This 2001 film on the library shelf caught my attention as I wanted to see how authentic it was, having visited the Auschwitz Camps at Berkenau in Germany and Poland when I brought a group of choir students on a History Tour to Eastern Europe about seventeen years ago.
Based on the play “The Grey Zone” by Tim Blake Nelson (who is also the director and producer here) and loosely based on the novel “Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account” by Dr Miklos Nyiszli (the Hungarian Jew assigned by Dr Josef Mengele to assist in medical experiments on camp inmates), this film chronicles a unit of Auschwitz’s Sonderkommando, a special squad of Jewish prisoners who staged the only armed revolt that would ever take place at the Camp.
The film was shot entirely in Bulgaria and the location didn’t look entirely the same as I recall, other than the prisoners’ bunks. The insides of the gas chambers where the victims were ushered into also looked somewhat different. Perhaps visitors were allowed only into certain (“exhibition”) areas.
It was horrifying to see again how the prisoners were made to work at gunpoint, and how they were made to ‘rest’ in a compound with rifles pointing at them while witnessing other victims being made to face the wall or lie face down before being shot at point blank. The lies that these Sonderkommando told the victims were authentic – they were almost the same words the tour guide played to us : “This process of cleaning and disinfecting’s of vital importance to your health. One louse can kill you. Cleanliness brings freedom. You’re all fine. The quicker you get undressed, the quicker you’ll be cleaned, settled and reunited with your families. Remember the number of the hook you hang your clothes on. You’ll return to them once you’ve showered. Keep your shoes tied so you don’t lose them…”
When the doors closed on them, the victims were heard screaming and the banging on the door increased. Later, the dead bodies were piled up like dead raw meat to be ‘processed’ in the Crematoriums.
These Jewish moles (the special units employed by the Nazis called Sonderkommando) aided in the extermination processs and received privileges for doing their work but were exterminated themselves after four months. Among the “jobs” these people performed included the orchestra that played in the compound as the victims arrived by the train loads and were ushered into the camps. The deception was complete with them playing pieces like Johannes Strauss’ Roses From The South, a cheerful and uplifting piece.
Watching this film makes me recall details of my visit there and I shudder to think about the effects of war, any war, on innocent civilians!