Scrapbookpages Blog

May 14, 2011

Spielberg’s documentary “The Last Days”

Filed under: Dachau, Holocaust — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 5:22 pm

Steven Spielberg’s Oscar winning documentary entitled “The Last Days” is under attack by the website  You can read here the questions that the webmaster Eric Hunt has raised about the stories told by the Hungarian Holocaust survivors in the film. Four of the Hungarians featured in the film survived Auschwitz and one was a survivor of Dachau.

The film opens with the story of Bill Basch, who survived ONE WHOLE WEEK of imprisonment in the Dachau camp.  When the film was first released in 1999, I purchased the book entitled “The Last Days” which tells the stories of the survivors in the film in great detail.  According to the book, Basch was captured while he was working in connection with Raoul Wallenberg in Hungary.  His work for Wallenberg consisted of printing and delivering the passports that Wallenberg gave to the Jews to save them from being sent to a concentration camp. But Basch was actually working with an organization of young boys who duplicated the passports and secretly handed the forged papers out to others.

After Basch was captured, he was sent on a crowded transport train to the Buchenwald camp. At Buchenwald, he volunteered to work with the “10th German Railroad Brigade,” a fancy title which the Germans gave to a group of young boys who were sent out to repair the railroad tracks just after the tracks had been bombed by Allied planes.

This quote is from Bill Basch’s story in the book “The Last Days”:

Even if we survived the Germans, we were in danger from Americans who flew reconnaissance planes to see whether their mission had been successful.  They came down quite low and could see us fixing the railroads that some fliers had risked their lives to bomb.  I think half of us were killed by the Americans.

So the Americans were killing Jews, as well as Germans, as they bombed and strafed everything in Germany to win the war?

Here is another quote from Bill Basch, which is included in the book:

I did this work (repairing the railroads) from December 1944 to March 1945, by which time there were only about forty of us left and the SS made the decision to execute us all.  But some soldiers made a deal with the SS that they would take over our group and march us into a camp (Dachau); not because they were good, but because, knowing that the war was nearly lost, they wanted us to testify that they had saved our lives.

So German soldiers feared that they would be killed by the Americans after Germany lost the war, and they needed Jews to save them by testifying that the soldiers had saved Jewish lives?

In the documentary, a photo of the “death march” OUT of Dachau, just before the Americans arrived, is claimed to be the march TO the camp by the group that Bill Basch was with.  I recognized the photo and was confused about this part of the story.

When the film was released in 1999, Bill Basch was a successful businessman in Los Angeles, CA. As the film opens, we see Bill looking out the window of a train; the scenery is the pristine landscape of Bavaria.  I have been on similar train trips and I have always marveled at the beautiful houses and farms with not a weed in sight.

Bill begins by saying that, in the last days of the war, the Germans were using scarce resources and trains to send the Hungarians to concentration camps even though Germany was losing the war.  He says that killing the Jews was more important to the Germans than winning the war.

In the documentary, there is a dramatic scene that shows Bill Basch walking with his son into the Dachau Memorial Site, through the Arbeit Macht Frei gate.  However, when this scene was filmed, there was a high wall in front of this gate and it was not possible to enter the camp this way.  Obviously, Bill and his son entered on the other side of the camp, just like the other visitors that day and then walked through the gate, turned around at the wall and walked back through the gate into the camp so that  Spielberg could film his dramatic entrance.  This is a very small point, but it illustrates how the whole film is disingenuous.  Why not show the wall and tell viewers of the film that this wall was built by the Americans who took over the Dachau camp and stayed there for 28 long years.

The documentary shows a lot of footage about the Dachau camp, even though Bill Basch was only there for around one week before the camp was liberated.  Bill is shown looking at the cremation ovens at Dachau, as he says that the burning of the bodies was “the most monstrous thing ever devised.”  There is no explanation for why the Germans devised this “monstrous thing.”  The bodies were burned as part of the effort to prevent a typhus epidemic. During World War I, there were four million people who died of typhus in Poland.  A typhus epidemic got started at Dachau in December 1944 after prisoners were brought from the camps in Poland to Dachau.  By that time, the Germans were running out of coal and could no longer burn the bodies.

