by Allan Fish
(UK 1979 82m) not on DVD
You’re going to come out!
p Kevin Sim, Peter Morley d Peter Morley
As I write this piece, I turn to the IMDb and am left ashamed. It’s there, of course, but no-one has voted on it, seen it or commented on it. Turn to Nuit et Brouillard, to Shoah or to Laurence Rees’ Auschwitz, and you’ll find votes and comments aplenty, but nothing for Peter Morley’s piece. When one considers the plethora of Holocaust films out there, that this priceless document should be forgotten seems almost unforgiveable.
One can understand that it took me 20 years from discovering of its existence to tracking down a print, via dear old Youtube of all places. Naturally the style of shooting has dated a little bit, but as testimony, this is one of the most priceless pieces of television you will ever see. Producer Peter Morley approached Yorkshire TV with the idea of having Kitty Hart return to the place of infamy where she’d been for over two years. Her doctor son Peter would be there to offer emotional support. Kitty had been working as a radiologist in Birmingham for many years, and had written a small memoir in 1961, but her visit would act as a sort of exorcism of demons she had submerged and suppressed within her for nearly 35 years. The piece opens with the story of how her family, the Felixs, left the small town to Bielsko near the Polish border just before the invasion of Poland, and were eventually caught and shipped off to Auschwitz (ironically only a few miles from Bielsko) in 1943.
The first thing that strikes one as Kitty and David pull up to the infamous watch tower and railway tracks of Auschwitz-Birkenau is how deserted it is. Now, in the post Schindler’s List and The Pianist era, there would be hundreds of visitors, but for Kitty and Peter the place is largely quite eerily deserted. Morley keeps his camera at a safe following distance, so we see Kitty and Peter from behind, and as such watch Kitty’s footsteps, as she tries to get her bearings. Every few strides she comes close to breaking down, but stiffens the sinews: “when you have children”, she tells David, “you can bring them here and tell them about this. I owe this to all the people that have died. I’m sure I do. Thirty members of your family died here – your grandfather, your grandmother, my family, all my school friends, everybody out of our home town. All your father’s family, everybody’s ashes are here…” David asks her about her arrival: “it was night, the whole place was lit up when I came here and there was a kind of smell of roasting meat. And you thought “God, surely they can’t be roasting a lot of meat here?” and there was a peculiar glow in the distance…”
In essence Peter acts as interviewer, Morley’s discreet camera merely records their experiences, one of reawakening memories, the other of just awakening disbelief. She stops besides an open gate, remembering how if you went through that gate you lived a little longer, but if you went straight on you were dead within hours. She recalls the full-piece orchestra beside the gate to greet the workers before setting off in search of the infamous Block 25, from which the dead were picked prior to being sent to the various crematoria. She finds Block 20, where she existed from day to day, often ingeniously. What seemed horrific tasks like carrying bodies and being on Scheiss-Commando duty (which speaks for itself) she recounts as comparatively pleasant duties in that you didn’t have to go outside the compound. Survival for a girl who was 16 when she arrived and 18 when liberated, was dependant on being able to blend into the background, to go unnoticed. She describes how one bowl was her toilet, wash basin and food bowl, and with no chance to clean, her horror at having to help load her friends onto a death cart, and how she narrowly escaped Mengele’s white gloves. Finally, she finds the burning pits where hundreds of thousands were disposed of and finds the ashes barely beneath the surface. What strikes most awe is how Kitty tries to keep herself matter-of-fact about it to try and show her son how she had to see everything to survive, not merely going face to face with the horrors, but with the horror of her own mentality, and the suppressing of her own humanity, to survive. 39334 will remain burned in your memory for life.