Son of Saul BBC 4, BBC iPlayer, directed by László Nemes and written by Clara Royer.

son of saul.jpg

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m00029kr/son-of-saul

This is a straightforward narrative. A Hungarian man finds the body of a young boy, he thinks is his son and he wants to give him a proper Jewish burial. To do so he needs to find a Rabbi willing to perform Mourner’s Kaddish.

Transpose that scene to an unnamed Nazi death camp, (Auschwitz), running at full capacity, murdering Jews and burning their bodies. Fling in the babble of languages – German, Hungarian, Yiddish, Russian, Polish, French, Greek, Slovak and Hebrew – and make your central character, Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig) a Jewish Sonderkommdo. There’s a red X on the back of his coat and his job, as is the job of all survivors is to live as long as possible. He’s an old hand at it. Burying the young boy endangers not only him, but everyone around him. Scroll back.

Redemption comes when a miracle happens. A shipment of Jews are herded into the shower-room.  We hear the banging and shrieking as those inside try to escape from Zyklon- B gas. Sonderkommandos wait until ‘the pieces’ are dispatched, until they can get to work cleaning up. Pieces, are, of course, bodies. Saul’s job was, literally, picking up the pieces. And one of the pieces he picks up is his son, who is still alive, but dies later.

Nothing was wasted in the death camps, teeth extracted for gold, hair and even skin used for lamps. Eighty-percent of those arriving were processed immediately and send to the gas chambers. For some trainloads it was one-hundred percent and the ovens couldn’t cope.  Clothes recycled and the hunt for jewellery, gold and currency went on. ‘Canada’ was a place in camp where much of this reprocessing happened.

Euphemisms abounded and the film gets much of it right. While they can show the cruelty that was an integral part of the Nazi genocide, what they cannot show is how a body disintegrates without food and how crowded the camps were. They cannot replicate the stench of burning bodies. What they do well is show how many camps were situated in areas of natural beauty. Prisoners are shown shovelling ash (from bodies) into the nearby lake.

Son of Saul depicts, and indeed educates us, around the existential issue of what it means to be a man or a woman, what it means to be human, while giving no set answer. What it cannot do is legislate for stupidity and the cultivation of ignorance. A poll taken before Holocaust Memorial day on Sunday found that said the one in twenty Britons, say the Holocaust never happened. And eight- percent say the scale of the Holocaust has been exaggerated.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/27/one-in-20-britons-does-not-believe-holocaust-happened

The surprising thing about that poll is it doesn’t surprise me. The only exaggeration is how stupid these people are. But with the moron’s moron in the White House and the growth of right-wing neo-Nazi parties across the world, even in Germany, I don’t know whether you should watch this film or weep or look at the poll and weep. I tend towards the latter.

 

Elie Wiesel (1972 [1985]) Night, translated from the French by Marion Wiesel.

We create connections where there are none, Elie Wiesel’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1978, was in the winter months and fell on the same day as my birthday. Night is a slim volume, able to be read in one sitting. But it is a holy book, and in these increasingly dark times, it asks the hard question of what happens when. I dreamed my elder brother stood by my bed and mouthed words of warning. Ghosts speak and what our replies will be will be determined by who we are and what we become. Too often we leave all humanity behind. Birkenau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald barbed wire and millions dead, Elie Wiesel has come back from the dead to tell us what he seen and the choices we make that make cowards of us all.

‘Oh God, Master of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eiahu’s son has done.’

But there are different voices, one’s that are contemporary and familiar in what they are saying. Listen to the advice of the older and wiser Kapo to the sixteen-year old Wiesel, nearing the end of his strength and his father, and so many others, starving, dying of dysentery.

‘Listen to me, kid. Don’t forget that you are in a concentration camp. In this place, it is every man for himself, and you cannot think of others. Not even your father. In this place there is no such thing as father, brother, friend. Each of us lives and dies alone.’

Pity is for those that can afford it. Wiesel warns the reader in the preface. And in this digital, interconnected, age resonate even more.  ‘Books no longer have the power they once did. Those who kept silent yesterday will remain silent tomorrow.’

‘I was afraid,’ as we all are and fear calls forth fear.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget the smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the will to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God himself.

Never.

And yet, like any prophet, he has moments of vision, when a child with an angelic face is hanged in front of them, his body too light to break the fall to death and who is slowly strangled by his weight.

‘For God’s sake where is God?

And from within me I heard a voice answer:

‘Where He is? This is where – hanging from this gallows.’

Holocaust Memorial Day, BBC 2, 7pm

nazi

The BBC commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz, 70 years ago, the site of almost one million murdered, but also a symbol of  the six million other Jews killed and hundreds of thousands others killed in a genocidal purge of the pure Aryan-Nazi race that took place in a ring of hundreds of other camps.

As a Catholic the service itself was one I was familiar with. The solemn intonation, readings from extracts of Primo Levi, If This is a Man. Prince Charles bumbling on about the three lines scratched into a wall at Auschwitz: ‘I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining. I believe in love even when I don’t feel it. I believe in God even when he is silent.’ Then there was the music of Thereseinstadt sung by fresh-faced children of every creed an affirmation that even though the body may suffer and burn away the joy of creation of music and art will transcend self and for that moment shine.

I get all that. I understand the paradox of man being a flimsy thing, yet somehow indestructible. I understand that when the rule of law is subverted and twisted the oppressor and the oppressed can share the same body and it becomes literally every man for themselves. Then we had the  wisdom of David Cameron.

As a holocaust survivor kept repeating: ‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole