The Camp After Auschwitz
Six Million and One by David Fisher (at IDFA)
Among the countless grim stories of the Holocaust, Joseph Fisher’s reaches new depths. Fisher was a prisoner in Auschwitz. When approaching Soviet troops forced the closing of the camps there, Fisher (number 67656) and the remaining prisoners were marched west into Austria. There they worked, mostly to their deaths, in camps where stone was quarried and in giant underground factories where airplanes were built until the Germans surendered. When the Allies advanced on these camps, the SS fled, but locked the Jews inside without food or water.
The US troops who freed the camps found piles of bodies, and hundreds of prisoners who died before their eyes.
Joseph Fisher, who raised four children in Israel, wrote a memoir of his times in the camp Guzen II. He never showed it to his son, the Israeli filmmaker David Fisher, or to his other children. Would it have been too painful for him, or for them?
In Six Million and One, David Fisher’s heartbreaking and wryly humane film in the feature documentary competition at the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA), Fisher and his sister and two brothers journey from Israel to Austria, where they rent a minivan with a crew to travel that same ground. (See the trailer here and the Facebook site of the documentary that premiered at the Haifa International Film Festival in October.)
David Fisher shifts between the present, the past of his and his siblings’ childhood, and the agonizing war years. His documentary, as indicated by its title, is a new twist on the over-worn truism that the devil is in the details.
The film is a journey, like many others. But there’s an original and a subtle assessment of memory in Six Million and One. Joseph Fisher’s horrific memories were written down, but kept from his children. Hearing David Fisher read from the memoir as he revisits those places, you can understand why. Imagine prisoners waiting to be executed begging for bread. Amd it got worse.
When the Fischer siblings visit Austria, they tour groups of houses that were built on the ruins of a camp, Guzen II, in St. Georgen, near Mauthausen. There’s one unforgettable shot in which a view of the concentration camp dissolves slowly into a row of neatly-kept houses in the same location. It takes you from the apocalyptic to the eerily ordinary. One homeowner, who sees Fisher walking (on an earlier tour) as he listens to an audio guide explaining the place’s history, tells him that she didn’t like outsiders taking the historical walk through the town.
A stone quarry which was at the center of another camp (where Jewish workers lasted, on the average, one week, and Joseph Fisher endured ten months) is due to be filled in, since new construction is also planned on that site. A woman involved in historical preservation of World War II sites tells the Fishers of the urgency of leaving the quarry as is, but she stresses that it’s privately owned, noting that she could risk retaliation for just taking them there. “Hitler’s favorite stone was granite, because it symbolized eternity,” she tells David Fisher.
When the Fisher family enters a vast system of tunnels and caves where aircraft were built toward the end of the war, – hollowed out by prisoners marched from Auschwitz and other camps – they do so through the most inconspicuous of doors on a hillside. Who knew? The massive underground network called Bergkristall (rock crystal in German) is the visual metaphor for the suppression of history. So far, the public has no access to the place where forced laborers made 1250 fuselages for Messerschmidt airplanes every month. The Germans planned to dynamite the underground factories, with the surviving workers inside, when the war was won. You might think that the truth (at this scale) would be hard to suppress. Let’s hope no one gets the idea to demolish Bergkristall, or to turn the staggering logistical creation into an amusement park.
Fisher tracks down American soldiers who found Gunskirchen, near Gusen II, and opened the gates that locked Jewish prisoners in. The soldiers speak of prisoners dying as the Americans were handing them their first real food in weeks. US veterans in their 80’s recall those experiences vividly, in tears.
Testimony from the various perspectives on those memories are punctuated by a young Austrian woman reading the causes of death among people destined for extermination – shot while trying to escape, fall from a train, suicide, heart attack, etc. Beneath the banality of evil, we find evil.
The forests where Joseph Fisher walked above ground are silent. The Fisher children have to look hard to find any monuments or explanatory signs. The only sounds are the birds and conversation among the siblings about how their father dealt with the past.
The Fishers joke, kibitz and quarrel – David’s younger brother Amnon wisecracks on the telephone that they’re taking a family vacation in concentration camps – but mostly they try to make sense of what their father endured and never spoke of, and how an unspeakable experience that they never knew shaped their experiences that they did know. We’re reminded that history and memory require an active discussion among the later generations. That’s the encouraging dimension to Six Million and One, as is the participation of German and Austrian funders in making the film, which seems destined for an extended life.
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