their hometowns, of these five individuals — Lantos, artist Alice Lok Cahana, teacher Renee Firestone, businessman Bill Basch and grandmother Irene Zisblatt.
Lantos, then 16, managed to elude capture as an underground courier in Budapest. The other four, also teen-agers at the time, survived Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and death marches and lived to become eyewitnesses to the Holocaust.
Each individual story is different, but aside from the horror and degradation, they shared some common experiences. Difficult as it is to fathom now, Hungary’s Jews, even in the fifth year of the war, were still not aware of the Jewish fate in the rest of Europe and were totally unprepared for what was to come.
The five also shared, under the most inhuman circumstances, an intense loyalty to relatives and friends, a fierce determination to survive and, after liberation, the incredible recuperative power of the human spirit that enabled them to rebuild their lives, raise families and follow successful careers.
As grim as their wartime suffering was, the often heart-breaking return by the survivors to their native towns may be even more affecting because they convey the story in a personal way.
One survivor runs across former neighbors, who ask curiously, “Was it really as bad as they show in the movies?” To which she answers, “It was much worse.”
Perhaps the film’s most chilling segment is the encounter between Renee Firestone, looking for some record on the death of her sister Klara, and Dr. Hans Munch, the Auschwitz doctor who had performed medical experiments on the young girl.
Munch, a nice-looking old man, explains the notations on Klara’s death record with clinical detachment, assuring Firestone that the circumstances of Klara’s death were normal and routine.
Both the film’s director James Moll and June Beallor, who produced the film with Ken Lipper, have dealt with survivors’ testimonies during five years as founding executive directors of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Still, they say, making “The Last Days” was a difficult, and often shattering, experience.
“It never becomes routine, you never become desensitized,” Moll said in an interview. “Every person is different, every testimony is new.”
Moll, who is not Jewish, said he becomes infuriated when people tell him they have seen enough Holocaust movies and documentaries.
“We can never learn enough about the darkest tragedy in human history,” he said. “I, growing up as a Catholic boy, learned almost nothing about the Shoah in high school. It is only now that I’ve reached a certain level of understanding.”
Beallor, who is Jewish, said she is happy the film has a non-Jewish director. “It was important to let even a man like Munch, the former Auschwitz doctor, have his say. I don’t know if I would have been able to handle that.”
Beallor believes that because the five survivors were all teen-agers in 1944, the film may be especially powerful for young audiences.
High school students “can put themselves in that situation. How would kids today have reacted if they had five minutes to leave their homes? What would they take? They’re watching stories about people their own age, and it makes them relate to history in a very personal way.”
But the film should be seen by everyone, Lantos believes. “As soon as the impeachment circus is over,” he said, “I will show the film to all of my 535 colleagues in the House and Senate.”