Swimming in Auschwitz: Docu of Six Jewish Women in Concentration Camp

A fascinating, well-executed blend of interview clips, archival stills, and invaluable historical footage, the documentary “Swimming in Auschwitz” chronicles the experiences of six Jewish women from different countries and backgrounds who were deported to the notorious concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau during the Holocaust.

While subject to the same physical hardships as men, the women don’t dwell on that. Instead, they speak of camp families and issues of faith, how they uplifted one another while trying to remain alive and human. This path of spiritual resistance, which was not directly responsible for their survival, led to their ability to exist with considerably healthy minds and spirits–despite the harsh, cruel and inhuman surroundings.

Like other Holocaust docus, “Swimming in Auschwitz” offers a perspective of the camp, its daily life and context as an indelible lesson that needs to be understood and remembered. One of the feature’s main merits is that the strength of the women is vividly expressed without being the slightest sentimental.
Director Jon Kean has woven a compelling narrative by organizing the womens testimony around several themes. Cutting back and forth between the womens commentsat times letting one subject begin a sentence and another finish itmakes the work more immediate and cinematic too. The film is notable for sharing the womans experiences with respect and compassion for the individual spirit of each woman involved.

“Swimming in Auschwitz” received the Audience Choice Award at the 2007 Santa Barbara Film Festival, and has played in numerous events around the world, such as the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, the Warsaw Jewish Film Festival, and the London Declaration of Independence Film Festival. The entrepreneurial Laemmle will show the docu in early May in its Los Angeles theaters.

Historians have pointed out, that one of the glaring omissions in the ongoing study of the Holocaust is the experiences of women in the concentration camps. While subject to the same physical conditions as the men, and many of the same physical hardships, the ways in which women convey their memories is in stark contrast to most male testimonies.

At the outset, we meet six women from Europe (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Holland) in the years proceeding WWII. We are granted a glimpse of their “normal” lives, and the impact of the expanding Third Reich. Schools are closed, laws are changed to exclude Jews and conscription into forced labor camps begins. These women, teenagers at the time, tried to continue with life as they were accustomed.

This soon became impossible, when the war started in September 1939, and Jewish life became a saga of persecution, ghettoization and a futile attempt to maintain normalcy. Through the lives of the six women, we see the impact of the German war throughout Europe until 1942, when the women were herded onto cattle cars and transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Survival in Auschwitz came in stages, the first of which was the initial shock. Separated from family after three or more days on a train with no food or water, stripped of clothes, shaved of hair with numbers tattooed on their arms, the first night was often spent outdoors in a forest dominated by the smell of the crematoria. Not surprisingly, only one out of ten women made it to this point. Eventually, they had to adapt to the food, the living conditions, the labor. How did they do it By actively shaping their survival chances through taking risks and using their basic instincts and wits.

While it’s easy to view these events in a chronological order, what’s more interesting is how these women survived emotionally. The ways in which they sought out “camp families,” how they tried to uplift and to be uplifted, and how they always yearned for a chance to tell the world what was being done to them. Their time in Auschwitz was unique and personal, but collectively they tell a universal experience of the camp from a survivor’s perspective.

It is common to think that the survivors’ struggles ended the moment they left Auschwitz, but this misconception is far from the truth. Many were sent to labor camps throughout Poland and Germany and thousands more were subjected to the notorious death marches. True freedom did not come until May 8, and then only at a steep price. It was not until liberation that the true toll of the Holocaust could be estimated, and even then, the fates of most family members remained a haunting mystery.

The docu serves as a reminder that there is no way to view the Holocaust as anything other than an “absolute evil.” Nuance and texture must be stripped from all conversation about the physical acts undertaken by the Third Reich and its “final solution”. Their goal was to fully dehumanize and exploit before killing. The women in this film are a living embodiment of the failure of those policies. Try as they might, the Nazis could not kill the spirit that lived within these and thousands of other survivors. This spirit is defiantly shown in the stories of the women in “Swimming in Auschwitz.”

Striving to respect the subject’s seriousness while highlighting complex, absurd outbreaks of spiritual resistance, Kean has also succeeded in infusing his film with unexpected warmth and humanityand for that achievement, he deserves full credit.