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The Boston Phoenix Survivors' Tale

'The Last Days' puts a human face on horror

By Tom Meek

MARCH 1, 1999:  After achieving cinematic success with Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg launched the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation as a continual reminder of the Holocaust and an educational tool designed to fight racism and hate. And he's on board in the capacity of executive producer for The Last Days, the first feature-length film produced by the Shoah Foundation. With a haunting score by Hans Zimmer (The Lion King), this arresting portrait of the Holocaust (Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary) does more than just retrace history, it personifies it. By putting a human face on the unconscionable atrocity, director James Moll not only chronicles the last horrible chapter to the Holocaust but looks at how a community was snatched from a harmonious cradle of prosperity and thrown into the lions' den.

In March of 1944, with defeat imminent, Germany invaded Hungary bent on carrying out the "Final Solution" -- extermination of Europe's Jewry. At the start of the Second World War, Hungary had been an ally of the Axis powers, and even though it capitulated in its allegiance, it was never a military threat to Germany. What it had that the Nazis wanted was the last freestanding population (nearly one million) of Jews in Europe. Moll's film captures the Hungarian experience through the sobering testimony of five Jewish survivors.

The documentary's tempo mirrors the odyssey of its subjects. It begins with nostalgia and patriotic sentiment, but then, as the survivors begin to recall how their friends and neighbors turned on them when the Hungarian government tightened its Fascist restrictions on Jews, the mood morphs starkly. "People wonder how it is that we didn't do something, run away, that we didn't hide," offers one of the survivors. "Things happened very slowly, so each time a new law or restriction came out, we said, just another thing, it will blow over." But it didn't.

Of the five survivors, four were imprisoned in Nazi death camps. Alice Lok Cahana, Renée Firestone, and Irene Zisblatt were stripped of their material belongs, packed into cattle cars and deported to Auschwitz, where their families were decimated. Bill Basch found himself incarcerated at Buchenwald after a wrong turn in a sewage system during a resistance operation placed him in the presence of Fascist soldiers. Tom Lantos, a 16-year-old boy at the time and now a US congressman from California, was assigned to a forced-labor detail, where he helped rebuild bridges bombed by the Allies. He later escaped and became part of the Resistance. During their service in the Underground, Lantos and Basch aided the efforts of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who issued the Jews bogus passports and legal documents. It's estimated that his efforts saved tens of thousands of lives.

Moll accords his subjects an enormous degree of emotional dignity, allowing the power of their testimonials to consume the camera. The horror stories include Irene Zisblatt's account of how she swallowed her diamonds to keep them from the Nazis, and how after they passed through her body she'd have to fish them out of her own waste and swallow them again (sometimes without a chance to wash them off). It's not until we reach the point of liberation (when the Jews were freed from the death camps) that Moll begins to intercut rare footage of emaciated prisoners and grotesque mounds of broken bodies. If the imagery is unsettling, you can only imagine how the American liberators felt when they arrived at Auschwitz and Dachau, with no inkling of what they would find. Almost more horrible are the photos of the survivors' relatives -- those who didn't survive. And when Renée Firestone, trying to discover what happened to her sister at Auschwitz, comes face to to face with one Dr. Munch, who performed experiments there, he shrugs and explains that it was "normal" for a prisoner to die after six months -- as if the girl had been a lab rat.

Although Moll's film runs just 87 minutes, I did feel he let the epilogue segment run on too long. He's aiming for closure as the survivors return to their homelands and the death camps to confront the past; these moments are emotional and uplifting, but they appear small in context to what the documentary has already accomplished. Other powerful Holocaust testaments, Shoah and Night and Fog, simply let history tell the frightful truth. No matter, Moll has created a history lesson that speaks volumes.

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