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The real Auschwitz commandant — and Yiddish resistance song — behind ‘The Zone of Interest’

(JTA) – “The Zone of Interest” is not like other Holocaust movies.

Directed by British Jewish filmmaker Jonathan Glazer, the film initially appears to follow an unexceptional German family in the 1940s and their idyllic lifestyle in a cute cottage near a river. A father (Christian Friedel), a mother (Sandra Hüller) and their five children host parties, go swimming, tend to their garden and read bedtime stories at night.

Only gradually does the movie reveal that this family’s seemingly idyllic homeis located directly adjacent to the Auschwitz death camp — and that the patriarch is none other than Rudolf Höss, that camp’s real-life commandant, who directly oversaw the systematic murder of more than a million Jews, and perhaps many more. Audiences never see these murders, but they hear the horrific evidence of the slaughter: screams, gunshots and the machinery of the gas chambers.

“The Zone of Interest,” which won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, never shows the inside of the camp’s operations. Yet it is still rooted firmly in historical realities about the Holocaust and in the minute details of how the Hösses lived comfortably alongside it, ignoring the mass suffering their father was orchestrating. 

Glazer and his team did years of research before filming in an effort to capture the tonal disconnect of the moment, in perhaps the purest cinematic distillation yet of German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt’s famous proclamation about “the banality of evil.” 

“I wanted to dismantle the idea of them as anomalies, as almost supernatural,” Glazer, who also adapted the script, told The New York Times about his depiction of the Hösses. “I wanted to show that these were crimes committed by Mr. and Mrs. Smith at No. 26.”

Here’s what you need to know about the new film, which is gathering awards buzz and has been shortlisted for the best international feature Oscar as it enters a limited theatrical release this month.

What is “The Zone of Interest” based on?

Glazer, whose previous films include “Under the Skin,” “Sexy Beast” and “Birth,” adapted his script for “The Zone of Interest” from the late British author Martin Amis’ 2014 novel of the same title. But the film differs considerably from the novel, and has a greater basis in historical fact. 

While Amis’ novel followed multiple plotlines, including a love triangle, set in and around Auschwitz, Glazer’s script stripped away everything except the Höss family at its center. He also made his film about the real Höss family, whereas Amis (who died as the film was premiering at Cannes) had rendered fictional versions of them.

Glazer also went further, hiring researchers at the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum in Poland to look into details of the Höss family’s lifestyle. (The film was shot near the museum, in a formerly dilapidated house the production crew transformed into a replica of the actual Höss home.) He was also, he told The Times, inspired by sources like Timothy Snyder’s “Black Earth: The Holocaust As History And Warning,” and the writings of Gillian Rose. 

Rudolf Höss, far right, is shown in a photograph with, from left, fellow SS officers Richard Baer and Dr. Josef Mengele, at Solahütte, the SS retreat outside of Auschwitz. (Karl Höcker album/U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Who was Rudolf Höss?

Rudolf Höss was the Nazi commandant who oversaw the mass killing operations at Auschwitz-Birkenau, having been posted there from 1940 until nearly the end of the war. Before Auschwitz, Höss — born Catholic and a World War I veteran who became a committed Nazi from the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power — was posted at the Dachau and Sachsenhausen camps, where he learned the tricks of the trade of mass death.

Within the Nazi upper ranks, Höss was considered, according to an SS report, a “true pioneer” for his mass-killing innovations at the camp, which became the deadliest site of the war under his watch. After the Final Solution began being implemented in 1941, Höss installed gas chambers and ovens at Auschwitz capable of killing thousands of people every hour and disposing of their bodies; from then on, the camp was a brutally efficient system of death. He was also the one who introduced the poisonous gas Zyklon B to the camps, impressing Adolf Eichmann.

As portrayed in the film, Höss was briefly transferred to a more administrative role within the Nazi Party in 1943 — a move that the family gardener has testified angered Rudolf’s wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), because she believed the family had everything they needed at Auschwitz. (Glazer has said that his need to understand this argument between the two of them was the driving force behind the film.) However, he was reassigned to the camp the following year to oversee the mass extermination of Hungarian Jewry in an operation named after him.

