May 31, 1944 – Auschwitz-Birkenau
The prisoners of Auschwitz watch with weary eyes as a plane passes directly overhead. One prisoner says to the kapo that “…it’s finally happening, isn’t it?” The kapo isn’t convinced. The prisoner says that Vrba and Wetzler, two recent escapees from the camp were both registrars and they had a Zyklon B label as evidence. The kapo points out that they only escaped a month earlier and may not have made it to the Allies yet. His fellow prisoner says that it’s only a matter of time before the Allies know everything and the bombs will drop and “this horror will end.” The kapo maintains his cynicism and says “If you say so. But Eisenhardt doesn’t look convinced.”
Max is crossing by the fence and points out that if they bomb the area, it might kill them as well. The other prisoner replies snidely “And the Nazis won’t?” adding that as Sonderkommando, they know too much to be left alive. Max continues to walk, not really engaging them fully. The man asks where he’s going and the kapo replies “Didn’t you hear? Yesterday he found himself something to live for.”
Max makes his way to the fence that separates his detention camp and the neighboring Gypsy camp where Magda is being held. He sees her and calls out to her in hushed tones. He tosses a piece of food to her through the fence. She protests and tells him that he needs it just as much. He tells her he knows about the many illnesses that are running rampant in her camp. She responds that she knows that his camp is where they send men for punishment. He tells her not to worry about him. He then instructs her to go to the infirmary and talk to a nurse named Shulman. He has arranged for Magda to have a job there that will get her more rations and medicine should she need it. She begins to ask how he managed this but he cuts her off and tells her it doesn’t matter. An SS guard arrives and their exchange is cut short. He tells Magda emphatically “Just stay alive.” As Max walks away, he casually hands something off to the SS guard. The man looks at the gold tooth in his hand and smiles. Max’s expression is grim. As the guard pockets the tooth Max says under his breath “No matter what.”
Historical Overview – May to June 1944 – Two months after German tanks roll into Budapest, trainloads of Hungarian Jews begin to arrive at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In just six weeks, 300,000 men, women and children are selected at the platform then killed in the gas chambers and burned in the crematoria or outdoor pits.
Max is tending to one of these outdoor pits, listening casually to a conversation between two SS guards. One asks how many more Jews there are and the other coldly replies that there are enough to keep them busy for a few more months. He explains that they are emptying out some labor camps and that Greeks and Czechs are on the way and then at the end of July they will clear out the gypsy camp. Max’s eyes grow wide as he hears the impending danger facing Magda.
Later that night, one of the older men in Max’s bunkhouse compliments Max on his efforts as he eyes the gold tooth that Max has delivered to him. “You might just save that girl of yours yet” he adds. Max asks how many grenades it will buy and if they have enough. The man bluntly admits that to fight the SS they’ll never have enough. Another man says they have some more time to collect them since the revolt has been postponed until August 15. A look of horror crosses Max’s face to the man’s surprise. He asks casually “What? It’s just two weeks.” The other replies “Two weeks too late for the girl.”
Later, Nurse Shulman leads Magda to an area where the men from the neighboring camp are. She tells her to just act normal but is surprised to see where they are. She sees Max and the two are able to speak briefly. He tells her that her camp is scheduled to be liquidated the next month. She says that they tried that in May but the gypsy men revolted and the SS backed down. Max says that since then, the strongest of the gypsy men were transferred and the rest fell sick. Max tells her that there will be one last train out beforehand that will take the relatives of frontline soldiers and her. Magda seems hesitant but Max continues. He tells her that if something goes wrong and she misses this train, she must hide herself in the corpse pile. He explains that he’s bribed the leichencommando and that they will bring her to him at the crematorium. He tells her that a revolt is planned and that he will get her out of there. Magda is quiet for a moment. Then she tells Max that she saw him at the carnal pits and what was happening there. She tells him she saw a Nazi scientist do something horrendous and that nobody did anything. Max tells her in no uncertain terms “You’re going to live. I swear it to you. No matter what it takes, just don’t give up.”
The next day, another shipment of new arrivals makes their way to their death. Max and the other Sonderkommando watch and one looks to the skies and sees an American plane. “Bomb us already” he says. Max sees the new arrivals and says “Oh God” to which the man replies “God’s not up there, Max. Just the Americans. And they don’t give a damn.”
Max tends to the fiery pit. The SS guard he has bribed informs him that Magda is on the transport as promised. “Happy?” the man asks. “Yes” is Max’s only reply as he hands the man more gold teeth. The guard smiles and says that he’s always happy to take his gold. He adds that the train will take her to Buchenwald and she and the other women will end up in Ravensbruck where they like to do funny experiments. “Before it’s over, she’ll curse your name. But then again, she’s probably not the only one” he adds as Max glances down at the pit full of smoldering corpses.
August 2, 1944 – “Zigeunernacht” or Gypsy Night – The Gypsy family camp is liquidated. 2,987 people are gassed and burned in the outdoor pits.