Curiously, the gas chamber at Dachau is not shown, nor mentioned, in the film.  It is in the same building as the ovens. At the time that this film was made, there was a sign in the gas chamber which said in five languages that the gas chamber was never used.  Maybe the Museum director would not let Spielberg remove the sign in order to film the gas chamber.

In the film, Bill Basch shows his son the entrance to the area outside the Dachau camp where the building with the ovens is located. Wait a minute! That entrance was not there when the camp was in operation.  It was added later for the benefit of the tourists.  Did Spielberg do any research at all before shooting this film?

Basch tells his son that his job in the Dachau camp was to collect the dead bodies and deliver them to the entrance (which didn’t exist when he was a prisoner there), but he was never allowed to enter the area where the crematorium is located.  He explains that prisoners who entered this area never got out because the Nazis never allowed any witnesses to live.

So the evil Nazis killed anyone who saw the ovens?  Why?  Cremation was not a crime.

It would make sense if the Nazis killed the prisoners who saw the gas chamber, but the Dachau gas chamber is not mentioned in the documentary.  Of course, Bill Basch is totally wrong about the prisoners never being allowed into the area where the ovens are located. The bodies were shoved into the ovens by workers who were prisoners.

I was amazed to hear Bill Basch say in the documentary that  he heard the sound of machine guns on the day the Dachau camp was liberated.  He obviously heard the sound of the machine guns as the American liberators shot German soldiers who had their hands in the air.  In the film, Basch says that the Americans held guns on the guards, but didn’t kill them.  He says that the American liberators turned the guards over to the prisoners instead. A short film clip is shown in which prisoners are pulling the hair of a couple of the guards, as Basch says that the prisoners “tore them limb from limb.” The film clip stops before showing that some of the guards were beaten to death by the prisoners, which is what really happened.

I was just starting to study the Holocaust when I saw this film, and it was very confusing to me.  For example, Irene Zisblatt, one of the Hungarian survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, says that the Nazis wanted to have control over when the prisoners would die. Whenever a prisoner would commit suicide by touching the electrified barbed wire fence, the Nazis would shoot 100 prisoners in reprisal, according to Irene.  She did not explain why the Germans would waste bullets during war time when there were four gas chambers at Birkenau plus two old houses that were also used for gassing.

In the documentary, it is pointed out that the Hungarian Jews who were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau were gassed immediately upon arrival.  Just after this was mentioned, the vastness of the Birkenau camp is shown with an aerial shot of row after row of wooden barracks.  At the time that the Hungarians arrived, the camp was being expanded and more barracks were under construction.  None of the survivors of Auschwitz say anything in the film about what kind of work they did in the camp, nor even if they worked while they were there.  This was what confused me.  Why so many barracks if the prisoners were immediately gassed upon arrival, and why weren’t these survivors killed?

Dr. Josef Mengele is not mentioned in the documentary, but we are introduced to Dr. Hans Münch, a kindly looking old man who was still living when the documentary was filmed.  We are told that Dr. Münch was the head of the Clinical Institute at Auschwitz and that he did sterilization experiments on women.  A picture of Block 10 at the main Auschwitz camp is shown; this is where the experiments on women took place.

Dr. Münch said that the women were sent to the gas chamber when the experiments were completed. He explained that the experimental subjects were “secret-bearers” who could not be allowed to live because they were witnesses.

Dr. Münch says in the documentary that someone came to him and asked him to use his influence to save the subjects of the experiments from the gas chamber.  He claims that he saved some of the women by doing endless experiments on them.  Dr. Münch was put on trial after the war, but he was acquitted because he had saved his subjects from the gas chamber by continuing to experiment on them.

One of the survivors featured in the documentary is Renee Firestone who goes to the office at the Auschwitz main camp where she looks up her sister Klara in the card files.  Kindly Dr. Münch tells Renee that Klara’s file card shows “nothing important,” and “everything was good” as far as what happened to her. Klara had been given a “blood test.”

Renee found nothing in the card files on her mother because the prisoners who were sent immediately to the gas chamber were never registered.  Neither were the prisoners who were transferred to a sub-camp.  Auschwitz functioned as a transit camp, as well as a “death camp.”  Prisoners were never taken directly to a sub-camp.  Prisoners were taken by train to Auschwitz where they had a shower and their heads shaved before being sent on to a camp in Germany or to a sub-camp.  This is why there are no records of who was gassed and who was sent to another camp.