The Holocaust: Persecution in Europe 1933-45 Review

The Holocaust: Persecution in Europe 1933-45 – which I’ll abbreviate to The Holocaust Collection from now on – is a set of six DVDs. They are available individually, but I would be surprised if anyone likely to buy one would not want to save money and purchase the box set. (The affiliate links to your left refer to the full set rather than the single discs.)

The six discs comprise a couple of previously-made documentaries with six histories of individual concentration camps. The bulk of these films is made up from contemporary footage from a variety of sources: newsreel, Nazi actuality or propaganda footage, and that shot by Soviet cameramen during the liberation of Auschwitz. As these DVDs are documentaries, they are exempt from BBFC certification. However, each film is preceded by a warning that it contains “some explicit scenes that are of a violent and disturbing nature”. I didn’t find this footage as graphic as some I’ve seen – though I’m not proud of the fact that I thought I was immune to Holocaust footage until Night and Fog told me otherwise – but even so this is a warning that should be taken seriously. You have to be thirteen to be allowed to enter the museum at Auschwitz: it’ll be a judgement call for individual parents, but I’d be wary of showing these films to anyone much younger than that.

Much of this footage has not been seen publicly before now: inevitably some of the same material appears more than once. As the victims and the perpetrators of the Holocaust gradually die out – as I write this, Simon Wiesenthal has recently died at the age of ninety-six – discs like this form a valuable history lesson. The Holocaust killed some six million Jews, gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and political dissidents, and it stands as one of the greatest crimes in human history, one that should never be forgotten. As a resource for teaching, or for historical study, or for your own education, these discs are invaluable.

Details of the individual DVDs follow:

The Yellow Star: The Persecution of the Jews in Europe 1933-45 (84:32)
Simon Wiesenthal introduces this feature-length documentary and quotes Adolf Eichmann on the killing of Jews: “One hundred dead are a catastrophe; a million dead are a statistic.” This film, made by camp survivor Dieter Hildebrandt, received an Oscar nomination in 1980. It traces the history of anti-Semitism in Germany, beginning with Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and ending with the concentration camps. Along the way we see Himmler announce at a book-burning that “the age of Jewish intellectualism” is over, and Nazi propaganda material comparing Jews to rats and to weeds, both of which need to be eradicated. The film’s focus on Nazi anti-semitism gives it the focus to contain its subject within the bounds of a feature-length documentary, though it doesn’t discuss the fact that anti-semitism was widespread throughout Western European culture and wasn’t simply something fomented by Hitler and the Nazis.

The Liberation of Auschwitz (53:54)
Auschwitz, near the Polish town of Oswiecim, and nearby Birkenau (Brzezinka) make up the most notorious of all the Nazi concentration camps. Auschwitz is today a museum – there’s even a hotel on site if you wish to stay there – while Birkenau is kept as it was when it was liberated in 1945. Inside Birkenau’s sheds are rows of wooden bunk beds. They are the size of modern double beds. Twelve people shared each one.

The Liberation of Auschwitz, again introduced by Simon Wiesenthal, comprises footage shot by Soviet cameramen as the camp was liberated. Some eighteen minutes of this footage was shown as evidence at the Nuremberg War Crimes trials; the rest of it has not been publicly available until now. It is presented unedited and without any soundtrack apart from a voiceover narration.

The Liberation of Majdanek (61:52)
Majdanek was a camp just outside the Eastern Polish city of Lublin, set up on Himmler’s orders in 1941. Initially it was run by the SS as a prisoner of war camp, but two years later it became a concentration camp containing as many as 50,000 prisoners. For the most part a slave labour camp for the German armaments industry, it also saw service as a murder camp when gas chambers and two crematoria were built there. It was liberated in 1944 by Soviet soldiers, who advanced so rapidly that the Germans had no time to destroy the evidence of the atrocities that had taken place there. This documentary is again made up of archive footage, both of the camp in operation and also of the tribunal held in Lublin where surviving inmates testified against SS guards and kapos.

Ghetto Theresienstadt: Deception and Reality (72:18)
Terezin (in German, Theresienstadt) is a small fortress town in what is now the Czech Republic, 60 kilometres north of Prague. During World War II, the Nazis used the walled city as a Jewish ghetto and its nearby fortress as a Gestapo-run jail. To the outside world, Theresienstadt was a Jewish settlement, and we see propaganda footage of happy and hard-working men and women in congenial surroundings. Even a Danish and Red Cross delegation was fooled. The reality was far different. Theresienstadt was a concentration camp like any other, and was also used as a transit camp to Auschwitz and elsewhere.

Like The Yellow Star, this appears to be an existing documentary included in the set. Irmgard von zur Mühlen is the credited director, and she combines views of the site today, archive footage and interviews with historians and survivors of the camp.

The remaining two DVDs contain two short films each, which are separately accessed from the main menu.

Concentration Camps: Ravensbruck (29:13) and Buchenwald (32:52)
Ravensbruck was situated 90 kilometres north of Berlin, and was unique in being a camp for women prisoners (from over twenty countries), though children were kept there as well. The camp was a training ground for female Nazi overseers, including the notorious Elfriede Muller, “the Beast of Ravensbruck”. Some of the prisoners were subjected to medical experiments; others were sent to work in the brothels set up at other camps. In 1944 it became a death camp.
Buchenwald was one of the largest concentration camps, in operation for eight years and housing a quarter of a million prisoners over that period. It was primarily a labour camp, the prisoners working for local armaments factories. Although it was not an extermination camp, killings did take place there, and some medical experiments. It was evacuated by the Nazis just before Allied troops arrived in April 1945.

Concentration Camps: Dachau (37:22) and Sachsenhausen (21:13)
Dachau was set up in 1933 as a camp for Jews and Communists, but its remit soon expanded to house anyone else the Nazis deemed “undesirable”. As the first concentration camp, it became the model for all those that followed.. In 1941 it became an extermination camp. It was the second camp to be liberated, in April 1945, and reports at the time brought home to the West the extent of the Nazis’ “Final Solution”.

Sachsenhausen was set up in 1936 in the town of Orianberg, just outside Berlin. It was originally intended to house political prisoners and to be a training centre for the SS. In its nine years of existence, 200,000 prisoners were housed there, though very few survived. Sachsenhausen was the site of the world’s largest money-counterfeiting operation. Over a million dollars in fake currency was produced at the camp, but never used.

The DVDs
Each DVD is single-layered and encoded for all regions. The aspect ratio is 4:3, which reflects that of the archive footage that makes up the great majority of these films. Rating these DVDs for picture quality is next to impossible: some of it is in remarkably good condition, but some of it is damaged, full of scratches and watermarks, blurry and lacking in contrast. Of Wiesenthal’s very similar introductions to The Yellow Star and The Liberation of Auschwitz, the latter is black and white the former very faded colour, with only the green of the map behind him showing up. There’s the very occasional bit of colour footage, but almost all of it is monochrome.

The soundtrack is mono, and as for the most part these DVDs are silent apart from a voice-over narration and very occasional music, that’s quite satisfactory. What is more regrettable is that there are no subtitles for the hard of hearing. Some of the interviewees in Theresienstadt speak their own language, with fixed English subtitles.

There are no extras on any of the discs, only a scene-selection menu. It’s hard to suggest what could be included, though I would have liked some information about the six films in the set which have no credits, such as how recently made they were – even the identity of the narrator is missing. These are minor quibbles though, as otherwise this is important historical material, very well presented.

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