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“AFTER AUSCHWITZ” My rating: B

83nminutes | No MPAA rating

Most filmic treatments of the Holocaust — be they documentary or fictional — bend toward the atrocities of the Nazi era.

It’s hard to beat billowing smokestacks, jackbooted fascists and piles of naked corpses for compelling cinema.

What’s remarkable is how few films have addressed the fates of Holocaust survivors after their liberation from the camps.

Jon Kean’s “After Auschwitz” does precisely that. It’s not a “scientific” documentary. Oh, it has its fair share of statistics, but mostly it’s based on the  experiences of six women who emigrated to the U.S. (three are now deceased) and survived to tell their tales.

These are, in fact, the same individuals — Eva Beckman, Rena Drexler, Renee Firestone, Erika Jacoby, Lili Majzner and Linda Sherman — who formed the backbone of Kean’s 2007 doc “Swimming in Auschwitz,” which provided a record of the camps as experienced by woman prisoners.

There’s a temptation to believe that the Holocaust story ends with liberation. But beginning a new life from scratch is no easy thing.

As these women point out, their early days of freedom were anything but free. Though the Allies tried to feed them, the food was so rich it acted as poison on nutrition-starved bodies.

Moreover, liberating armies were ill prepared for the medical, psychological and social needs of thousands of former prisoners. There were few services available to the newly freed; resources were sapped just dealing with the corpses (27,000 reportedly at the Bergen-Belsen camp).

It is estimated that one in five survivors died in the first month after liberation.

Some of Kean’s subjects recall wandering into German villages and ransacking homes and stores in an attempt to find proper sustenance. They were, in effect, reduced to criminal status.

Others made their way back to their home towns, often riding on the outside of boxcars. They found the reception anything but welcoming. Countless returning Jews were murdered; many Polish Jews decided they were better off returning to Germany and taking up residence in displaced persons camps.

A majority of survivors learned they were the only members of their families still breathing. Many entered into loveless marriages (“Not a flower in sight,” recalls one woman) simply for the sake of survival. (“It filled a hole.”)

Even after years had passed and they found shelter in the U.S.  these women carried the scars of their experiences.  Depression was common. One says she couldn’t look at a uniformed Boy Scout without thinking of Hitler Youth.

Few related their horrific experiences to their family and friends. Silent suffering was the norm. Over time, though, a couple of these women became spokespersons for other survivors, speaking publicly about what they had been through.

Though filled with powerful images — lots  of vintage newsreels, Army Signal Corps footage, still photos and other visual aids — “After Auschwitz” is in some ways a scattershot affair. The film jumps from subject to subject, with the result that it’s difficult to follow the story arc of any one of these women. It’s also a bit difficult to get a handle on their personalities.

Yet the cumulative effect gets under the viewer’s skin.  Despite the darkness on display, ultimately “After Auschwitz” celebrates the resilience of the human character.

These women survived and prospered, after all. But the pain, one suspects, never goes away.

| Robert W. Butler

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