THE SHOW "Frontline: The Last Survivors"
WHEN | WHERE 10 p.m. Tuesday on WNET/13
WHAT IT'S ABOUT To coincide with Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, this “Frontline” profiles some half dozen survivors, most of them children when imprisoned at various death camps across Germany and eastern Europe. Now mostly in their 80s, living in Britain, they speak of a lifetime of coping with memories. They include Frank Bright, Lydia Tischler, Manfred Goldberg, Ivor Perl, who returns to Auschwitz with his daughter; Maurice Blik, the British sculptor whose father is reflected in his work; Susan Pollack, who recalls the last fleeting words to her mother; and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who spoke before the German Bundestag, warning against the rise in anti-Semitism. Directed by Arthur Cary, this film is based on the fact that “it will not be long before there are no firsthand survivors alive,” as one of them says, and it's important to record this testimony for future generations.
MY SAY There are believed to be fewer than 100,000 survivors of death camps, ghettos and those “in hiding,” according to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which tracks such numbers. Most live in the United States and in Israel. Per the conference, the average age of the youngest survivors is around 74 — babies at the time of liberation.
These are key figures to keep in mind as you watch because “The Last Survivors” — excellent, moving and undeniably important as it is — doesn't bother with the numbers. This film doesn't want to get caught up in the weeds of statistics or definitions. Instead, here are the memories of a few of those survivors who have only recently begun to speak of them, or come to terms with their past.
But numbers at least offer perspective and convey a little of the brute urgency to the task of remembrance. After all, memories live only as long as those who have them.
Lasker-Wallfisch — an Auschwitz survivor and member of its Women's Orchestra as a cellist — offers the most pragmatic counsel on this point. Looking into the camera, she says, “You want to hear? Here it is: I encourage youngsters to ask [because] when we've gone, finished. Then it's all history books.”
She then turns to the producer with a look of bemused defiance: “Anything else?”
Memories are also evanescent and the ones here emerge from the darkness like ghosts — vivid snapshots of a long-ago moment, almost too deep for words if not emotions: Of a boy who returns to his barracks to find that his older brother has vanished. Of another who watches flames leap from a crematorium and wonders which of the flames is his mother. Of a girl stepping off a train, as camp guards select those who will go to the left (work camps) or to the right (gas chambers).
There are no tears in this hour, or almost none. “I haven't been able to cry because I think crying would have no end,” says Pollack.
Here's Lasker-Wallfisch, characteristically, on the question of emotion: “People want to see emotions. Forget it! We're talking about facts here.” The 93-year-old takes a drag on a cigarette. “I'm not giving people the pleasure of seeing my emotions. No.”
Blik recalls advice his son gave him: “I suppose what my son was saying — 'Don't feel bad' — [was] right. Don't feel bad about surviving.”
Survivors each, they've lived in a fog of remembrance these past 70-plus years, coping at various stages of their lives with vitally important questions that those less burdened sometimes take for granted. “I began to doubt the existence of God,” says Goldberg, “but I looked around me and it became crystal clear that there had to be a God and almighty creator and I concluded that he has given us finite minds which cannot comprehend the events we went through and therefore it must have been the Almighty's will that we don't understand — that we believe in him clearly through faith, not logic. And on that basis I have remained a believing and faithful Jew.”
BOTTOM LINE: Short on perspective, but long on one essential message — never forget.