Movie Review: Survivors Recall what came “After Auschwitz”

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Holocaust documentaries are often filled with numbers — the staggering death toll, the percentages of Gypsy, Jewish or homosexual populations wiped out.

Here’s one that doesn’t make it into “After Auschwitz” — 66% of Millenials don’t know what “Auschwitz” is, over 20% have never heard of the Holocaust. A majority of Americans polled now think, in the current American and global political environment, that  “Something like that could happen again.”

So maybe we need to retire the “Holocaust fatigue” at the movies cracks, the “Get yourself into a Holocaust movie if you want a Golden Globe/Oscar” Ricky Gervais jokes. For now, anyway.

Jon Kean’s “After Auschwitz” is a different take on the familiar subject, an almost-upbeat recounting, by survivors, not just of the horrors, but of the lives they made for themselves afterwards.

Kean’s years-in-the-making film (some interview subjects have since died) lets six women tell their stories and remember what they endured. And then they talk about what all they witnessed in the hours, days, months and years after their liberation from near certain death.

They speak of their intense hatred for Germans and Germany, hatred which quickly cooled just enough for them to feel pity for the homeless, starving refugees wandering through ghost cities that they themselves hiked through after being freed from camps.

Over archival newsreel footage, they talk about the horrors they’ve seen, their rage at their Allied liberators for forcing Storm Trooper guards haul Jewish, Gypsy and other bodies for mass burials, and so dishonoring the dead.

They remember well-meaning soldiers saying “You can go home, now,” only to face more ugliness and reprisals upon their return to Poland looking for relatives and their former lives.

“You want your stuff back? You can FORGET it!”

And then these six left the devastated, anti-Semitic Old World behind. They beam as each recalls this first trip to a New York deli, that first-ever plane ride, “My first, and last, Coke.”

Renee Firestone cannot stop smiling as she remembers her life as a fashion designer, Rena Drexler recounts how she met her husband, moved to California and opened a North Hollywood deli.

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Most fascinating of all, Kean gets them to connect their lives to the history passing by around them, from their own children and peers, who rarely got them to open up about their experiences, to their grandchildren and generations of curious school kids, who were the key to many survivors bringing back those awful memories and beginning the process of Bearing Witness.

For years, it was “You’re now in America. Forget it,” Firestone recalls. Then came the books, the “Holocaust” TV series, “Shoah” and “Schindler’s List.” People wanted to know, and those with a gift for speaking and a desire to share were suddenly in demand. I’ve interviewed a few survivors over the years, and have yet to meet one who wasn’t steeled by the experience, turned into a moving storyteller simply by the need for others to remember.

There have been hundreds of Holocaust documentaries, so many that I could name several, right off the top of my head, that this supposedly “complete” list mentions. “After Auschwitz” doesn’t cover enough new ground to be among the very best.

But in focusing on the lives lived AFTER living through a genocide, co-writer/director Kean has made a most accessible documentary, one built around compelling characters giving eyewitness testimony to both the worst moments in human history, and some of the most inspiring.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, images of graphic violence, corpses

Cast: Renee Firestone, Erika Jacoby, Rena Drexler, Eva Beckmann, Linda Sherman, Lili Majzner

Credits:Written and directed by Jon Kean. A Passion River release.

Running time: 1:22

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