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The Last Days

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 5 February 1999

  Directed and Edited by James Moll.

Featuring Congressman Tom Lantos, Alice Lok Cahana,
Renée Firestone, Bill Basch and Irene Zisblatt.

This first extraordinary feature from the Shoah Foundation, the organization dedicated to educating mankind about the Holocaust, is a stunning document to the horror of past generations and a tribute to the inner strength of its "stars," all survivors on the genocidal war against the Jews, particularly those in Hungary caught in Germany’s crosshairs as the end of World War II was drawing to a close. Director-editor James Moll and producers June Beallor and Ken Lipper, with a big push from executive producer Steven Spielberg on behalf of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, combine enlightening testimonials and horrifying historical footage to remind and rejuvenate us with hope for the future of our civilization. It will be as much a roller coaster emotional ride for the audience as it was undoubtedly for its creators and seemingly for the children and grandchildren of these unfortunate witnesses who bare their souls for history’s sake.

The five Hungarians who provide the light to this must-see production are the remnants of Hitler’s escalated efforts to exterminate the largest remaining Jewish population in Europe, forcing the incarceration and near-total incineration of nearly 500,000 people over a three month span. They provide eyewitness recollections and tear-filled re-visits to their home towns and the concentration camps of their past (the new material was filmed in five countries, including Hungary, Germany, Poland, and the Ukraine), which Moll intercuts with ultra-graphic images of the atrocities of Nazi Germany, particularly film of mass burials and, for the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, some rare photos of the Hungarian Jews arriving by cattle train. Academy Award winning composer Hans Zimmer contributes an appropriate score, adding an urgency to the message.

Hungary was originally a haven for the Jews fleeing Poland after Hitler’s invasion, bringing with them talk of brutality, mass shootings, and of infants being torn in half and tossed in rivers. One survivor comments that the common belief was this aberration would blow over. History, of course, proved that Hitler and his minions were as dedicated in their abominable, twisted methods as they moved deeper into Hungary. It was this dreadful commitment that may have distracted them from their own war efforts and ultimate defeat.

There is nothing extraordinary about this film, except for the individuals it profiles. They speak themselves -- there is no narration -- providing first hand glimpses at the horrors of their past, all as teenagers caught in one unfathomable situation after another. Congressman Tom Lantos, artist Alice Lok Cahana, teacher Renée Firestone, businessman Bill Basch, and grandmother Irene Zisblatt tell their stories straight through the camera of Harris Done to your heart. Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to the U.S. Congress, recalls the March 1944 occupation of Hungary by the Nazi evil and the roundup of most of the Jewish population of his hometown of Budapest by summer’s end, with his short-lived forced-labor imprisonment at Szob broken by a successful escape and return home, where he survived due to his "Aryan" coloring and residence in a Raoul Wallenberg safe house, an apartment designated for "diplomatic protection" (i.e., sanctuary) by that Swedish savior of many Jews. Now living in Houston, Texas, Cahana, liberated from Bergen-Belsen in spring of 1945, talks of her search for news of her sister, ultimately agreeing to share her testimony in this film as a tribute to her sibling’s memory.

Firestone, from a middle class upbringing in the city of Uzhorod, in the part of Czechoslovakia annexed by Hungary in 1938, tells of escalating antisemitic restrictions on the Jews and the 1944 deportation of her family to Germany, of the 120 people jammed in the cattle car without ventilation and a single bucket for a bathroom. She relates the horrifying months in Auschwitz and her sister’s death there. Now a teacher working closely with Simon Wiesenthal’s Center’s Educational Outreach Program, she brings an inexhaustible spirit to her students.

Basch, from a traditional Jewish home in a small farming village in the Carpathian Mountains, became a part of the Zionist underground in Budapest, maneuvering through the city’s sewer system only to be caught in late 1944 when he mistakenly exits from the wrong manhole. His tragedy took him to Buchenwald, his life saved only by a "choiceless choice" among friends.

Zisblatt, her life uprooted as antisemitism separates her from her friends in Poleno, another Czech-annexed municipality, has her family betrayed and forced into the Munkacs Ghetto. A few weeks later the family, believing they are being sent to a rural locale to make wine, instead discover they have arrived in Auschwitz, her life eventually spared only because the SS sent too many people to the gas chamber one day and she is thrown out of the way so a guard could shut the door.

A chilling addition to the film is Dr. Hans Münch, a doctor at one of the death camps (later acquitted of war crimes), talking in a remarkable calm and evasive tone of his "harmless" experiments to sterilize women.

A handful of mesmerizing stories; a film full of hellish, irrational memories; a future filled with hope, of faith in life renewed. Filmmaker Moll has fashioned a monument that demands your heartfelt attention.

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