Documentary film director and second-generation Holocaust survivor Philippe Mora recalls exactly what he was eating — chopped herring and eggs — when Sam Goldberg recounted to him details of what it was like working as the “sidekick” to Josef Mengele while in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.
Goldberg was Jewish but looked Polish and survived the Holocaust by assisting Mengele in sending Jews to their deaths.
Mora asked Goldberg over that meal in Westwood, Calif., decades later how human beings could be capable of such carnage.
“He said, ‘Everyone was drunk,’” Mora recalled. “There was good quality vodka for the Germans, and moonshine for the inmates. You just deadened yourself.”
Mora has been wrestling for decades with the question of how human beings could be capable of the genocide of the Holocaust and bares that struggle for viewers in “Three Days in Auschwitz.”
The film, released earlier this month on DVD and VOD, premiered in select theaters on Sept. 9 in New York, New Jersey, Long Island, California, Connecticut, Florida and Boston. JFilm, Pittsburgh’s Jewish film festival, is considering a showing of the documentary in April 2017.
Despite its title, the span of the film is not limited to “three days” nor is it limited to Auschwitz. Rather, Mora takes his audience along with him around the world as he traces the history of members of his family who were killed or otherwise affected by the Holocaust.
Mora was born the year after World War II ended. Eight members of his family were murdered in Auschwitz. His father was a part of the French resistance, and his mother evaded being slaughtered at Auschwitz by just one day.
“The question is really, ‘Why did all of this happen?’” Mora explained in a phone interview. “And we still don’t have the answers.”
“We just don’t understand the mechanics,” he said. “The Nazis were aware what they were doing was really bad. We know this because they kept hiding their tracks.”
Mora is an accomplished filmmaker whose credits include several motion pictures, including “Howling II” and “Howling III,” “Death of a Soldier,” “Brother Can You Spare A Dime,” and “Swastika,” which is an edited version of Eva Braun’s home movies.
In addition to filmmaking, Mora is also a prolific painter. Many of his pieces were inspired by the memories of Holocaust survivors and are featured in the film. He is also compiling the paintings into a graphic novel.
Mora was motivated to research the Holocaust and to make “Three Days in Auschwitz,” in part, as a way to understand his own identity.
“I had made historical documentaries,” he said. “And as you get older, you want to know where you came from.”
Mora did not know he was Jewish until he was 12 years old, he said.
“My friends were studying for their bar mitzvahs, and I asked my father if we were Jewish,” Mora recalled. “When he said, ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘In that case, I want a bar mitzvah, too.’ My father was an atheist after the Holocaust, but I had a bar mitzvah. The day after my bar mitzvah, the rabbi won the lottery and retired.”
Mora has had a long collaborative relationship with Eric Clapton, who co-produced the film and also composed and preformed the score. Clapton financed the first film Mora made in 1970, when they were roommates in London, and has composed music for other Mora films.
Clapton was eager to participate in the making of this film, Mora said, because he had performed a concert in the town of Auschwitz, “and he was aware of all this.”
“When he found out I was making the film, he offered to do the score,” Mora said. “It was a smooth collaboration. We are such old friends, and there is a lot of mutual trust.”
Mora said he has “no expectations” for the short film, which runs only 55 minutes, and that making it was “a labor of love.”
“It’s more like notes for a film than a film,” he said. “The subject is so big — that’s why. I made it personal. I thought that if I made it personal, it might affect others.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.