On the day I visited Auschwitz, the sky was bright blue. The red brick of the gas chamber chimney stood out against it, and it was quite striking. That felt wrong, somehow, as if the sky should have been full of black clouds. I wasn’t sure that colourising footage of the Holocaust – and, despite the title of the programme, this wasn’t only about Auschwitz, but also about many other aspects of the Holocaust, including the Einsatzgruppen massacres, the ghettoes and the destruction of centuries of culture – would work, but it did. It also included interviews with sixteen survivors, including a female Jewish resistance fighter who escaped from the Vilnius Ghetto, and a Romani man who spoke about the decimation of his community in France.
A considerable number of TV programmes are being shown to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The BBC are showing “The Windermere Children” tonight, as well as coverage of the actual Holocaust Remembrance Day service in London, and there’s a programme on tomorrow about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. Several Holocaust-related films have also been shown, and special episodes of both Holby City and Songs of Praise have been made. The specialist history channels have also shown Holocaust-related programmes; and More 4 brought us this, the first in a two-part series. It’s harrowing stuff, but most people seem to agree that the 75th anniversary needs to be marked on a significant scale, whilst there are still survivors with us to tell their stories first-hand.
I’m not sure what I make of the idea that a younger audience won’t be able to “get” the full horror of the Holocaust unless the footage is in colour, but there’s no denying that colour adds something to historic photographs and film, as with Edwardian Britain in Colour and some of the First World War footage which has been colourised.
I thought the inclusion of footage from several different parts of Europe worked very well, in getting across the scope of what happened. One of the first people interviewed spoke about his childhood in a shtetl in the Carpathians. The deportation of people to ghettoes can create an impression that the Holocaust was all about the destruction of urban populations: the word “shtetl” usually creates a picture of an earlier time. There had been a lot of emigration from the shtetls to Western countries, or to Budapest, Warsaw, Moscow and other cities, but it was the Holocaust that destroyed that way of life, not urbanisation and not the pogroms.
Another survivor spoke about Lithuania – and a point was made about the armed resistance in the ghettoes. The story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is familiar, but armed resistance in Vilnius, Krakow, Minsk, Bialystok and Krakow was also mentioned. We were reminded of the Einsatzgruppen massacres – including some very harrowing footage, now colourised, of a mass grave. I know I’m always saying this, but there can be a tendency to focus on the concentration camps at the expense of the massacres carried out in so many places. The people of the Vilnius ghetto were shot outside Vilnius, not deported to Auschwitz. It was fascinating to hear this lady, who’d been a teenage girl when she escaped from the ghetto, the day before it was liquidated, talk about her experiences as a resistance fighter. There’s a film about Jewish resistance fighters, Defiance, but it’s not particularly good. Maybe someone could make a better one.
We also saw pictures of Jewish life in Vilnius before the war. It was such an important cultural centre: the term “Lithuanian Jews” is still used to describe religious people who emphasise the important of studying. About 13% population of Lithuania was Jewish at one time, the highest in the world, and – depending on which books you read! – 50%, 65% or even 75% of the population of Vilnius itself was Jewish. There’s very little left of that culture now. As the programme said, the Nazis aimed to destroy so much historic culture. We were shown colourised footage of Kristallnacht and, 5 years earlier, the book-burnings- the flames colourised in bright orange. They burned books. Then they burned buildings. Then they burned people.
It’s a shame, really, that the title of the programme didn’t make it clear how much this was going to include. We saw footage of huge German tanks rolling into Poland … and the Polish Army riding out to meet them on horseback, as if it were the Napoleonic Wars. They didn’t stand a chance. We also saw a lot of footage of the Lodz ghetto. Lodz, the textile city, the “Polski Manchester”. Dead bodies lying on the ground. Nooses in a row, ahead of a mass public hanging. And hundreds of small children, 4,000 in all, being marched off for deportation to Chelmno, to be gassed to death … the test runs for Auschwitz. Little kids. One survivor, who’d been living in Amsterdam before the war, spoke about how, after his political activist Jewish father was arrested, the Nazis came into his primary school to arrest him. He was 5 years old. His teacher tried to tell them that he was off sick, but they got him anyway. 5 years old.
The shtetls were an Eastern European thing: in Central and Western Europe, it was more of a destruction of an urban population. And such an essential part of every country – in Germany, in Austria, in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia, everywhere. Think Einstein, Freud, Mahler and, hey, Franz Sacher, the man who created Sachertorte. Budapest even used to be nicknamed “Judapest”. The programme – the title really didn’t explain just how much it encompassed – went back to the time just after the First World War, and explained how Jews were made a scapegoat for defeat, as if they’d been working again their own countries, the countries to which they belonged. It talked about Germany: it could also have talked about Hungary. And then there was everything that went on in the “Ukrainian People’s Republic”.
The programme made the point about what utter rubbish this was. Two of the survivors spoke about how their fathers had fought in the First World War, one for Germany, one for Austria-Hungary, and how they’d both been decorated. They spoke about the number of Iron Crosses awarded to German-Jewish soldiers. With the shtetls, I think identity tended to be religious. Not just with Jews – in Austrian Galicia, before the First World War, Ukranians seem generally to have identified as “Orthodox” rather than as “Ukrainian” or “Ruthenian”, at least until the late 19th century. But, elsewhere, identity was national, not religious. And then, as one survivor, deported from Budapest said, thousands of people were marched along the main streets into the ghetto, and other people passed by and didn’t even look at them.
People would have been too scared to do anything. And there were people who tried to help. The BBC spoke to a German woman who, as a young girl, along with her mother, provided shelter to a Jewish woman – and they also spoke to the British descendants of the woman they saved. And, just as an aside, Songs of Praise spoke about the vital work done by British Quakers in organising the Kindertransport. But still.
One of the survivors was a French Romani man, who made it quite clear that it was officials from the Vichy government who arrested and took away most of his relatives and other members of his community. I’m so glad (if that’s the right word) that the programme included the Romani Holocaust, because it’s not given as much attention as it should be. We saw pictures of some of the camps in which Romani people were imprisoned – and, of course, many Roma and Sinti people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
It also covered the horrible irony of Jews taken to forced labour camps having to build the railway lines which would later be used to help the Nazis to deport people to the death camps, and also to invade the Soviet Union. Most of those alive now were children at the time. One lady spoke about clinging to her mother’s hand as they were marched away in Budapest. One man spoke about how he associated the word “camp” with tents and jolly outdoor eating – until he got to a forced labour camp, where he had to help to build railways, and many of those working alongside threw themselves in front of trains because they couldn’t take it any more. One lady spoke about asking, shortly after arrival at Auschwitz, when she’d be able to see her mother – and being told that her mother had been gassed to death. Another spoke about her father putting his hand on her head in blessing, the last time she ever saw him
The juxtaposition of the testimony of the survivors and the colourised footage worked very well. It doesn’t always work when you’ve got a bit of film and then a bit of talking, and then a bit more film and then a bit more talking, but it did in this case. It really was a very interesting hour’s TV. My only quibble is that the title of the programme didn’t show just how much it encompassed – they made a big effort to include aspects of the Holocaust which are not always discussed. Well done, More4. This was excellent.