October 5, 1944 – In the barracks, the men argue over the impending revolt which has been delayed several times. Once again, the resistance has asked that the prisoners not fight back. The kapo says that they’ve already taken names from 300 Sonderkommando and they’ll all be dead soon and that this is the end. The man argues that if they revolt, the whole camp will suffer. Max scoffs at this. He tells the men how his father didn’t fight during Kristallnacht for fear that his family would be killed. How he didn’t gut a Nazi in the ghetto because he knew they’d kill a hundred Jews in retaliation. He tells them that two months ago he could have pushed the Hauptscharfuhrer into the fire pit but then they would have killed the entire work crew. He tells them that he did nothing and they killed them all anyway. The man asks Max if he’s saying they’re all going to die anyway. “It’s time” Max says simply. The kapo adds “Time to escape, Max. Not die.” And he outlines the plan to revolt two nights hence. The kapo knows there will be no night transport that evening so fewer guards present. He tells them to go about their normal work and wait for his signal sometime after dark. He tells them not to do anything stupid until then.
As he’s working the next day, Max sees Nurse Shulman. She signals to him and he draws close enough to speak quietly with her. She tells him that Magda and half of the gypsies transported out with her have been brought back and are now being starved to death. She says that she has done what she can but that soon they will all be heading over to him and the pits. Max is devastated. She tries to console him and says that he did everything he could and that that means something. She adds that his efforts and the gold he sent helped more people than he knows. He looks up and asks her if the corpse pile is still outside the sauna.
October 7, 1944 – The day of the planned revolt.
The Leichenkommando bring another shipment of corpses from the gypsy camp. As it passes, one of the men sees that Magda’s body is among them. He tries to keep Max away and tells him that he doesn’t want to see this but Max insists. He looks in and Magda’s eyes open. She calls out to him and he realizes that she’s alive, as does the man with him who is horrified at what this means. They take Magda to the men’s barracks and she explains that she did just what Max told her to. He tries to reassure her that it’s going to be all right. The men are fearful that her presence will upset their plans for revolt. One asks what they’ll do if the guards find her and Max replies “Kill them.” The man says that then the revolt will start early and they are supposed to wait for after dark. Max points out that they have only three guns, twelve bullets and some homemade grenades and that darkness won’t help much. The man protests and says they had rules and a plan. He suggests they turn Magda over to the guards and let them handle it. Max draws his knife and stands up to the man. “Just try” he says, with deadly seriousness. The man stares Max down and tells Max that that morning he stood by while the Nazis gassed a thousand women and now they’re supposed to risk themselves and their plan for the life of one girl!
The kapo steps in and tells the man to shut up. He realizes that right now they are preparing to kill the men at Crematoria IV and that someone there is having this very debate with himself. “How many people die now so the rest can live?” he muses just as the man in charge over there is pondering. The kapo says that they all know the answer and so does Max. But he is tired of the question and he refuses to drag an innocent girl downstairs and watch as the Nazis kill her. “We say no. Right, Max? Here at the end, we finally say---“The kapo’s brave words are cut short by a massive explosion from Crematorium IV. The men react just as the guards do and begin their own resistance efforts. The SS turn on them and begin to fire as they storm out of the barracks and attack. Max grabs Magda and guides her away from the gunfire. Other prisoners pry open the gates and Max and Magda make a ruin for it. As they flee, Max remembers his father’s words.
“Sometimes in this life, you get a moment. A time when everything lines up. When anything is possible. When suddenly, you can make things happen. God help us if we take that moment. And God forgive us if we don’t.”
Amidst the chaos, Max and Magda flee the camp into the woods surrounding it. Several others escape as well and the Nazi guards give chase.
Historical Overview – On October 7, 1944, the Sonderkommando at Crematorium II and IV rise up, destroying Crematoria IV, killing three SS men, and wounding a dozen more. 200 Sonderkommando are killed in the camp during and after the battle. Another 250 who escape the camp’s perimeters are shot and burned to death in a barn in Rajsko. Crematorium IV is never repaired. But on October 9, the killings resume. 4,000 Jews are killed in Crematoria II and V. And on October 10, the 800 Gypsies who had been transferred back to Auschwitz from Buchenwald are killed in Crematorium V. The Allies never bomb the death machinery of Auschwitz. But in November 1944, as the Red Army draws near, S.S. Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler orders the dismantling of the crematoria. January 26, 1945. The S.S. dynamite Crematorium V. January 27, 1945. The Red Army liberates the camp and the 7,000 prisoners who remain. Altogether, the Nazis systematically killed approximately 6 million Jews and many millions of other innocent civilians. At least a million people died at Auschwitz.
September, 1948 – From the letter of Max Eisenhardt:
“My name is Max Eisenhardt. 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.”
Max, dressed in a trench coat and fedora, digs among the ruins of a shattered wall at Auschwitz. He finds the container in which he concealed his letter and takes it out. He reads it quickly, clearly thinking back on that moment, that horrible chapter of his life. He looks to the skies, his eyes filled with the enormity of it all.