Survivors' words reveal Holocaust TV preview: The victims speak for themselves in this compelling documentary that needs no additional drama.

January 08, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Far more dramatically than any picture from Auschwitz, Turner Broadcasting's "Survivors of the Holocaust" reveals the true horror unleashed by Nazi Germany during World War II.

The horror is not simply that people died, or that men could be so brutal. The real horror is that the people who died were no different from the rest of us; that a supposedly civilized nation simply let it happen; that those who survived were no less victims than those who died.

And why did all this happen? Simply because some people hated some other people -- not unlike the present circumstances in Bosnia, where untold thousands have died for the crime of being born members of a certain ethnic group.

The hour-long special, airing at 8:05 p.m. on cable station WTBS, consists entirely of interviews with Holocaust survivors, as collected by Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. There's no narration, no historical context -- just the words of men and women who somehow earned a reprieve from hell.

Those words are guaranteed to strike at your heart. Alfred Pasternak remembers his father trading a loaf of bread the family had saved -- food they hoped would help them survive a coming death march to another camp -- for a prayer book, so he could perform a Passover Seder. Another man remembers watching a son beat his own father to death when the older man refused to share his food. A woman speaks of being separated from her mother, and a man recalls seeing his emaciated grandfather for the last time.

Then there's a violinist, Shony Alex Braun, who tells of a particularly sadistic officer looking for someone who could play the violin. One old man, the survivor remembers, played beautifully, but apparently was not to the officer's liking; he was shot to death.

Mr. Braun, then a young boy, was ordered to play next. He was lucky; apparently, his rendition of "The Blue Danube" pleased the Nazi, who allowed him to live.

The kicker: The man insists he had never played "The Blue Danube." Clearly, he suggests, some other hand was guiding his bow.

"Survivors of the Holocaust" is filled with such stories. Best of all, it's smart enough to let the stories, and the people telling them, stand largely by themselves.

Some drawings by the survivors are shown, as well as newsreel footage and still photographs. And while they are only a minor part of the presentation, they speak eloquently as well. One photo shows a screaming woman whose face, through a series of cuts, takes up more and more of the picture frame. The photographic equivalent of Edvard Munch's "the Scream," it may be the hour's most arresting image.

But the driving force of this hour is the voices of the men and women still alive. Not surprisingly, many break down on camera as they relate the horror of their experiences. But most are not crying over the memories; many, it turns out, are crying from guilt, wondering why it was they survived while their families and friends died.

Asked if there's a lesson to be learned from the Holocaust, Shari Braun explains it best -- and offers the show's underlying message, the reason it's so important these survivors continue to be heard.

"Don't hate anybody," she says simply. "Just don't hate anybody."

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