'After Auschwitz': Film Review

Courtesy of Passion River Films
A moving portrait of how life goes on.
4/20/2018

Jon Kean's documentary chronicles the post-war lives of six female Holocaust survivors.

Many documentaries concerning the Holocaust end with the liberation of the concentration camps. For Jon Kean's follow-up to his 2007 film Swimming in Auschwitz, that's when the story begins. Chronicling the lives of the same six women survivors after the end of the war, After Auschwitz proves an inspiring testament to the indomitability of the human spirit.

"The day before the liberation, we were digging our graves. That was the order," recalls one of the film's subjects. All were in their late teens or early twenties during their imprisonment; three of them have passed away in recent years.

"The elation, you cannot imagine," recalls Eva Beckman about being freed from the camp where she thought she would perish. But the elation for these women was short-lived as they struggled to deal with the realities of their situations. Renee Firestone discovered that her entire family had been wiped out. Others returned to such countries as Poland and Czechoslovakia only to discover that their homes and possessions had been taken away from them. One describes going to the train station every day in the vain hope that a family member would show up. Beckman went to live in a displaced persons camp, where she says that people were so eager to start new lives that there were often up to six weddings a day.

All eventually made their way to America. We hear how one cried upon first seeing the Statue of Liberty and another marveled at the plentiful food offerings in supermarkets. One of the women took a train to California. "It was very luxurious," she recalls. "It did not remind me at all of the cattle cars."

They discovered that most people didn't want to hear about their experiences in the camps. There were lingering emotional scars as well. One woman became severely overprotective of her children. Another refused to let her son join the Boy Scouts because "they looked like little Nazis."

When the 1978 television series Holocaust prompted renewed interest in the subject, several of the women found a new calling. Rena Drexler spent her later years speaking about her experiences during the war in Los Angeles area schools. Firestone, who had become a highly successful fashion designer, traveled the world delivering lectures for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. She's seen presenting Steven Spielberg with his Kennedy Center Honor, praising the director for his founding of the Shoah Foundation. Erika Jacoby continues to counsel other Holocaust survivors, while Lili Majzner wrote about her experiences for both English- and Yiddish-language magazines.

Despite their happy and prosperous lives in America, the women haven't forgotten the past and feel that history is condemned to repeat it. Several describe their horror at hearing about the genocide that continues around the world. "Didn't people learn anything from World War II and the Holocaust?" one laments.

After Auschwitz makes powerful use of archival clips, not stinting from showcasing graphic footage of the thousands of corpses that had gone unburied as the camps were liberated. But the film doesn't dwell on the horrors of the past as much as it celebrates the ability of its subjects to move on and build new lives that included marriages, children and careers. What didn't kill them apparently made them stronger.

Production company: Bala Cynwyd Productions
Distributor: Passion River Films
Director-producer: Jon Kean
Screenwriters: Jon Kean, Deborah Blum
Executive producers: Herbert Kean, Michael Berenbaum
Director of photography: Mark Mervis
Editor: Anne Stein
Composer: Laura Hall

82 minutes