It’s the morning after the four visitors had a brush with Washington celebrity, and they’re still buzzing. As they congregate in a Dupont Circle hotel room, Bill Basch, Alice Lok Cahana, René#e Firestone, and Irene Zisblatt can’t get over their encounter with Vice President Al Gore and the woman Cahana calls “his gracious lady.”
If giving Tipper Gore that sobriquet sounds a little Old World, note that all of the out-of-towners were born in Hungary some seven decades ago. As Cahana stresses, however, they’re very happy to now live in the United States. That’s because, 55 years ago, German troops arrived in their respective towns with an overriding mission: to kill the four of them and all the other Jews in the country. They almost succeeded.
This is the story told by The Last Days, the new documentary about the Nazis’ attempt to swiftly exterminate the Jews of Hungary, a country Germany didn’t invade until March 19, 1944, barely a year before V-E Day. Directed by James Moll under the aegis of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, the film won the Best Documentary Oscar last month. It recounts the Holocaust in microcosm, describing the experiences of five survivors who ended up in the United States.
The fifth of the film’s subjects, California Rep. Tom Lantos, is not available to talk about the film and the personal history it unlocks. His cohorts, however, have plenty to say.
“I was 14 years old when I survived,” remembers Zisblatt, who now lives in Florida. “I thought about how the world was to find out about what happened to us. But who’s going to listen to a 14-year-old? So I was silent. But in 1994, I was invited to go with 5,000 teenagers from all over the world, to go back to the camp to relive my childhood and tell them what happened to me. I could not submit to that for a long time. Then I saw the children learning about the history of the Holocaust. When I saw their faces questioning, I realized that we would have to go and show them. That’s where I started to break my silence.”
At Birkenau, Zisblatt divulges, “I had a vision in the gas chamber where my parents died. I saw my parents there. I saw a Seder table in the gas chamber. But there was an empty chair at that table. That was my chair. When I started walking toward the table, my mother got up from her chair, and she put her hand in front of me. She said, ‘You can’t sit at that chair yet.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Promise me that you will not cry anymore. And when you are finished doing what you’re going to do you will sit at that chair.’ I reached out to touch her, and of course she wasn’t there. So I wrote her a letter, and I promised her that I will tell the world all that I know.” She pauses. “And I haven’t shut up since.”
Each of The Last Days’ subjects returned to Europe with a film crew, confronting memories thatin most caseshad been secreted for decades. “It wasn’t that we would be in a movie,” says Basch, a retired L.A. businessman. “That’s so insignificant. But the fact that we can say, ‘Hey, it happened. It happened to me. It happened to her. It happened to each one of us.’ For us to do that is a great privilege.”
Firestone, who works for the Shoah Foundation, says she told Spielberg “that it wasn’t that he permitted us to tell our story, but that through our story we told the story of the 6 million who have no voice. That’s what’s so important.
“The five of us really didn’t know each other before this film,” she notes. “The bond that has happened between us is so special. We became really a family. Our children, our grandchildren….It is just unbelievable that 54 years later people of a similar background get together.”
Most of the others had rarely discussed the Holocaust, even with family and close friends, but Firestone has been teaching children about the subject for more than 20 years. “Eventually, you remember more,” she says. “When I first went out to speak, I didn’t think I remembered anything. But as time goes on, you tell one story and it brings another memory. I kept wondering, ‘Where did this come from?’ It didn’t come through my head; it came through my gut.”
Before The Last Days, Basch had tried to tell his story but found few listeners. “Even American Jewry was not prepared to hear the truth,” he says. “They were incapable to comprehend the truth. Eventually, I felt, It’s just words; it’s not communication. It took time for everyone, Jew and non-Jew, to open their ears. But now there’s an interest, a concern.”
At premieres from Los Angeles to Washington and even Berlin, the four survivors have been gratified by the emotional response to the film. “When I met Vice President Gore the first time,” says Basch. “I got a very courteous handshakeproper, dignified. After he had seen the film, he embraced me with such tenderness. Actually held on, as if to say, ‘I will never let this happen again to you or to anyone.’ That is such a great hope for all of us.”
Cahana, a Houston artist, is quick to note that the film’s message is not being heeded universally. “What’s going on now in Yugoslavia is a throwback to the Holocaust. Hitler gave the world a blueprint. That is the tragedy,” she says. “The one great question is to eliminate hate from my own soul. Because if I hate, then I contaminate the next generation.”
Firestone was initially unwilling to discuss her experiences because she feared that attitudes outside Germany were not so different from the ones that she experienced in the Nazi camps. “I was unfortunate to be liberated by the Soviets,” she recalls. “A Soviet officer rode in to the camp on a horse and saw the women with shaved heads, and he asked us, ‘Jews?’ And we were afraid to tell him we were Jews, because we didn’t know how he was going to react. We also knew that in the Soviet Union they did not love the Jews so much. So we didn’t answer him. So he yelled again. Finally, we said yes. This man jumped off his horsean officer with four stars on his shoulderhe came over and started to hug and kiss the women. Suddenly, he stopped and he straightened up and he began to beat his chest: ‘I’m also a Jew.’ Then, when we started to ask him questions, he told us that in the Soviet Army he could never tell anybody that he was a Jew. And here we are, they’re telling us we are free, we can go. How are we free, if [this man], a decorated hero of this war, is not allowed to be how he was?
“That’s why to me liberation was a horrendous experience,” she continues. “I knew that my parents are not coming back. I knew my sister is not coming back. And here is this hero, saying that to be a Jew out there is not OK.”
“I had the opposite,” says Zisblatt. “I had the American liberators. I was full of lice and emaciated. I weighed about 60 pounds. And I saw a little mezuza on a soldier’s dog tag. At that point, I thought that all the Jews were killed, that [she and a friend] were the only two left. I jumped on his chest just to hold on to that mezuza, and they embraced us and hugged us and made us feel that we will be human beings again.”
On their trips to Europe, the five survivors encountered places that evoked terrible memories, found the sites where family members had died, and even encountered a Nazi doctor whose rationalizations were captured on film. “It is painful,” says Basch of the experience. “I’m quite sure that every one of us has suffered tremendously. I know that I isolated myself from civilization for two months after I came back.
“Each one of us has this feeling,” he adds. “After telling the story, we have to go in the corner and have a good cry occasionally. But to tell the story is worth the pain. If we keep silent, we possibly create more harm, because by keeping silent we make it easier to happen again.”
“Our pain is not important anymore,” says Zisblatt. “We will carry our pain into our graves. What’s important is what we are doing with that pain.”Mark Jenkins