For the death camp survivors we meet in the brisk, engaging, and sneakily profound After Auschwitz, the day of liberation was the best and worst day of their lives.
There was a flash of euphoria when they realized they had survived and were free, then a new kind of terror as they realized they had nowhere to go – a dread that grew as they slowly grasped the enormity of the historic mass atrocity they had outlasted. Friends and family gone, their homes destroyed or confiscated (along with their possessions), abandoned to a Europe that didn't want them, and had made no provision for their return.
But the hopeful tone that quickly takes hold of After Auschwitz reflects experiences of the survivors as they make their way to the United States, and ultimately to sunny California, where they reinvent themselves – taking advantage of the possibilities offered by the hustle and bustle of the country's postwar boom.
They marry, work, study, raise kids, work, and work, and work — a deli owner, a fashion designer, a social worker, an educator, a hypervigilant mother. They succeed by most conventional metrics, and become a part of the prospering America — a mood captured by director Jon Kean with jaunty music and vintage artifacts (advertisements, jingles, evocative photographs) that give the movie its unexpected snap and swing.
The subjects are all women, and roughly the same age – they were children when they entered the camps, young women when they emerged. They were quick to marry (mostly to fellow survivors), and tried to re-create in America the sense of family life, of home, taken from them in Europe.
Kean inherited these subjects from his earlier documentary Swimming in Auschwitz, and has said that gender informs the film – the women are particularly attuned to the emotional nuance of the survival story, which comes through beautifully. There is insight, for instance, into the unique nature of the marriages that occurred immediately after the war – hastily and pragmatically arranged, but lasting lifetimes.
The women are also candid, thoughtful, often funny, and have a knack for telling anecdotes. Linda Sherman speaks of taking her son to his first day of school and staying at the gate until the bell rang to pick him up – so fearful was she of not seeing him again. She'd never heard of the Boy Scouts when her son asked to join, and when she was told he'd be "picked up" and taken to camp, she was naturally stricken with fear. The deal-breaker: She saw the uniforms.
"They looked like little Nazis."
Eva Beckmann kept her perspective doggedly forward-looking. She doesn't like the word "survivor," and prefers to think of herself in America as a "newcomer."
The women mostly kept mum about their experiences, for fear people in the United States wouldn't understand. Their instincts were sometimes correct. When Erika Jacoby confided to a friend that upon liberation and at the point of starvation, she'd looted an abandoned home, she was told such behavior was unacceptable, under any circumstances. She was judged by the standards of her new reality, not the reality of the post-camp desperation.
"After that," she said, "I kept my mouth shut."
And yet, in time, most opened up. They told the truth to their families, to their synagogues, to schools, to filmmakers, and, through movies like this one, to the world. It's a privilege to hear their stories.