They survived the Nazis' most notorious death camp; new documentary 'After Auschwitz' reveals what happened next
Film by Jon Kean documents struggle of six women to build new lives in post-war America
Linda Sherman, a native of Holland, was 18 years old when she was liberated from the Auschwitz death camp in 1945. Erika Jacoby, of Hungary, was just 16.
"The day before liberation we were digging our graves. That was the order. They kept repeating it," Jacoby says in the new documentary After Auschwitz, directed by Jon Kean.
The collapse of the German war machine in 1945 put an end to the Final Solution, the Nazis' plan for extermination of European Jewry. But liberation from the death camps would be followed by another ordeal for survivors like Jacoby and Sherman -- rebuilding a life after so many of their loved ones had been killed and the world they knew had been destroyed.
How do you move on from trauma to life?
"I had never thought of liberation being anything but happy -- the idea of 'You're free!' 'Great, we're free. Let's move on.' [But] liberation was the second worst day of the war," Kean told Nonfictionfilm.com. "I was fascinated by 'what's next.' How do you move on from trauma to life?"
To explore those questions, Kean spent time with six survivors: along with Jacoby and Sherman, Rena Drexler (19 at liberation); Lili Majzner (23 at liberation); Eva Beckmann and Renee Firestone (22 and 20, respectively, at liberation). The director had met his subjects years earlier when he made a previous documentary about them, Swimming in Auschwitz, which focused on their experience as inmates at Auschwitz-Birkenau. After the war the six women had separately immigrated to the U.S., eventually setting in the Los Angeles area where they raised families.
"They had a life [pre-war], they had a world. It was ripped apart by this chasm and then they have this new life and this new world. Do you ever heal?" Kean asked. "Do you ever build a bridge from one world to the other? How do you balance where you're from and who you are? And that's a theme that runs through the whole film."
Among the challenges many survivors faced was coping with a sense of guilt at having left Auschwitz alive, when so many others imprisoned there had been killed.
Kean says his subjects experienced 'that idea of, 'What do we do now to prove that we are worthy of survival?' They feel guilt when they see a Cambodian refugee or [a refugee from] Kosovo or Sudan. Of all the people in the world they shouldn't feel bad, but they do because they understand what that means. They understand what suffering means."
In the U.S., the women found themselves swept up in booming 1950s America, a country bursting with energy and optimism. In this atmosphere, neighbors hardly appeared eager to hear stories of the Holocaust.
"[The women] wanted to talk. They wanted to share what happened, but they were either judged by American standards or they were [told], 'Put it behind you. You're in America,'" Kean observed. "So if nobody asks you for 35 years what happened to you, how do you ever move on and heal? We deal with anger in this film. We deal with that frustration."
The women also faced the dilemma of what to tell their children about their time in Auschwitz.
"'Do I burden my child with my own experience?' Erika... didn't discuss it with her children. They breathed it in," Kean commented. "It's incredible that even the most empathetic of them couldn't access their kids in that same way."
After Auschwitz comes out at a time of growing ignorance among Americans about the Holocaust and Auschwitz in particular.
A recent survey commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found 41-percent of adult Americans could not identify what Auschwitz was. Among millennials the figure was even more stark: 66-percent of that group did not know what Auschwitz was.
The survey found almost a third of Americans vastly underestimated the number of Jews killed during the Holocaust, putting the figure at two million or fewer; in fact the correct figure is approximately six million. Among millennials 22-percent either had no idea or were unsure what the Holocaust was.
"It's disturbing. It's not surprising," Kean said of the survey's findings. "What I find as a positive from this study is that we finally have data. I could have told you about this. But if you don't have data [people respond], 'Well, what do you know?'"
The director said some people implicitly ask, "'Why do we keep making these [Holocaust] movies? Why do we have another museum? Why, why, why?' The reason why is because we're losing fact. Without fact we can't get to the film I'm making which is about what happened next [after Auschwitz]. If you don't have the basis of understanding of fact then we can't have a conversation about... how do we as a nation incorporate 'the other,' the immigrant, the refugee, which are topics going on right now."
Kean expresses deep concern about the rise of right-wing political parties in Germany, France and Italy and the authoritarian governments now ruling Hungary and Poland. The Polish parliament recently passed legislation that would make it a crime punishable by imprisonment to "falsely and intentionally" accuse the Polish nation of "Holocaust crimes committed by Nazi Germany," as the Washington Post reported. The parliament later backtracked on the imprisonment provision of the law, but left the possibility of fines in place.
"Were they complicit? You're damn right they were complicit," Kean says regarding Poland. "Holocaust survivors were murdered when they returned home... Yeah, that's complicity. Absolutely. Were they victimized by the Germans? You're damn right they were. So that is gray. That is a gray, gray story. I am not willing to forgive Poland of its complicity in the past but we've got to look at home too. We've got to be able to call things what they are."
That last sentence from Kean refers to President Trump's failure to condemn torch-bearing neo-Nazis who staged a "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer. Trump said the rally participants included "some very fine people."
"When neo-Nazis are marching and we can't say that Nazis are bad -- Nazis were the architects of the Final Solution, the attempted eradication of Jews in Europe. That's the Nazi Party," Kean exclaimed. "And when we had neo-Nazis marching in this country and we're finding 'good people on both sides'? I am deeply, deeply troubled by a world that no longer can say that Nazis are bad."
After Auschwitz played in theaters in New York and Los Angeles this spring. It is set for a theatrical run in Chicago at the Wilmette Theatre from July 27-August 2. It is also scheduled to play in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania beginning July 17 and in Columbus, Ohio beginning July 26 (details here).
Kean says the story of the women in After Auschwitz can inspire audiences, citing the example set by one of his subjects, Rena Drexler.
"Even Rena, until the day she died, she had that anger. But she channeled it. She fed people. Rena who sees people who are homeless and just can't step over them. I do believe this film in some ways is a path to empathy. Because how can we see how they acted and not let it affect us a little bit?" the director asked. "I think After Auschwitz makes you examine your behavior, to some degree. It makes you want to do something a little better."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.