After reading the September 10, 2021, JTA opinion piece by Rich Brownstein titled “The greatest Holocaust movie ever made, starring Steve Buscemi, debuted on 9/11. It’s time to revisit it,” I watched his recommended movie THE GREY ZONE.
(Full disclosure: While the movie can be watched for free on some streaming platforms, after the first ad for chicken dinners, I switched to paying for viewing the film to watch without ads.)
Rich Brownstein is a lecturer for Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies and the author of HOLOCAUST CINEMA COMPLETE: A HISTORY AND ANALYSIS OF 400 FILMS, WITH A TEACHING GUIDE. I am looking forward to interviewing him for my co-hosted NEVER AGAIN IS NOW podcast about antisemitism.
Yet I have to respectfully disagree with Brownstein’s praise of THE GREY ZONE.
It is not that I have another candidate for “the greatest Holocaust movie ever made.” It is just that THE GREY ZONE fails on several accounts for that distinction.
Let’s start with the easy points and work up to the more complicated:
In THE GREY ZONE’s scenes of Jews immediately chosen for the gas chambers of Auschwitz, the doomed men, women and children are shown walking down the stairs to the underground gas chambers still carrying bundles of their possessions.
According to all the nonfiction material I have read, these bundles (suitcases, etc.) of the doomed at Auschwitz were immediately separated from their owners. The Jews did not carry their bundles with them down into the gas chambers.
Yes, that is one little thing and there are other small historical inaccuracies.
What is much more important are two things:
- The Greek Jewish Sonderkomandos (see Wikpedia definition of Sonderkommandos below) are not given credit for their part in the Sonderkommandos’ attack on the Auschwitz crematoriums.
- If you do not know a great deal about the process of the gas chambers and crematoriums at Auschwitz and the Sonderkommandos, much of the movie may be lost on you.
The Greek Jewish Sonderkommandos:
I learned of Heinz Salvator Kounio’s little-known book A LITER OF SOUP AND SIXTY GRAMS OF BREAD: THE DIARY OF PRISONER NUMBER 109565 when my daughter, on a Sephardic Balkans tour, heard Kounio’s daughter in Thessaloniki (Salonica) speak about her father’s experiences at Auschwitz. I immediately bought the book, which had been translated from Greek into English by Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos.
From the book’s Amazon page:
On March 15, 1943 the first Greek transport left from Salonika and arrived at Auschwitz on March 20th. It was the beginning of the end of Greek Jewery. Among the 2,800 deported Jews was the 15-year old Heinz Kouinio. Wrenched abruptly from a comfortable upper-middle class home, Heinz found himself immersed in the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. Heinz, along with his mother, father and sister, would ultimately survive. What kept him going was his fervent wish that his murdered brethren would be remembered and that their killers would be punished. Heinz kept a diary in which he recorded his experiences. That diary is the basis of this book.
In Kounio’s chapter “Resistance in Auschwitz” he says:
In the two years that I was at Auschwitz, there were only two major attempts to revolt against the SS. Both times these revolts broke out in the crematories. They were both unsuccessful.
He describes the first attempt in the fall of 1943 organized by an unknown Italian heroine, “rumored to have been an actress.”
He then describes the second attempt in the fall of 1944:
This event was more serious and better organized. As a Greek, I am proud to say that Greek Jews organized the second insurrection. Some Russian and Polish Jews, who did not want to assist the Nazis in their murderous plans, joined them.
The Greek Jewish Sonderkommandos are completely missing from THE GREY ZONE. The arguments among the Sonderkommandos planning the uprising are portrayed as between Poles and Hungarians.
In his book Kounio lists the known Greek Jews who took part in the Sonderkommandos’ uprising: Alberto Errera, Hugo Barouch Venezia, Andre Nachama Kapon, Iosef Barouch, Ioakov Broudo, Dani Marc Nachmias, Alberto Tzachon, the two Selomo brothers, Mois Venezia, Issak Venezia (survived), Daniel Bennachmias (survived).
The last section of Kounio’s resistance chapter is “The execution of the four Jewish women” in which he describes the hanging of the four women that he watched “hidden behind some coats that were hung in the tailor shop.” While THE GREY ZONE does show the torture and execution of some of the women slave laborers who smuggled explosives to the Sonderkommandos, again as a viewer of the movie you might not be able to truly understand what is happening.
The hanging of the four women on January 6, 1945, “just twelve days before the evacuation of the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau” of Roza Robota, Ester Wajeblum, Ala Gertner and Regina Safirsztajin is not show in the film. (Note: These are the names of the four women that Kounio, an eyewitness, provides in his book. I have read elsewhere slight differences in the identity of the four women.)
(For more information on the uprising of the Sonderkommandos, see Chapter 11 – “3: The Revolt in the Sonderkommando” in Jozef Garlinski’s book FIGHTING AUSCHWITZ: THE RESISTANCE MOVEMENT IN THE CONCENTRATION CAMP.)
In conclusion, I understand how someone knowledgeable about the Holocaust might recommend THE GREY ZONE as the best Holocaust movie. Yet as someone whose mission it is to educate people about the Holocaust, I would only advise this film only for viewers who already have an in-depth understanding of the entire process of the Auschwitz gas chambers and crematoriums.
In other words, knowing the horrifying details of the context is very important for truly understanding THE GREY ZONE.
You can read Brownstein’s JTA opinion piece here.
Wikipedia definition of Sonderkommandos:
Sonderkommandos (German: [ˈzɔndɐkɔˌmando], special unit) were work units made up of German Nazi death camp prisoners. They were composed of prisoners, usually Jews, who were forced, on threat of their own deaths, to aid with the disposal of gas chamber victims during the Holocaust. The death-camp Sonderkommandos, who were always inmates, were unrelated to the SS-Sonderkommandos, which were ad hoc units formed from members of various SS offices between 1938 and 1945.