Herbert J. Cohen
Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: The Last Days

Although I live in Israel, I read daily news reports about the uptick of violence against Jews in major cities in the United States since the conflict between Israel and Hamas erupted in Gaza. Confrontations between Jews and Arabs in Times Square, in restaurants in Los Angeles, and anti-Semitic tropes on social media exacerbate the already inflammatory rhetoric heard in the streets. Watching the Steven Spielberg produced documentary, The Last Days, reminds me that anti-Semitism unfortunately is alive and well seventy years after the Holocaust.

Even when the Nazis knew that the war was lost in late 1944, they still remained focused on the extermination of European Jewry. The focus of their effort was the destruction of the 425,000 Jews of Hungary. The film tells the story of five Hungarian survivors of Auschwitz who recount the horrors they witnessed and endured at the hands of the Nazis’ barbaric Final Solution.

The Final Solution begins with small measures such us requiring Jews to wear yellow stars of David, but the repressive measures increase quickly in Hungary where Jews are forced to travel in cattle cars to death camps such as Auschwitz. There they are forced into gas chambers after which their bodies are burned in crematoria.

The film depicts the survivors’ visits to the camps with their children after the war with whom they share their harrowing experiences. One notable example is a survivor returning to the latrines of the camp, the sight of which reminds her of a song of praise of God that she and her friend sang on that very spot many years before. Another is a story of a woman who wears under her clothes a bathing suit given to her by her father. She wears it as she journeys to the concentration camp as a reminder of all the wonderful times she had before the war. Still another memory concerns a woman who managed to save diamonds given to her by her parents in case she needs to buy food. The only way she can keep them is by swallowing them and retrieving them after going to the latrines.

The narrative of The Last Days is told through the eyes of elderly men and women who survived Hitler’s Hungarian Jewish extermination program. What is particularly sad is the survivors’ observation that non-Jewish Hungarian residents allied themselves with the occupying Nazis and turned against their Jewish neighbors as soon as Germany invaded. The Jews interviewed in The Last Days survived not only concentration camps but also betrayal by their Christian friends.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech speaks about an encounter he had many years ago with Elie Wiesel. When he mentioned to him that he was not a survivor because he grew up in the United States, Wiesel responded with the following comment: “When Hitler, cursed be his name, set out to commit genocide on an entire people wherever they might be, men, women and children – then every Jew who is alive today is a survivor.”

Blech laments the fact that attacks on Jews today use Israel as “camouflage cover.” Defenders of Hamas argue that their sending rockets to kill Israeli civilians of all ages is not a manifestation of anti-Semitism. It is simply an expression of their hatred of the state of Israel. In their view, Israel is an illegitimate occupying power that indiscriminately targets children and sites like hospitals to cause the most damage to Muslims and their families.

Martin Luther King, the civil rights champion, however, offered a different perspective on the nature of the conflict between Arabs and Jews in Israel. King defended Zionism and Israel when he said: “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews – and you’re talking anti-Semitism.”

The Last Days reminds us that when demagogues such as Hitler threaten Jewish lives, it should be taken seriously. In its charter, Hamas openly calls for “the murder of Jews wherever they may be found.” To disregard such rhetoric places all Jews at risk wherever they may be.

 

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at rabbihjco@msn.com.
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