Those who don’t learn from history, as the old axiom goes, are destined to repeat it. In modern day America — where white supremacists are marching openly in the streets of Charlottesville, Holocaust denial has moved from the fringes of the internet to the center stage of political debate, actual Nazi’s are running for public office, and the numbers of those who survived the Shoah continue to dwindle — director John Kean’s powerfully orchestrated new film After Auschwitz: The Story of Six Women, could not be more timely. A tale of perseverance and rebirth, Kean’s doc works where so many other Holocaust films have failed by, yes, telling the survival stories of six very different, and charismatic women but, perhaps even more inspiring, fully illustrates how they built new lives and new histories in post-war America.
As the former associate director of a Jewish film festival, I have seen a fair share of Holocaust-related documentaries. Often these films fall into several familiar tropes including the reunion of long-lost family members, the exploration of pre-war European Jewish communities, tales of righteous gentile saviors, and the like. Quite often, films of this ilk can come off as personal passion projects with a little universal appeal or, conversely, maudlin tales that take in too much history in their effort to drive home larger truths. The best of these — Claude Lanzmann’s epic Shoah, Marcel Ophul’s masterful The Sorrow and the Pity, and Alain Resnais’ groundbreaking Night and Fog — succeed in large part because they are able to explain the unfathomable by focusing on the individual narratives of those who survived. In choosing to frame his film around six women — both before and especially after the Holocaust — Kean’s After Auschwitz is at once empathetic, relatable, and uplifting.
The six protagonists in the film — Eva Beckmann, Rena Drexler, Renee Firestone, Erika Jacoby, Lili Majzner, and Linda Sherman — had little in common prior to the war. They were from Czechoslovakia, Holland, Poland, and Hungary; religious and non-religious; from prosperous and poor backgrounds. But in Hitler’s Germany, they were seen collectively as Jews and as such were marked for extermination. The filmmaker introduces us to each of these older yet still vibrant women and gives them ample space to unspool their stories. Early on, the film is indeed punctuated with images of Auschwitz but does not fixate on the horrors that occurred there. When each of these women describes what happened after they were freed from bondage is when the story really hits its stride.
“…telling the survival stories…fully illustrate how they built new lives and new histories in post-war America.”
Some tried to return to their pre-war homes, only to find an angry populace who — having stolen Jewish families’ lands and goods — refused to help their former neighbors, chased them off, and in some cases threatened them with violence and death. “I thought I was going to go back to the same place that I left but everything had changed,” remarks one of the women. “Everything was upside down.” In a bitter twist irony, many of these survivors found themselves forced to return to displacement camps in Germany where they anxiously looked for any of their friends or relatives who had made it out of the camps alive. Without a future in Europe, Eva, Rena, Renee, Erika, Lili, and Linda all emigrated to the United States. (As a 1940s era newsreel announced that “America opens her heart to those who yearn for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” played, I could feel the anger rising in my chest as I reflected upon how — a mere 70 years later — many in our nation are instead denigrating those fleeing violence and calling for curbs on immigration.)
After stops in other cities along the way, all six women ultimately made their way to the fabled land of milk and honey that is California. And there, in the Golden State, they earnestly began rebuilding their lives. Through flashbacks, family photos and super 8mm home movies, the viewer is allowed into their lives as they married, raised families, pursued careers, and generally tried to integrate into the so-called American melting pot. Perhaps surprisingly, they very seldom, if at all, talked about their past ordeals in the camps — even with other survivors. “You can’t mourn when you want to live,” says one of the women. Yet, as anyone who has experienced trauma knows, issues — especially of this magnitude — cannot be swept aside or simply forgotten.
It was only when the American media began portraying the Holocaust in film and television — the “Holocaust” mini-series, Night and Fog, and Schindler’s List were a particular turning points identified by the protagonists — and some traveled back to the camps years later, that many of these women began speaking out about their experiences. And, in so doing, they really began to heal. Yet, trapped between the past the present, Europe and America, I got the sense that the larger ideas of serenity and “home” sadly remained elusive for many of these women.
It must be noted that the filmmakers mix a lot into the narrative, including anecdotes about the Kennedy assassination, the civil rights movement, homelessness, Darfur, Cambodia, and other tragic elements of American and global history. While the reasons for including these issues makes larger historic sense, they ultimately felt tacked on, diminishing and slowing the story.
Despite this minor quibble, After Auschwitz: The Story of Six Women is beautifully shot, crisply edited and scored, and directed with purpose and clarity. The documentary is an affecting, tender, and moving work of filmmaking that deserves a wide audience, especially in post-fact America.
After Auschwitz: The Story of Six Women (2018) Directed by Jon Kean. Written by Deborah Blum and Jon Kean. With Eva Beckmann, Rena Drexler, Renee Firestone, Erika Jacoby, Lili Majzner, and Linda Sherman.
4 out of 5 stars