He went into hiding after the war, but was tracked down by Hanns Alexander, a German Jewish Nazi hunter, and stood trial in Poland in 1947, where he was sentenced to death. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency covered his trial at the time

Höss admitted to his role in the genocide in a written statement in which he coldly describes the “improvements” his Auschwitz team made over similar extermination efforts at Treblinka — using the same dispassionate, removed cadence spoken by the movie’s version of Höss.

Höss was hanged in Auschwitz at the age of 45, on gallows he himself had ordered constructed at the camp.

The Höss family, depicted above in a scene from “The Zone of Interest,” tended a garden in their home on the edge of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. (Courtesy of A24)

What do we know about the Höss family?

The bulk of “The Zone of Interest” focuses not on the mass extermination, but rather on the particulars of Höss’ family life and the ways in which this Nazi clan mentally separated the two. As in the movie, the real Höss family lived in an impeccably maintained two-story house that bordered Auschwitz: They could see the prisoner blocks and crematoria from their upstairs window. 

Rudolf and Hedwig saw themselves as homesteaders, fulfilling the Nazi ideal of reclaiming rural territory for the master race. While Rudolf went to work at the camps every morning, Hedwig busied herself with her social life and proudly accepted the moniker of “Queen of Auschwitz.” Historian Thomas Harding wrote about how they stocked their closets with clothes and jewelry seized from the Jews who were exterminated, and with the help of a large waitstaff, including some Auschwitz prisoners, they kept a garden, often entertained guests and swam and canoed on the nearby Sola River with their kids. (One scene in the movie depicts Rudolf hurrying his kids away from the river once he realizes it is full of human ash from the camps.)

After Rudolf was caught and hanged after the war, his family was free to go, but they were shunned by German society. One of his daughters, Brigitte, would later move to the U.S., where she worked for decades at a Washington, D.C. fashion store owned by Jews who had fled the Nazis after Kristallnacht, and her mother came to visit her frequently. In 2013, at the age of 80, Brigitte told Harding she hardly thought about her Auschwitz childhood, but that she recalled her father as “the nicest man in the world,” said she believed his confession had been coerced by the British, and doubted the reported death tolls at the camp.

What is the Yiddish song featured in the movie?

Late in the film, an unnamed character — likely a partisan — sits down at a piano to play a song with an unusual melody. The song is “Sunbeams,” a little-heard resistance song composed inside Auschwitz by the Polish Jewish prisoner Joseph Wulf. Though it is not sung out loud, the lyrics appear on the screen as the plaintive melody is played, and Wulf’s own voice (recorded in the late 1960s) introduces it.

Wulf wrote:

Sunbeams, radiant and warm

Human bodies, young and old 

And who are imprisoned here, 

Our hearts are yet not cold

According to the Forward, Glazer’s research team reached out to musicologists at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum seeking obscure Yiddish music that had been written in Auschwitz.

Wulf himself survived the camp and a death march in 1945, settled in Germany in the 1950s and became a historian who tried to force German society to confront and account for the crimes of the Nazi regime. He also became a West Berlin correspondent for JTA

Wulf spent his life trying to turn the site of the Wannsee Conference, where the Nazis formalized the Final Solution, into a Holocaust memorial that he would head up. But it didn’t happen in his lifetime. In 1974 he leaped to his death from his Berlin apartment. 

In a note to his son, Wulf lamented: “I have published 18 books about the Third Reich and they have had no effect … The mass murderers walk around free, live in their little houses, and grow flowers.”


The post The real Auschwitz commandant — and Yiddish resistance song — behind ‘The Zone of Interest’ appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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The World Must Care About Murdered Russian Dissidents

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen on board a plane before the departure for the Russian capital Moscow at an airport in Berlin, Germany January 17, 2021. Photo: REUTERS/Polina Ivanova/File Photo.

