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Bearing Witness to Genocide

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Nathan Abrams reviews The Auschwitz Escape (AKA The Auschwitz Report).

Slovakia’s Oscar submission for the best international film tells the true story of two Jewish prisoners Freddy (Noel Czuczor) and Valér Peter (Ondrejicka) who escaped Auschwitz to provide a rare first-hand account of the shocking genocide at the camp. It stars John Hannah (Four Weddings and a Funeral) as Warren, a British representative of the Red Cross.

Written and directed by Peter Bebjak, with additional writing credits for Tomás Bombík and Jozef Pastéka, it is inspired by the novel Čo Dante nevidel (lit. ‘What Dante didn’t see’) in 1963 under the pseudonym Jozef Lánik. Alfred Wetzler based on his real-life experiences. The historian Sir Martin Gilbert said described Wetzler as ‘a true hero. His escape from Auschwitz, and the report he helped compile, telling for the first time the truth about the camp as a place of mass murder, led directly to saving the lives of thousands of Jews – the Jews of Budapest who were about to be deported to their deaths. No other single act in the Second World War saved so many Jews from the fate that Hitler had determined for them’.

In a genre where the Holocaust has seemingly been covered from every conceivable angle, The Auschwitz Escape focuses on a perhaps less-known story. It recounts the miraculous escape of two Slovakian Jews from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in the spring of 1944. Even more miraculously in some ways, they make the 136 km trek from Auschwitz to Zilina in Slovakia, on foot, without being caught, captured or killed. In fact, they were helped by civilians and resistance members along the way.

The first half depicts the harrowing horror of the camps with an air of grim atmospheric realism that is impressive. An orange glow pervades the exterior of the recreated barracks suggesting the around-the-clock operation of the crematoria.

Although it does not succeed in conveying the horror of the Holocaust in quite the manner that the 2015 Hungarian film Son of Saul did, certain images of grotesque violence stand out for their power. A prisoner slowly chokes to death as he hangs by the neck with a sign around his neck saying ‘Hooray, I’m back’; a bird’s eye view shot depicts the aftermath of an aktion – the arrival of a transport of Jews at Birkenau; a scene in the woods where prisoners are buried alive with up to their necks in the earth, their shaven heads shot from behind like perverse eggs on the forest floor, as an SS officer bashes in one man’s skull to avenge the death of his 21-year-old son on the Eastern Front as the rest are left to die.

Freddy and Valér’s escape is meticulously planned with the help and knowledge of their fellow prisoners. When the SS discover they are missing, the other inmates are left standing outside in the freezing cold and their barracks leader is flogged. But these men, who have been left behind, refuse to betray the two escapees and courageously stand their ground against the SS officers, resisting standing in the cold, beatings, and shootings.

The second half depicts Freddy and Valér’s escape. The two men are driven to survive by the hope that their evidence will save lives. Emaciated and hurt, they make their way through the rugged mountains back to Slovakia ready to share their horrific report with the Red Cross. When one of the men rests, his companion asks, ‘Do you want to go now or before sundown?’ When he says he would prefer to continuing resting, to motivate him, he reminds him, ‘They’ll have processed three transports before sundown.’

When the pair reach their destination they are confronted with scepticism. ‘What do you expect us to do?’ a member of the local Resistance asks. The British Red Cross official played by John Hannah is particularly doubtful of their claims, preferring to believe his German counterpart’s version of events. Freddy and Valér urge him to act: ‘The important thing is: what are you going to do about it?’

And therein lies the issue at the heart of this film. These two Jews were not just motivated by the need to report the atrocities and murders of millions of Jews but to prevent them. Bomb the camps they beg. But nothing happens. And the film closes with an image of an SS officer deciding the fate of the remaining prisoners, including some of those we have seen beforehand, in a matter of seconds.

To close the film, over the closing credits plays a literal babble of voices reciting prejudice, racism and homophobia. It is a powerful moment but one that could have been made more powerful if the voices had ranged from outside Europe and North America to include the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar and the Uighurs in China.

Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

The Auschwitz Escape asks: what do you do when confronted by genocide? It provides two answers. One is to survive in order to bear witness. The other is to do nothing. This is the problem we are left with today: when reports of genocide arise today nothing is done because Western hands are allegedly tied.  To quote the philosopher George Santayana, which opens the film ‘Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.’

The Auschwitz Escape is distributed by Signature Entertainment and available to watch on Digital Platforms and DVD.

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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