In London, the pregnant wife of an industrialist falls down the stairs, loses her sight and has no recollection of the events but suspects that a mentally traumatic experience prior to the fall caused her accident.
This documentary consists of interviews of four women who survived the Nazi holocaust of World War II in Europe. Why four women and no men? I can only speculate that perhaps men have a much more difficult time so openly and honestly discussing a horrific and prolonged period of their own suffering and victimization at the hands of the Nazis during the war. No matter how difficult the ordeal of the holocaust was for all of its victims, I have read that it was particularly difficult for men as they were helpless in the defense of their families against the harsh brutality of a highly organized Nazi murder machine, which had literally declared war against a large and mostly unarmed segment of Europe's population. For whatever reason, women may be more capable of expressing some very troubling and traumatic experiences that resulted from their Nazi imprisonment.
On a personal note, my mother and her family were very fortunate to immigrate to the United States from southern Poland, an area once known for centuries as Galicia, arriving in New York on October 29, 1929, the day of the devastating financial crash that ushered in the long economic depression. After that day, immigration to the United States became very difficult, not only as the result of the very difficult times but as a matter of law. As Jews, even the slightest delay of their departure would very likely have condemned them to annihilation by the Nazis. Once Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, none of their relations remaining behind were ever heard from again. It was as if they disappeared from the face of the earth. During the second interview, in which Ada Lichtman of Krakow, Poland describes her harrowing succession of hellish transports throughout the Galician countryside, I sat with a map of the region noting how close she came at one point to my mother's hometown, which was not far from Krakow. It was very difficult to view this documentary objectively when it literally came so close to my own family in this way.
Claude Lanzman, who directed the original epic documentary "Shoah" in 1985, has an extraordinary skill in eliciting the heart-wrenching accounts of the four survivors. On many occasions, he asks a question and then withdraws in total, prolonged silence as the women return to an extremely difficult period of their lives. He gives them ample opportunity to reach back into their difficult past, and when he needs to prod them for more details of the ghastly and gruesome hell that they were forced to endure, he manages to draw out from them the full story as if he were pulling back the petals of a delicate flower without ever once crushing it clumsily or carelessly. Somehow, he manages to accomplish his desired result with a minimum of awkward or uncomfortable moments.
Without revealing too much of their individual stories, the most distressing interview to me is the first one with Ruth Elias as she recounts her extraordinary journey from a once comfortable existence in Czechoslovakia to the laboratory of "the angel of death", Dr. Josef Mengele, who conducted the most sadistic experiments imaginable on his subjects at the Auschwitz death camp in southern Poland. At the end of her heartbreaking and shocking interview, she soothingly serenades us on her accordion with the Hebrew song, "Hinei Ma Tovu" ("Behold How Good"), which attests to her magnificent triumph over the worst personal calamity imaginable.
Aside from Ms. Lichtman's previously mentioned account of her several, nightmarish transports through southern Poland, Hanna Marton describes her bizarre series of "privileged" conveyances from her home in Cluj, Transylvania that eventually and unexpectedly lead to freedom in Switzerland while nearly half a million of her fellow Hungarian Jews are murdered in the death camps during only two short months in 1944. Finally, Paula Biren describes her years in the isolated ghetto of Lodz, Poland before she and her family are ultimately deported to Auschwitz where her parents are killed.
Each of the four stories emphasizes the elements of mere circumstance and of just being in the right place at the right time, not once but in several instances, as the key determinants of their remarkable ability to survive while millions around them perished. In each case, the survivors were faced with very serious moral dilemmas as they were somehow allowed to live while multitudes of their fellow victims were not as fortunate. From their experiences, we may begin to grasp an enormous catastrophe affecting millions of people on a personal, individual, and very human level.
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