In 2017, I wrote this:

Anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny posted a report on YouTube detailing the corruption of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. After more than 13 million views in roughly three weeks, people, including a large number of teenagers, answered Navalny’s call for public protest. They flooded the streets of 95 Russian cities, as well as London, Prague, Basel, and Bonn. Many carried rubber ducks — or real ducks — referring to reports of a luxury duck farm on one of Medvedev’s properties. 

Depending on the source, 7,000-8,000 (Russia’s Interior Ministry) or 25,000-30,000 (Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation) people turned out in Moscow, and hundreds — or thousands — were arrested.

Navalny is now in jail.

Navalny is now dead.

Life has never been easy for critics of Vladimir Putin. There are 30 names in this review, which is not comprehensive. They died in different (and odd) ways and different places, but all were known to have fallen out of favor with the boss. Think of them and the circumstances of their lives as well as their deaths.

Just last week, Russian pilot Maxim Kuzminov was found in a parking lot in Kiev with five bullets in him. In August, he had defected to Ukraine with a Russian Mi-8 helicopter.

Also in August, Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin died when his airplane was struck by a missile, and General Gennady Lopyrev, once a Putin confidant, died in a military jail, where he had been sent in 2017. Just before his parole, he became ill — gasping for breath — and was told by doctors he had previously undiagnosed leukemia; then he died. Col-Gen Gennady Zhidko led the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 but was removed in disgrace in October 2022, and essentially disappeared. His death was announced in August.

Dmitri Pavochka, former manager of Roscosmos, burned to death after falling asleep with a lit cigarette. Magomed Abdulaev, Chairman of the Government of the Republic of Dagestan, was victim of a hit and run. Alexander Nikolayev of Rosatom and a former diplomat, was beaten to death.

Marina Yankina, head of the financial support department of the Ministry of Defense for the Western Military district, fell out a 16th story window. Windows were problematic for:

Federal Judge Artyom Bartenev
Kristina Baikova, Vice president of Loko-Bank
Lukoil chairman Ravil Manganov
Pavel Antonov, richest deputy of the Russian Duma — and Putin critic
Semyon Korobeinikov — a clothing salesman — who “lost his footing” on a balcony. Later it emerged that he had been a co-conspirator in a bank fraud case that might have required him to testify against a mob boss friend of Putin.
Nicolai Gorokhov (2017), a witness for the US government in the investigation of Serge Magnitsky’s death, fell 50 feet out a window “while installing a hot tub.” “The balcony fell off,” the Russian government said.
Dan Rapoport, a Latvian-born US citizen, fell out of the window of a luxury apartment building in Washington, D.C. [Rapoport was the second Putin critic to die in Washington. Mikhail Y. Lesin, 57, who helped create the Kremlin’s global English-language Russia Today television network, was found dead in a hotel in 2016.]

It wasn’t only windows. In 2022,  Ivan Pechorin, 39, Putin’s hand-selected managing director of the Far East and Arctic Development Corporation (FEADC), fell off his yacht. [Andrei Fomin, Prosecutor of Chuvashia, drowned in the same area almost a year later.] Igor Nosov, CEO of FEADC died, reportedly, of a stroke.

The death of Igor Shkurko, deputy general director of Russian energy company Yakutskenergo in pretrial detention, accused of bribery, and that of 92-year-old Grigory Klinishov, the father of Russia’s thermonuclear bomb, were ruled suicides. As was the death of Major General (ret.) Yevgeny Lobachev, of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation.

The former Deputy Chairman of Novatek, was found hanged from a handrail. His wife and daughter were stabbed to death. Businessman Mikhail Watford was found dead at his home in England, while another businessman — Vladimir Bidenov — died in India after hitting his head on a railing.

No explanation was given for the death of Aleksandr Buzakov, head of Russia’s “admiralty shipyards.” Aleksey Maslov, former chief of Russian Ground Forces died “unexpectedly” in a military hospital.

There is more.

