Posts Tagged ‘Holocaust’


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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Sonia Warshawski

“BIG SONIA” My rating: B+

93 minutes | No MPAA rating

At first glance there’s nothing particularly big about Sonia Warshawski.

If anything, Sonia is tiny…though she does make an impression way out of proportion to her diminutive size.  Maybe it has something to do with her penchant for animal print fabrics and bright red lipstick.

In any case, one need watch the new documentary “Big Sonia” for only a few minutes to realize we’re dealing here with a major-league personality. In part it’s because of how the Polish-born Sonia handles the English language (she describes a situation as “bog-mindling”); a big chunk of it is her energy, remarkable for a woman who in her 90s int still running the tailor shop founded by her late husband decades earlier.

But mostly it’s her back story, that of a Holocaust survivor who carved out a new life in Kansas City, raising a family, starting a business and, with the fullness of time, becomes a  conduit to the past by giving public talks about the horrors of her youth.

“Big Sonia” — made by her granddaughter Leah Warshawski and co-director Todd Soliday — covers a lot of territory.

It examines how Sonia’s tailor shop — the last surviving store in the now-razed Metcalf South Mall — became a dash of European chic amid all our Midwestern drabness. One longtime customer describes it as “a neighborhood bar &  grill without the booze.” It becomes clear that many of Sonia’s customers are as interested in hanging out with her as they are in having their hems adjusted.


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Rachel Weisz as historian Deborah Lipstadt

Rachel Weisz as historian Deborah Lipstadt

“DENIAL”  My rating: B

110 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The arrival of “Denial” could hardly be more timely, given the increased white nationalism encouraged — or at least not denounced — by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Based on historian’s Deborah Lipstadt’s 2005  memoir History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, Mick Jackson’s film  is a legal drama with repercussions far beyond the courtroom.

In 1997 Holocaust-denying historian David Irving  sued Lipstadt (of Emory University) and her publisher, Penguin Books,  for defaming him  and his theories in  her book Denying the Holocaust.

Irving opted to sue in a British court, choosing that venue rather than one in America at least in part because under British law persons accused of libel must prove their innocence  (in theU.S. it’s the plaintiff who must prove wrongdoing).

Timothy Spall

Timothy Spall

The resulting film is well acted, informative, and emotional for the quiet contempt it heaps upon anti-Semitism with a scholarly face.

Rachel Weisz portrays Lipstadt with a tightly-wound, steely exterior that periodically bursts into fierce flame.

She first encounters Irving (Timothy Spall) face to face when he shows up at her college lecture and waves $1000 which he’ll give anyone who can prove that any Jew was ever killed in a Nazi gas chamber.

The bulk of the film centers on Lipstadt’s interactions with her British solicitor (the lawyer who will prepare her case) and her barrister (who will argue it in court).  These figures of probity and quiet dignity are portrayed, respectively, by Anthony Scott (best known as Moriarty on the PBS “Sherlock”) and the ever-wonderful Tom Wilkinson.

Part of the team’s preparations involves a trip to Auschwitz (on a eerily beautiful foggy winter’s day), where Lipstadt is moved by the echoes of dead souls but also somewhat perplexed…before the war ended the Germans blew up the gas chambers in an effort to destroy evidence of their crimes.


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Kristen Scott Thomas

“SARAH’S KEY” My rating: B (Opening wide on Aug. 19)

111 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Sarah’s Key” is actually two movies, one set in World War II and the other in the present.

The first is a devastating look at the horrors of the Holocaust as witnessed by a child.

The latter is a not-terribly-compelling detective story.

In the end they dovetail to make a more-or-less complete whole.

Julia Jarmond (Kristin Scott Thomas), an American-born writer for a Paris magazine, is researching a story on one of the darkest blots on French history — the July 1942 roundup of 13,000 Jews, not by the occupying Germans but by the French police.

The prisoners were herded into a covered sports stadium without food, water or sanitation facilities. Those who survived several days in this hellhole (one character compares it to the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina, only 10 times worse) were then shipped off to labor or death camps.


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