Film’s role not only preserving history but keeping its ills from happening again was made clear to more than 550 people at a showing of previously unseen clips of Holocaust survivors left out of the movie Shoah Tuesday at in Glencoe.
Made in 1985, Shoah is a nine hour film of interviews of survivors of the Nazi Holocaust during World War II. The late film critic Gene Siskel considered it the greatest movie accomplishment of all time, according to his widow, Marlene Iglitzen, an Am Shalom member.
“Remembering never to forget is the reason we are here,” Iglitzen said.
Not every interview made it into the movie, but when Steven Spielberg spearheaded a project with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington to preserve survivors’ stories on film, more were found.
Museum film curator Raye Farr brought three of the clips to share with the crowd at Am Shalom including the story of Ruth Elias’s brush with notorious Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele. Mengele decided the fate of millions of people with the wave of his hand. He took a more personal interest in Elias’s condition.
While part of the purpose of the museum and its archives is to keep the story of the Holocaust alive, it also has the mission of fighting recurrences of genocide in more modern times in places like Darfur and Bosnia.
“It’s part of our mission to make people aware and make a difference,” Farr said of preventing ongoing genocide.
Ethnic cleansing has been part of the history of both Darfur and Bosnia in the last decades. It was in the Nazi era genocide was raised to a level unseen before or since. Elias’s story is one of the more dramatic.
From the time she was a teenager she spent several years in camps forced to make life and death choices to survive. While imprisoned in Terazin she avoided “transport to the East,” a synonym for a trip to a death camp, by getting married. That was allowed at the time in the camp.
She did not avoid it for long after she became pregnant. That was her first brush with Mengele. “I saw he was waving the pretty girls the same way,” she said in the film. “I put myself between two of them and hid my belly.”
Elias’s guile did not save her from Mengele for long. The doctor wanted the baby born only so he could see how long a newborn could live without any food.
“My nipples were taped so I could not nurse,” Elias said. “I got some bread and dipped it to secretly feed my baby. Mengele came each day to see.”
After a few days of Mengele growing agitated as Elias’s baby lingered, a Jewish female doctor in the camp gave Elias morphine to kill her baby. “I can’t,” Elias said. “She (the doctor) told me ‘I am sworn to preserve life, I can’t. If you don’t kill your baby both of you will die. At least you can live.’”
Elias made the choice as her baby died in her arms. She explained how it was taken to a trash heap early that morning before Mengele arrived to check on his “experiment.” She described his fury.
“You should have seen him, Mengele, running through the camp and going through the dump to find the baby,” Elias said. “Even Mengele couldn’t find the baby.” She also thwarted his experiment.
Elias’s story is one of many. Am Shalom Rabbi Steven Lowenstein explained before the showing how a tapestry of stories forms a community and makes that community wiser. Though he spoke in a positive light, most in the audience knew the stories of the Holocaust.
“A story composed of 1,000 smaller stories is woven together into a community,” Lowenstein said. “We use stories to pass on our wisdom. They help us make the world a better place.”