The Last Survivors review – an extraordinary memorial to children of the Holocaust

The makers of this devastating, dignified documentary spent a year recording the testimonies of survivors of Nazi persecution to ensure their stories are never forgotten

Visiting his home town of Kassel in Germany for the first time in 72 years, Holocaust survivor Manfred Goldberg paused to recall the day he saw Hitler. The Führer was waving from a car surrounded by cheering Nazi crowds. Manfred was a little Jewish boy on his dad’s shoulders. “Did your father salute back?” asked a producer off-camera. “My father may have done,” Goldberg replied evenly, “not to stand out.”

In 1930s Germany, the Goldbergs stood out despite themselves. Facing escalating persecution, Baruch Goldberg fled to Britain, but wife Rosa and sons Hermann and Manfred could not join him. They were deported to the Riga ghetto, ultimately winding up in a labour camp. It was there, one day in 1943, that Manfred learned his little brother had disappeared. He never saw him again. “To this day, I don’t know his fate.”

Manfred and his mother were reunited with Baruch in London in 1946, and Manfred went on to study electronics at university. Today, aged 87, he is married with four sons and many grandchildren. His brother, who would have been 83, might have had such a life. But no. It was common for the SS to round up Jews, even nine-year-olds like Hermann, and shoot them in the forest.

For a lifetime, Manfred couldn’t face that. “I have never recited a memorial prayer on his behalf, always making myself believe he was still alive,” he said.

Last year, Manfred was persuaded to return to Germany for the installation of memorial stumbling stones, or Stolpersteine, for his family on Müllerstraße in Kassel. There are more than 70,000 such stones, 10cm square concrete cubes bearing brass plates inscribed with the names and life dates of victims of Nazi persecution. “Here lived Hermann Goldberg,” reads his brother’s Stolperstein. “Deportiert 1941 Riga. Ermordet.” Ermordet means murdered. As the concrete set on the Goldberg stones, Manfred made a speech before a small crowd. Then, gently, briefly, sweetly, this elderly gentleman sang a memorial prayer for his murdered brother, finally acknowledging publicly the unbearable truth.

The idea of Stolpersteine, he explained, is that passersby will trip up on them and be forced to reflect. “I have my doubts,” he added. “People become immune to these things very fast.”

The purpose of The Last Survivors (BBC Two) was to make us trip up, to stop us becoming complacent about the Holocaust. Only a couple of hundred of the few thousand survivors who made it to Britain live to tell their tales, and they will not be with us long. Director Arthur Cary spent a year with a handful of survivors, making an impeccably thoughtful 90-minute documentary that gave his interviewees their due dignity as each reflected, often scarcely willingly, on what happened to them as children. For an hour and a half, I was crying, especially when Cary followed three generations of Holocaust survivors to Auschwitz, knowing all the time that tears are not enough. Nor guilt.

Among the interviewees was Anita Lasker-Wallfisch. A marvellously formidable woman, she was spared murder in Auschwitz because the orchestra of female inmates compelled to play for their captors needed a cellist. We saw her sitting on one of the slabs that make up Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Can you smoke sardonically? She certainly gave it her best shot, exhaling protractedly then chuckling over the fact that Jew-haters in today’s Germany “find themselves saddled with something so unsightly”. No doubt, though, the unsightliness of this wound in central Berlin, for antisemites and the rest of us, is its point.

Lasker-Wallfisch was in Berlin to address the Bundestag on last year’s Holocaust Memorial Day. “I am one of the rapidly dwindling number of eyewitnesses to the catastrophe which befell us all those years ago,” she told German politicians including Angela Merkel, whom she admires for opening German borders to refugees, and Alternative for Germany representatives, whom she despises for fostering race hate and antisemitism.

Earlier, we saw Anita having lunch at her daughter Maya’s home in Cricklewood. For many years, she did not tell Maya or her brother what she endured in Auschwitz and Belsen. “I wanted to have a normal life and the Holocaust doesn’t fit in,” explained Anita, who became a celebrated cellist. Finally, 40 years after the war, she wrote her children a heartbreaking letter that became the basis of her memoir Inherit the Truth. Maya read aloud from it: “We have never talked much about those dark days and how it came about that you do not have any grandparents … At what point does one start explaining to one’s child that there are people in the world who had as their ideology the total annihilation of Jews and other undesirables by murdering them in the most sophisticated manner?”

Tough question. But Maya, now a psychotherapist, told her mum in a fond but difficult exchange that Anita’s silent scramble for normality had, paradoxically, traumatised her daughter. “Why was I so disturbed? Why was I picking my face when I was two?” Because I was absent, replied Anita. “The reason you were always absent was because of the Holocaust, because your mission was to build back some kind of a life.”

I hope Anita didn’t mean what she said next. “To me, anyone who has got a roof over their head and enough food – forget the trauma.” But we mustn’t forget this trauma, be it to witnesses like Anita or their children like Maya, who will soon inherit the unsought burden of fighting humanity’s tendency to forget what we must remember. As Anita told the German parliament: “It is about making certain that it can never – never ever – happen again.”


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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