It only took two German secret police officers on motorcycles for the Nazis to secure Irene Zeigelstein’s small Hungarian town in the final months of World War II. It wasn’t because the town was so small, she said, but because her neighbors were so willing to assist the military invaders. In an instant, the people whom the 14-year-old called friends all her life became the devoted executors of Nazi rule, extinguishing the last lingering hopes of normal life for the Jews of Hungary. Refused at the door of her own school, the girl tried harder to ignore the reports of mass slaughter from the lips of Polish soldiers, pinned on her yellow Star of David and wept as her synagogue was burned to the ground. Two months later, she was in Auschwitz.
So began the feverish finale of Hitler’s Final Solution upon the largest remaining Jewish population in Europe. The experiences of Zeigelstein and four other Hungarian survivors are chronicled in The Last Days, an Academy Award-winning documentary produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by James Moll. The film, made in conjunction with Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, was viewed on more than 80 campuses Tuesday night.
The film was shown in commemoration of the 61st anniversary of Kristallnacht, Germany’s night of the broken glass, when a campaign of government-sanctioned violence was first unleashed upon the Jewish population there.
The Last Days takes survivors back to their hometowns to narrate the events that tore them away from everything they thought was safe, leaving them stranded and grappling with shaken faith and shattered dreams.
Today, the five survivors have flourished in America. One woman is a successful artist whose work is inspired by her memories of the Holocaust. Another is a lecturer with the Simon Wiesenthal Center who teaches tolerance to students. Tom Lantos is the only survivor ever elected to the U.S. Congress. All returned to Hungary holding the hands of their children and grandchildren.
Their own childhoods were filled with happy memories until the Nazis entered Hungary in the spring of 1944. Undeniably Jewish, but deeply patriotic, neither they nor their families could conceive of the impending danger that one scholar in the film described as the fastest and most barbaric campaign of terror carried out on a single Jewish population during WWII. Within 12 weeks the once thriving Jewish community was corralled in a ghetto, living in chaotic, makeshift dwellings on the grounds of a brickyard. Before long they were deported to concentration camps, separated from loved ones and surrounded day and night in a haze of death.
Perhaps most shocking is how in these last days America and other Allied nations were fully aware of the enormity of the Nazi killing machine. Even as liberators, they were still too late to save the millions who died up to the end of Hitler’s reign. The faces of the last days leave little room for debate on the responsibility of one man for another. Speak out against injustice now, they say, or accept complicity in evil forever.