Swimming in Auschwitz, PBS America, review: ‘harrowing’

July 9th, 2014

The antithesis of any notion of care was explored in Swimming in Auschwitz (PBS America) in which six women, all teenagers at the time, spoke of their experiences there. I am glad to say it was more harrowing than the suspiciously jaunty title suggested. (It referred to a hot summer day when one of the women in the camp on the way to her labour jumped into a deserted outdoor pool used by the Nazi guards, without being caught.) I don’t mean that Jon Kean’s film belonged to the horror-voyeuristic genre of concentration camp documentaries. It is simply that there should be no understating the black evil behind the picture built up by the mosaic of the six women’s testimonies. After watching it, my night was broken by a nightmare. It is a film anyone who can should see, but no one should be forced to.

I won’t heap up details – the three-day journey during which children died in a cattle truck with no food, water or lavatories, the lice, the shaven heads, the nakedness, the starvation, the cruelty, the experimentation, the constant fear. With what could these young women resist? Something human was all they could seek, some “purpose”. “To live for my mother,” one said. “That I will tell after,” said another.

Dehumanisation was a word used several times: they had been left numb and friendless. It is hard to be good in a hellish place. “I’m not saying we were angels,” one of the women, Erika Jakoby, said, “but I wouldn’t steal anybody’s food.” This plain statement actually reflects a degree of goodness that I couldn’t imagine emulating.

When another of the survivors spoke briefly of a man who secretly gave her three raw potatoes, I shed tears. Those are the kind of tears that some feel-good film could invite. But other tears welled up too, I found: tears of anguish at the things done there. They were definitely feel-bad. Perhaps it is human to feel very bad about our fellow humans too, sometimes.

World War Two

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