Britain’s Holocaust Survivors
More4, 8PM, 27th January
Don’t let the title fool you. Unlike the horrible holocaust documentaries we’ve seen countless times in History classes, Britain’s Holocaust Survivors manages to tell the tale of people who have seen terrible atrocities, and somehow making them life-affirming and uplifting.
The documentary (made by the excellent Daisy Asquith) follows three Holocaust survivors – Freddie, Ziggy and Gena – all of whom spent time in concentration camps and ghettos. They tell their story, we follow their engagements and day to day lives, and we meet their families, learning about the lasting legacy of the Holocaust.
What’s consistently amazing in this documentary is the sheer strength and energy that the survivors show. Freddie is 90 years old, and has the energy and spirit of someone half his age. If I’m as full of life as he is when I’m 50, I’ll be amazed, and I won’t have spent a good portion of my life starving in a concentration camp. They’re not the frail, miserable, elderly people we imagine. Both Gena and Freddie spend their time giving talks and lectures, and Ziggy amazingly runs his own business at 82, apparently having gained his work ethic while working as a slave in Auschwitz.
Their sense of humour is just as strong. Freddie puts his survival down to his enduring optimism and humour. Ziggy tells us how he still tried to joke and be happy with people, even when in the death camps and ghettos. Despite their experiences, and their job of telling their painful stories for the camera, they’re still happy people. I stubbed my toe yesterday afternoon and spent the rest of the day sulking. The documentary really helps put life in perspective.
Fortunately, it manages to avoid the pitfall of being overly sentimental and emotional. Rather than being full of tears and straining violin music, the survivor’s stories are straight-forward, and matter-of-fact. Gena briefly tears up at one point, but that’s it. Even when talking about their siblings and parents being murdered or starving to death, they remain strong. Incredible for people who only began telling their stories in the 1980s, and still suffer lasting psychological problems.
This lasting impact of the Holocaust is a major focal point in the documentary. On one hand, it manifests in the form of the survivors’ insistence on feeding their children and grandchildren well, an unsurprising quality in people who have spent time living on watery soup and bread in death camps.
On the other, there’s a more damaging legacy. At one point, Ziggy’s wife hints at the problems that survivor’s wives face – the difficulties of living with someone who’s undergone such trauma becoming obvious. It’s an uncomfortable moment, and there’s clearly some sort of issue bubbling under the surface of their otherwise happy marriage.
Unfortunately, this topic is abandoned by the filmmakers – perhaps understandable, as they didn’t want to upset or offend the stars of their documentary. However, it feels as though an interesting and relevant topic is just glossed over, an unfortunate weakness for an otherwise excellent, important, and life-affirming documentary.