The most affecting scene in The Last Survivors, a documentary full of them, occurs at Auschwitz.
With his daughter and granddaughter, Ivor Perl returns to the concentration camp for the first time since 1945, when the Hungarian-born boy was liberated after the murder of his mother and seven siblings.
Perl, now 88 (he arrived at the camp at 12, but survived after his mother insisted he tell guards he was 15), enters the camp ground, but tells his daughter he can’t go inside. “Enough is enough,” he says.
Perl sits outside on a bench with a blank look on his face. His daughter leans in for an embrace.
“I just wish you could cry a bit,” she whispers in his ear.
“You know, Judy, all I can tell you is that I’m crying in my heart,” Perl says. “It’s there every day.”
The Last Survivors, which airs on PBS Frontline April 30, is ostensibly about the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors, and the importance of their memories living on. But it is also about trauma — how people confront it or don’t — and how it’s passed along. When the last Holocaust survivor dies, the documentary posits, the trauma of the atrocities will live on.
Director Arthur Cary’s film features five Holocaust survivors — Maurice Blik (a Dutch-British sculptor whose art reflects the loss of his father at Auschwitz), Susan Pollack (a Hungarian who recalls the final time she saw her mother before she was sent to the gas chamber), Anita Lasker-Wallfisch (an accomplished German cellist whom Cary shows travelling to Berlin to speak before the German parliament), Manfred Goldberg (who talks for the first time in public about losing his brother in the Holocaust) and Perl, who now lives in England.
Other survivors are scattered through the documentary’s 52 minutes telling their stories as well. It’s only made more haunting by how many similarities their stories share.
The film comes when concern about preserving the memory of the Holocaust, and its scope, grow. According to a 2018 survey from the Claims Conference, 66 percent of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz was. It also found that 31 percent of Americans and 41 percent of millennials think that 2 million or fewer Jews died during the Holocaust.
Lasker-Wallfisch, who shows little emotion in her interviews and refuses any sympathy for what she went through as a young girl at Auschwitz, fears that a rise in European ethno-nationalism could threaten the safety of Jews there. In fact, she says, Nazis never really went away, their ideology has lived on.
“We cannot blame today’s young people if they refuse to identify with these crimes,” Lasker-Wallfisch tells the Bundestag. “But to deny that this is part of German history, that must not happen.”
Her daughter, meanwhile, is more willing to grapple with her emotion. She recalls growing up with an emotionally absent mother, anxiously picking at her face when she was a child and feeling guilt for not being more grateful.
Lasker-Wallfisch continues to insist that she and her family have nothing to dwell on.
“I’m sorry, I will not elaborate on second-generation trauma. For me, anybody who’s got a roof over their head and enough food, forget the trauma,” she says.
But her daughter, Maya, isn’t interested in papering over the wounds.
“A lot of my difficulties were to do with trauma,” Maya says to her mother. “Why was I so disturbed? Why was I picking my face when I was 2? … The reason you were always absent was because of the Holocaust. She did kind of project into me this sort of feeling and idea that, ‘Yes, there’s something wrong with me, there’s really something wrong with me.’ And why couldn’t I be grateful that no one was trying to kill me or, at least I had parents.”
Whether he knows it or not, Blik’s wife claims he’s been sculpting his father’s image for decades. Blik never knew his father’s fate, but he says in some ways he’s been trying to bring him back to life.
He says he gave up on being a doctor when he was a child because he realized he’d have to confront death. He’d rather bring life to an object. Blik tells a story of being about 5, waiting for his young sister’s first birthday in Auschwitz. He’d sculpted a carrot into a little boat with sticks in it as staffs.
Ultimately, though, she never lived to see her first birthday.
“She died and I couldn’t give her this present. And years later when I had therapy, the therapist said, ‘Well this was your first sculpture and that’s stayed with you ever since.’”
For most of the documentary, repression is the theme. Survivors will acknowledge all they have kept inside them for so many years, but won’t show it outwardly.
Goldberg never knew exactly what happened to his younger brother, but the film shows his journey to acknowledging that he didn’t survive, and the two will never, in fact, be reunited. Only at the end does he allow his emotion to overcome him, and only for a moment.
But that lasting takeaway from Cary’s work is that there’s so much trauma that has gone unremarked upon. Perhaps the concern over keeping the memory alive is missing the point that we’ve never accounted for the psychological horror that the Holocaust left on survivors and their families.
“I haven’t been able to cry, I think,” says Pollack, whose parents were killed at Auschwitz, “because I think the crying would have no end.”
Jared Foretek is a staff writer with Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.