Auschwitz – September 1942:
Max arrives at Auschwitz on a train full of people of all ages. As they arrive, Nazi soldiers separate the men from the women and children. They tell their prisoners to leave their bags along the tracks. Prisoners in striped uniforms from the camps are there to help move the newcomers through the intake process. Max walks with his head down, lost in his thoughts. He is pulled back to reality as one of the uniformed prisoners calls out his name. “My God. It really is you” the man says. Max looks up and immediately recognizes his old teacher Herr Kalb. He tells Max that they are no longer in school and that he can call him “Fritz”.
Fritz asks Max where his family is and Max simply looks away. Herr Kalb says that he is sorry. Nearby, A Nazi soldier shouts that the men need to move to one side. One of the newcomers protests as he is separated from his wife. The guard tells him that they’ll be reunited on the other side. Herr Kalb leans down to Max and speaks to him in a hushed and hurried voice. He tells Max to give him anything small and valuable that he may have on him. Max begins to question him but Herr Kalb smiles softly and says simply “Trust me, Max.” Max hands him a few things and then Kalb tells him to stand up straight and tell them that he is eighteen and willing to work.
One of the Nazi guards urges Max along. Kalb moves to a nearby woman and tells her to give her small child to the elderly woman standing with her. The woman asks why and Kalb simply says “Please.” A soldier demands that everyone fall into line. Max turns to another boy and tells him “Tell them you’re eighteen.” The fair-haired boy replies “What?”
Moments later, Max stands before a doctor from the camps. He tells them he is eighteen and the man asks if he can work. Max replies “Yes, sir.” An officer behind the doctor seems to question this for a moment before telling Max to move to the right. Just behind Max, the woman who Herr Kalb told to give her baby to her elderly mother begins to protests. She is being separated from her child. She cries out and Max turns to look. A soldier points him towards the camp and yells at him, “Keep moving! Eyes forward!” Max joins the stream of men being herded through the crooked gates of the camp.
Once inside, the men are ordered to take their clothes off. The fair-haired boy has also lied about his age and is there next to Max. He begins to object to stripping down and a soldier strikes him across the brow with the butt of his gun. He then repeats his order for them all to strip down. Max and the other men comply. Once they are all naked, uniformed prisoners from the camp come in and shave their heads. The men are then taken to another room where prisoner numbers are tattooed on their forearms. After this, they are forced into a large shower before being issued striped uniforms. Max’s uniform bears a roughly formed yellow Star of David that marks him as a Jew. He and the other newcomers are finally taken to the barracks that are shared by the Jewish men in the camp.
Not long after, a Nazi officer arrives in the barrack. He asks if any of the boys are under sixteen. He tells them not to be scared, that there’s been a mistake and they shouldn’t be there but in school. He urges them to step forward, telling them that their teacher is waiting for them. Max tells the other boys in his bunk “Don’t.” The fair-haired boy tells him to let go of him and Max tries to tell him that he doesn’t understand. The boy is insistent and though Max tells the officer that he is eighteen, the boy insists he is only fourteen. The officer punches Max, bloodying his nose. The younger boy smiles at the officer as he is led outside with two other boys. He says to the soldiers “I just want to go to school.” Max sinks to the floor defeated. His eyes open wide as he hears the shots fired outside. He knows that the boys have been killed. He clenches his eyes tight.
The next day, Max is in the yard eating the meager food given to those interned at the camp. Herr Kalb approaches and tells him that he was worried when he heard that they took some of the new boys the night before. Kalb hands Max some cheese and tells him to hide it quickly. Max tells Kalb that he tried to stop one of the boys the night before. Kalb smiles gently and tells Max that he always was his most stubborn student. He adds that he was thinking about Max’s javelin throw. Max was supposed to let the Aryan boys win but was trying so hard to impress the cleaning woman’s daughter. Kalb hands Max the photo of Magda wearing the necklace he made for her. It was among the valuables that Max slipped to Kalb when he was brought into the camp. Kalb asks what her name is and Max replies ”Magda”. Kalb tells him that he was such a hero that day but warns him that there is no place for heroes in this place. He tells Max that he is part of the Kanada Kommando whose job it is to sort through the belongings of the new arrivals. He explains that it is the best job in the camp and he plans to have Max transferred over to work with him. He adds that it will take some time to get the proper bribes together and tells Max to “just stay alive”.
Max asks how he does that and Kalb tries his best to advise him. He tells Max that they’ll kill him if he breaks the rules but that he will starve in a month if he does everything that he is told. But Kalb has faith in Max “You always were my smartest student, after all.” Max does as Kalb tells him. He works hard and when a fellow prisoner collapses, Max nabs a silver spoon that falls from his dead body. He trades this for extra food. He manages to survive until a kapo comes to fetch him for his new work assignment. The kapo leads Max to Kalb who is waiting and pleased to see Max.
