This is the story of how three young women – Anka, Rachel and Priska – hid their pregnancies from Dr Josef Mengele on the ramp at Auschwitz, and went on to suffer in the concentration camps and give birth to their babies just before Liberation in April 1945. All three of those babies then met for the first time at the age of 65 and became very close because of the astonishing similarity of circumstances in which they had been born.
I’ve read several books about and by Holocaust survivors, and yet each time I read the detailed account of an individual’s experiences I feel the horror afresh. This account, brilliantly told by Wendy Holden, spares none of the terrible details; the one thing that keeps you going, as the reader, through the grotesque inhumanity of the Nazis, is the knowledge that “this story is only being told because the three women and their babies survived.”
As survivor Esther Bauer put it: “The first twenty years we couldn’t talk about it. For the next twenty years no-one wanted to hear about it. Only in the next twenty years did people start asking questions.”
When reading these books I have two immediate responses. One is to try to imagine how I would have coped with those kind of circumstances, and how I would have behaved. The second response is always to ask what this tells us about the nature of human beings, of good and evil, hope and despair.
This time, I had the following thought:
The essential requirement for “hope” seems to be “macro” thinking. For many of us, when life’s “normal” we live our little lives with our small goals. But when Force Majeure intervenes, throwing us into a survival situation – be that earthquake, tsunami, terrorist atrocity, or Nazi Holocaust – our goals shift from “micro” thinking to “macro” thinking, at the point where lives and hopes and dreams are torn apart – a shift takes place. A new goal replaces the old: to survive; or to know that your story might be known in the future. And these three women would have hoped that their as yet unborn babies would be the living embodiment of that.
I belong to a Film Club which meets every 2 months and a few days ago our film of choice was Philomena.
I’ve now watched it four times in as many days, and during that time I’ve been haunted by the characters, by the story, and by what it tell us about life and about what it means to be human.
I haven’t read the novel by Martin Sixsmith, but it does seem to me from the Amazon reviews of the novel, that Steve Coogan’s choice to make a film of the story, focussing on the relationship between Philomena and Martin Sixsmith in their search for Philomena’s long-lost son, was an inspired choice, and created something far more powerful, moving and effective than the novel which focused on the life of Philomena’s son Michael Hess (born Anthony Lee).
Our film club group had a lively discussion about the film after viewing it, and we examined different angles, with views expressed that see the events from both sides. I think what I like most of all about the film is that it avoids a black and white view of Philomena’s story, which could so easily be “cruelly wronged woman against evil Catholic nuns” (beautifully parodied by Steve Coogan early in the film when he says, “Evil is good. I mean – story-wise.”) The message of the film is far more subtle and complex than that, and brilliantly conveyed in the dynamics of the relationship between Philomena (portrayed by Judi Dench) and Martin Sixsmith (played by Steve Coogan).
And of course the film contains some incisive dialogue about the Catholic Church. As I consider the message I’m left with this thought; how dangerous the challenges and demands of an authoritarian religious faith can be; leading some along the path of harshness, cruelty and judgementalism, and others into the highest reaches of self-sacrifice, holiness and goodness. It’s almost as if, behind it all, lurks the complexity and unaccountability of human psychology, which we can never ignore.
This Guardian article is the best review of the film that I’ve come across which acknowledges this subtlety and the far deeper observations that are being made about the Catholic Church.