by: Ralph Seliger on September 28th, 2012 | 2 Comments »
When I think of my parents’ tale of survival, and what they lost, the Holocaust becomes personal. It also has occurred to me that my father was never more savvy nor persevering in his life than when leading his young wife and her widowed aunt to safety in the United States: through countries under attack (Yugoslavia and Greece) and in rebellion (Iraq) to the other side of the world (British India), and back around the horn of Africa, up to the Americas and to New Jersey where they first settled.
Sept. 28 marks the commercial debut of “Six Million And One,” David Fisher’s true-life depiction of his Israeli family coming to grips with how the Holocaust affected them. Twelve years after his survivor-father’s death, he discovers his diary of remembrances from his months of captivity, first deported from his home in Hungary to Auschwitz and then to the slave labor camps of Mauthausen-Gusen and Gunskirchen in Austria. The filmmaker conscripts his two brothers and one sister into retracing their father’s steps in Austria, basically browbeating them into joining him.
My father showed a resourcefulness and resolution in those years that he did not generally manifest in the rest of his life. In parallel terms, David Fisher and his siblings found a depth of soul and expressiveness in their father’s diary that he apparently lacked while bringing them up. They spoke of the “physicality” of how their father conceived the world and interacted with them, how he could not understand his children on an emotional level. Yet, despite everything, it must be acknowledged that both fathers succeeded in raising normal families.
We see where a 16-year-old Joseph Fisher labored and suffered under horrendous conditions that killed most of his fellow prisoners. There are the steep murderous stone quarries of Gusen and the lengthy tunnel the prisoners built in Gunskirchen to house an underground aircraft factory, which is said to have manufactured a thousand warplanes.
As the filmmaker explores this tunnel, he quotes from his father’s diary of witnessing a red-haired Polish overseer whipping five Jews carrying a log “as if they were horses” and then brutally slapping a teenaged boy, demanding that he slap the boy’s father (standing next to him) in the same way; the boy refused as the blows rained down upon him and the father begged him to do as commanded.
In his NY Times review, Stephen Holden complained that the film spends too much time on “increasingly tedious discussions” by the siblings about their father, how he impacted their lives, and how they felt about him now that they knew what he had gone through. Holden views them as having “the tone of group therapy sessions conducted without a leader.” I agree with Holden that the reunion of two now-elderly American soldiers who had liberated Fisher’s father was a particularly moving scene; one broke down as he recalled the misery of the degraded humanity they encountered, and how he had “killed” some newly freed captives because they died from rations fed them, since starving people cannot safely absorb much food at once.
But I saw the siblings’ discussions as having a place. One can feel with them as they laugh, cry, argue and bond over what they’ve experienced on their heavy journey.
Still, perhaps the filmmaker should have explored the lives and feelings of the Austrian guides who made a point of knowing about these horrible places and their country’s shameful past as a willing component of the Third Reich. Their actions and attitudes were obviously different than exemplified by the hostile gaze of other Austrians, who live near these sites that were not especially marked off as historic or meaningful by the Austrian authorities. This contrast reminds us that Austria as a nation, unlike Germany, has not come to terms with its complicity.