Not Rated, Documentary. Running time: 1 hour 27 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
James Moll’s documentary film is as riveting as any work of fiction, his cameras taking us into the lives of five survivors of the Jewish Holocaust. The film is different from other Holocaust films in that it concentrates not on Poland or Germany, but a nation allied with the Nazis yet not completely caught up in the Nazi’s anti-Semitism–Hungary. There were Nazis and anti-Semites in Hungary, and their government had allied itself with Hitler in the belief that he would emerge victorious. But until the Nazis invaded Hungary late in the war and took it over, the government had managed to forestall any general round up of its Jewish citizens.
The film highlights the irrationalism of the Nazi ideology by showing that even in the last days of the war, when Hitler needed all the forces he could muster for defending the fatherland, thousands of troops and scarce trains were tied up in the program of the destruction of Jewry. Headed by the fanatical Adolph Eichman in Hungary, the “Final Solution” proceeded to empty the countryside of Jews, until only the large community in the capital Budapest remained, and in July 1944, most of these also were deported to the extermination camps. In less than a year the Jewish population of Hungary, which was 825,000 before the war, lost hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. 63,000 died before the March, 1944 German occupation, and 657,000 were slaughtered during the nine months of direct German rule, before the Russians liberated Hungary early in 1945.
The Last Days helps us comprehend those incredible statistics by taking us into the lives of five individuals caught up in the Nazi madness–three women and two men, all who were just entering their teen years when the Germans took over their country and destroyed their comfortable ways of life forever. All of them had considered themselves Hungarians first, and Jews second, and so their sudden reversal of fortune seemed incomprehensible. One of them vividly recalls her shock when friends and neighbors whom she had grown up with suddenly cut off contact, some even expressing the prevalent prejudice against her.
The story of any one of them could make an interesting dramatic movie: for example, Irene Zisblatt tells the story of the diamonds her mother had given her when they were arrested. They were to be used to barter for food. But as she saw the women stripped and robbed of all valuables, Irene put them in her mouth to escape detection. Then she saw that the guards carefully examined the prisoners’ mouths, so she swallowed them. This process was repeated numerous times, she having to extract them each time from her excrement. She still has these gems as a reminder of the horrors she endured. They were not, and will not, be sold. Instead she has started a family tradition of passing them on to the oldest female daughter.
In addition to the moving testimony of the five survivors, others are also interviewed –American soldiers who liberated one of the camps, and even Dr. Much, the doctor who had served at the camp and carried out experiments on the inmates. By a strange coincidence this turned out to be the very doctor who had experimented on Klara, the sister of Renee’ Firestone, the former prisoner who wanted to find out more about the circumstances of her loved one’s death. The doctor had been freed from prison only because he had saved the lives of a number of Jews by pretending to experiment on the patients in his infirmary. But he had selected those sent off to the ovens, so the meeting between him and Renee’ is a tense, and for her a chilling, one.
Although all five subjects are fascinating people who managed to move beyond their horrible Holocaust ordeal, Tom Lantos is especially intriguing in that he is the only Holocaust survivor elected to the U.S. Congress. He was 16 when the Nazis occupied Budapest in 1944, and was assigned to a labor camp. Escaping once, he was severely beaten, and then he ran away again. This time he was successful, finding refuge with an aunt who was living in one of the apartments that Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg had been able to set up for the Jews under his protection. Tom was blond and blue-eyed, and therefore, dressed in the uniform of a military cadet, was able to move around the city to deliver food or medicine to Jews who were hiding and unable to venture out themselves.
He maintained sporadic contact with his childhood sweetheart Annette Tillemann, and then lost her. After the Russians liberated the city, his search for his mother and other members of his family ended with the revelation that all had perished in the death camps. He was more fortunate with Annette, because she and her mother had made it safely to Switzerland, where one of his letters caught up with her. Annette returned to Budapest, where she learned that her father, grandparents and other loved ones had been murdered. Reunited with Tom, she followed him to the U.S. later, after he had gone to college on a scholarship, and they were married. He earned his Ph.D., taught for thirty years, and then entered the House of Representatives, where understandably he has championed human rights.
The Last Days does a fine job of preventing us from forgetting what was perhaps the greatest moral failure of the 20th Century, and also inspiring us to see how the resilient human spirit can nevertheless overcome tragedy and despair and go on to contribute to the well-being of the human race. A good film for church groups to view and discuss.