An officer stops their meeting and tells the kapo that he is a bit “far afield”. The kapo explains that he was just heading back to the warehouse. The officer says that he lost a man yesterday and it seems that the kapo has an extra, indicating Max. The kapo says casually “He’s all yours” to the officer whom he addresses as Herr Unterscharfuhrer. Kalb quietly begins to protest as this was not the deal he struck with the kapo. The kapo grabs Max and shoves him towards the officer. The kapo hits Kalb and tells him to shut up or he’ll get them both killed. Max looks back and the officer tells him “Don’t look back, Jew. The really interesting sights are up ahead.”
The officer leads Max to a building where a group of women and children are gathered. He addresses the crowd and apologizes for the forthcoming indignities but explains that a single louse could lead to an outbreak of typhus. He adds that they have been selected because they will be good workers and after this disinfecting process they will receive soup and coffee. A woman kneels down to her very young son. He looks up at her and says excitedly “Soup?” and she replies with enthusiasm “Soup!” The women then strip down as instructed. The kapo tells them to remember where they have left their belongings and that they will need them later. They do as instructed and are lead into the building before them. The kapo slams the door shut behind them. The kapo then commands Max and the other Sonderkommando to begin loading the women’s belongings. Max hears the cries for help from the women and children inside the building. He says quietly “Oh God.” Another boy shushes him as they load a cart with the remnants of these people’s lives. Max is astonished and asks the young Sonderkommando if he knew they were about to do this and why he said nothing. The boy sarcastically encourages Max to go ahead and tell them himself next time so that they can panic. He adds that Max can then watch as the Nazi soldiers beat and shoot the children before they gas the women. Max looks up and watches as the Nazis carefully load the poisonous gas that will silence the cries for help. His steely eyes narrow as the boy says to him “Welcome to the Sonderkommando.”
Max finds himself in the Kanada Warehouse where the belongings of those led to slaughter are stored. He sees Herr Kalb there who hurriedly tells him that this is not how it was supposed to happen and assures him that he will get him out. He tells Max sincerely that he will never stop trying “As long as I breathe, Max. I’ll – I’ll – just don’t give up, do you hear me?” he pleads. But Max sees a sight that shakes even his youthful resolve. A single room piled high with eyeglasses. Thousands upon thousands crowd the space, the mountain of spectacles higher than the window sills, each representing a life that has been extinguished by the Nazis’ evil regime. Max looks at this room and understands the scope of the horror it represents fully.
Max’s letter –:
“My name is Max Eisenhardt. I’ve been a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz for almost two years. I watched thousands of men, women and children walk to their deaths, I pulled their bodies from the gas chambers. I dug out their teeth so the Germans could take their gold. And I carried them to the ovens, where I learned to combine a child’s body with an old man’s to make them burn better. I saw my fellow workers buried alive in an avalanche of rotting corpses. I was thousands of murdered people burning in giant outdoor pits. I have seen at least a quarter million dead human beings with my own eyes… and I couldn’t save a single one… any more than they could save me. To whoever finds this, I’m sorry. Because I’m dead and now it’s up to you. Tell everyone who will listen. Tell everyone who won’t. Please. Don’t let this ever happen again.”
After two years as a Sonderkommando, Max’s daily work is interrupted by and unexpected sight. As he loads the furnace he calls out “Wait.” There on the conveyor belt that carries the bodies of the dead into the furnace is Herr Kalb, his eyes still wide open even in death. Max looks at him for a long moment until another worker calls his name and tells him to keep moving. Later, Max completes his letter and shoves it into a canister which he places in a hole in the floorboards of the furnace room. He then curls up in a ball and covers his ears in a feeble attempt to shut out the horrors that surround him and the image of Herr Kalb entering the fiery maw of the furnace.
The next day, Max is morose. With Herr Kalb dead, he has lost all hope. As the Sonderkommando march out he breaks away from the group and heads towards the electrified fence. Another boy calls out and warns “They’ll shoot you!” If Max hears them, he pays the warning no heed. Another sonderkommando quiets the one who shouted the warning and says “He’s done.” Max’s eyes are stone cold and empty. As he approaches the fence, he sees a glimmer of light. His eyes focus in on it. A young girl in the neighboring camp is cradling something shiny in her hands. It’s a necklace made of fine metals. Max’s eyes grow wide with disbelief as he sees the girl. She looks up and says his name. “Max?” she says weakly. Max’s eyes soften as he recognizes her and says her name “Magda.” She brings her hand to her mouth and says his name again as their eyes meet and the recognition is made and becomes real. The moment is broken as the kapo calls out “EISENHARDT!” Max immediately falls back into line with the others. But he spares a glance back. There is a soft smile on his face as he says her name again… “Magda.” He has returned to the Sonderkommando with new purpose and most importantly… hope.