For years after the killing stopped, many Jews who left the concentration camps never quite felt comfortable with being called “survivors.” They thought of themselves as orphans, exiles, mourners, lonely, sleepless, barely able to speak even to their children about their experiences. As one such woman, Linda Sherman, tells the film, “After Auschwitz,” the word ’survivor’ never occurred to us.”
Says another, “No one can understand what we went through; Americans [could] not imagine it.” The experience was satanic and surreal, chimneys “burning 24 hours a day and the smell ate itself into our flesh. For years, I can smell it on myself.”
The film, director Jon Kean’s sequel to his first documentary, “Swimming in Auschwitz” (2007), follows the same six women from that film through their post-war lives. The film makes no pretense of being representative. The six women all found success after relocating to Los Angeles (the film was made in association with the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum). There is no hint, for example, that thousands of survivors are living in poverty. There is barely a word on the role that religion plays in their lives. We don’t hear from any husbands or children. And yet like after all compelling movies, when the 88 minutes end, I found myself wanting to meet any one of these women for a cup of coffee and hear more.
But behind their sun-drenched California lives lurks the black hole of memory. Before the Shoah, they were teenagers, surrounded by hundreds of relatives and friends; after the war, most survivors had no living relatives. One of these survivors, Erika Jacoby, lived in a Hungarian town that had 1,600 Jewish children; 20 were alive at war’s end. How many relatives can one survivor mourn? “I stopped counting at 50,” said Linda Sherman.
Even in Los Angeles, Linda confesses to being “always nervous. I never knew who was behind me.” She feared for her children. When her son wanted to join the Boy Scouts, and a scoutmaster offered to pick him up, “That didn’t sound right, to ‘pick him up,” said Linda. “The truck reminded me of the truck that picked me up. I saw these kids had brown uniforms, and I said, ‘is that what you’re going to give my boy? … Oh, no. He’s not going to go to the Boy Scouts, forget it.’ They looked like little Nazis.”
Said another survivor, “It took a long time before we could trust people. We did not trust ourselves… We [lost] six years out of normal human life.”
Said Rena Drexler, “You wake up in the night, crying.”
Said Erika Jacoby, “I had very tentative connections to other people. … I didn’t fit in.”
The survivors, said the director, “were concerned that they would never fall in love, or ever have sex, or find a husband.” As one survivor explained, “marriages happened because of the big hole in our lives, the loneliness, we did not have anybody. When we found [a] person with the same experiences, we had this bond, and were holding to it.”
In the Displaced Persons camps, there were sometimes six or more weddings a day, each a celebration of life, but many weddings were haunted by the realization that there was no one to invite. One woman recalls, “For the wedding, we met at lunchtime, went to the city office, two of his colleagues were witnesses and we took them to lunch. Not a flower in sight.” Another who got married in America, in a living room, surrounded by “a bunch of people I didn’t know,” said, “This was not how it was supposed to happen.”
At least these survivors had a bond with each other, a bond that didn’t exist with many American Jews. Survivor Renee Firestone remembered, “Whenever I mentioned anything about the camps [the Americans would say] ‘Stop! Don’t talk about it. You’re now in America. Forget it.’”
Erika Jacoby recalled that when she told an American cousin how, in Germany soon after liberation, she was among a roving band of skeletal survivors that “looted the city… . When I broke into a house, I destroyed whatever I could. I just had to express my anger. I stole a white tablecloth and an apron.” She smiles shyly, “Because girls wore aprons.” She found a small silver cup and remembered what it was like to hear Kiddush in what seemed another life. The cup had the flowery engraved initials “EF,” her grandfather’s initials, “so I thought I had the right to have this cup.”
When the cousin heard that she stole food and a cup, “he was horrified,” Erika recalled. He scolded her, “‘That was not right to do! To steal!’ That shut me up,” said Erika. “That was it. I knew we couldn’t talk because we were judged by the standards that they [Americans] had. They didn’t understand.”
After liberation, returning to Hungary, there was more humiliation: “The population said, ‘Why did you come back? You want your stuff back? You’re never going to get it.’” She saw two Jews tied to the back of a horse and buggy and dragged through the streets until dead.
Survivor Rena Drexler slept near cows in a field. She made it home, but “the Polish people wouldn’t let us into our house. They were wearing our clothes.” The townspeople had normal lives, babies in carriages, children going to school, “and we were homeless, helpless … . We sat on the steps and cried.”
Rena had nowhere to go but a DP camp in Germany. “I was very angry. And when I arrived in Germany … I hate them so much. I hate the ground, the bloody ground. I hate every person … if I had a gun I would kill a lot of people. I just couldn’t forgive them [for what] they had done to us.”
As Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann said in 1937, “the world is divided into places where Jews cannot live and where Jews cannot enter.” That ended with the birth of the State of Israel. There was singing and dancing in the DP camps. And yet, the film makes no mention of what Israel’s founding meant to these six women. Instead, we see survivors reacting to the presidential election of 1952; we see reaction to the American assassinations in the 1960s, but not to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. There is no mention of landmark events that explained the Holocaust to the oblivious, such as the Kastner trial in Israel that raised the question of whether a Hungarian Jewish leader collaborated with the Nazis; no mention of the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, when testimony by survivors was carried on American television. There is no mention of how survivors reacted to the election of a survivor, Menachem Begin, as prime minister; no reaction by survivors to the talk of “a second Holocaust” in May 1967, when Israelis were digging mass graves in preparation for the annihilation that Egypt had promised. Survivor Erika was digging mass graves in the camps, and now she has children in Israel. Did she have no feelings about Israelis digging mass graves?
Instead, this film veers into analogies between the Holocaust and Armenia, Sudan, Kosovo, Rwanda, the urban homeless, and the director’s press notes add, “Virulent right wing nationalism … in Italy, France, Austria, The Netherlands, Hungary, and Poland … . And we are not immune to racial tinged nationalism here in America either … . As for genocide, we need look no further than the plight of the Rohingya today in Myanmar.” Are the Rohingya more pertinent to a film about survivors than Iranian missiles painted with promises to destroy six million Jews in Israel?
When we asked the director, Kean acknowledged that his six survivors were “staunchly pro-Israel,” and “Israel was the insurance policy they never had.” He admitted, “I get asked the Israel question a lot. Israel has a very strong identity for [these survivors]. It just wasn’t part of my movie.”
“After Auschwitz” is playing through April 26 at AMC Empire 25 on West 42 Street, and on April 29 at the Pelham Picture House, 175 Wolfs Lane in Pelham, Westchester County. It also screens April 27-May at Kew Gardens Cinemas, 81-05 Lefferts Boulevard. Kean told us, the film might be pushed out of the AMC by the release of “The Avengers: Infinity War.” Both the Avengers and “After Auschwitz” are “superhero movies,” said Kean, “even if ours are real and theirs are fake.”