From those who bear witness

From those who bear witness

The Last Survivors by Jenni Frazer for JN Jan 14 2019

The faces loom at the viewer out of the dark, captured in almost too much detail, the experiences of a lifetime etched on their skin. Some of the faces are familiar, some could be any senior citizen.

But they are not just any senior citizens. They are Holocaust survivors, and not just any survivors, but among the last living witnesses to the six year-long attempted complete annihilation of the Jewish people.

These are the people who have been inexorably damaged by what happened to them, and their testimonies shudder from the screen in the BBC documentary, “The Last Survivors”.

The 90-minute film is the result of months of painstaking work by producer and director Arthur Cary, who was commissioned to make the feature by the BBC to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day. Alison Kirkham, the Controller of BBC Factual Commissioning, told a preview screening audience at London’s JW3: “We believe that there are shared moments in our collective history that merit re-examination, and it is our role as broadcasters to preserve them for posterity. That is absolutely the case with this film”.

In drifts and fragments, the personal stories of some of these men and women, all now in their 80s or even 90s, weave in between depictions of their lives today. Here is Ivor Perl, walking his dog in apparent domestic harmony. He sits on a bench and looks out at a chocolate box view of parkland. “That’s the trouble with being a survivor,” he reflects. “Everything tends to remind you of something”, as his mind’s eye takes the viewer back to his time in Dachau, with barbed wire in front of him instead of a tranquil tree line.

Or here is Frank Bright, pottering about in his Suffolk home with his wife Cynthia, admitting that he cannot really communicate with many people “because they don’t know what I’m talking about. I mean, how many people in England see their parents murdered, or see a gas chamber in action?”
Arthur Cary, perhaps like the viewer, wonders what effect the Holocaust has had on the Brights’ married life. “I’ve no idea,” retorts Cynthia. “I don’t know what he would have been like if he hadn’t been through all that”.

Upstairs Frank’s fingers hover over a school photograph, taken in 1942. He points to each classmate: “Did not survive, did not survive, did not survive…”

Showing the film crew around his garden, dotted with statues he has made, Maurice Blik, with an unexpected Cockney accent, turns out to have a tragic hidden story behind his overtly “can-do” exterior. Today a former president of the Royal Society of British Sculptors, he was born in Amsterdam in 1939 and ended the war being liberated from Belsen. And it was in Belsen, he tells us, that his baby sister was born and died, a heartbreaking memory as he remembers a first “sculpture” that he tried to give her as her birthday present. She didn’t even make it to one year old, Blik recalls.

“The Last Survivors” is unusual in its attempt to explore the effect of the survivors’ experiences on their families. Judy, Ivor Perl’s daughter, is at times exasperated with her father but also intent on showing him bottomless love and affection — and of attempting to explain the events to her own daughter, as the family goes to Auschwitz together.

Manfred Goldberg, who swore never to return to his home town of Kassel, does so, with his wife, as he unveils a Stolpersteine (memorial stone) in the name of his little brother, Herman. Tears run down the faces of the onlookers as he recites Kaddish.

We meet, probably for the first time on screen, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch’s daughter Maya Jacob Wallfisch, and get some sense of the survivor mother’s desperate attempt to recreate “a normal” family from the ashes of her destroyed one. Anita, a cellist, smokes heavily throughout the film and pours cold water on sentimentalising the choices she made.

And we see Susan Pollack, born in Hungary, another Belsen survivor who is seen, incongruously, dancing in her flat towards the end of the film. It is, she says, “a warning film, it tells people, beware”.

Do the survivors have anything in common? On the face of it, very little. In fact, this remarkable film shows that they do, summed up, perhaps, by Maurice Blik. “Here I am, take note!” he declares. He didn’t want being a survivor to define him. But he, like the others, now feels a need to retell his story.

  • 14 January, 2019