Putin critic and lawmaker Denis Voronenkov (2017), Boris Nemtsov (2015), human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov  (2009), journalists Anastasiya Baburova (2009), Natalia Estemirova (2009), Anna Politkovskaya (2005), and Paul Klebnikov (2004), and politician Sergei Yushenkov (2003) were all shot.

Human Rights lawyer Sergei Magnitsky (2009) died in police custody after being beaten and denied treatment. Yevgeny Khamaganov (2017) editor-in-chief of Asia-Russia Daily died in unexplained circumstances that resulted in a coma. Putin critic Nikolai Andrushchenko (2018) died of a severe beating — his third in a few months. He had told friends that he’d survived a previous attempt to poison him.

Britain is only barely safer. Boris Berezovsky (2013), after a falling out with Putin, left for London. He was found dead in his bath in a locked bathroom with a noose around his neck. A British coroner did not determine the cause of death. Yuri Shchekochikhin (2003) had what official reports called a “rare allergic reaction” to “something.” His family believed he had previously been poisoned and this time it killed him. Alexander Litvinenko (2006) drank radioactive tea in Britain. British coroners found nothing unusual in Alexander Perepilichny (2012) dropping dead on a jog. It might have been “bad sushi” they suggested. Later, an insurance company scientist uncovered traces of a toxic plant in his stomach.

The chilling effect of killing political dissents goes beyond the tragic loss of lives of individuals fighting for better governance or their compatriot’s freedom. It serves as strategic move to deepen the veneer of inevitability surrounding the kleptocratic rule of President Putin, both at home and abroad.

Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center, where a version of this article first appeared.

The post The World Must Care About Murdered Russian Dissidents first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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The detailed plans for a Canadian law that regulates hate speech online are seen as a ‘good start’ by Jewish groups

Jewish groups and others concerned about the rise of hate speech online welcomed the introduction of a new government bill on Feb. 26. And while the parliamentary process for it to become law is only beginning, it’s a good start according to advocacy groups who have called for the government to regulate certain types of […]

The post The detailed plans for a Canadian law that regulates hate speech online are seen as a ‘good start’ by Jewish groups appeared first on The Canadian Jewish News.

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‘You Jew!’: UC Berkeley Mob Attacks Jews During Event With IDF Soldier, University Pledges Investigation

Mob of anti-Zionists attempting to infiltrate event with Ran Bar-Yoshafat at University of California, Berkeley on February 27, 2024. Photo: Screenshot/Twitter

A mob of hundreds pro-Palestinian students and non-students shut down an event Monday evening at University of California-Berkeley featuring an Israeli soldier, forcing Jewish students to flee to a secret safe room as the protestors overwhelmed campus police

Footage of the incident shared by the outlet shows a serried mass of anti-Zionist agitators banging on the doors of the Zellerbach Library while an event featuring Israeli reservist Ran Bar-Yoshafat —who visited the university to discuss his military service during Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7 — took place inside. The mob then stormed the building — breaking glass windows in the process, according reports in the Daily Wire — and forced school officials to evacuate Jewish students to a secret safe-room.

“What happened last night was deeply concerning and a violation of some of our most important rules and values as a university, including freedom of speech, respect for diversity, and the ties that bind us together as a community,” UC Berkeley assistant vice chancellor for communications and public affairs Dan Mogulof told The Algemeiner on Tuesday during a phone interview. “What we saw last night has no recent precedent. More than an estimated 200 protesters showed up at the venue and gained unauthorized entry into the building. There has never been anything like what occurred last night.”

Mogulof pledged that the university will launch an investigation into the incident.

“We do not and will not ignore violations of our rules and values,” he said. “When we have events like this, we always have two priorities. One, to do everything in our power so the event goes forward and the other is to do everything in our power to protect the safety and well being of our students and members of the public, and given the size of the crowd, and the violence of the crowd, we were unable to do both, even with 20 police officers. The event had to be cancelled, so that we could evacuate the building and support the safety of the students.”

During the infiltration of Zellerbach, one of the mob — which was assembled by Bears for Palestine, which had earlier proclaimed its intention to cancel the event — spit on a Jewish student and called him a “Jew,” pejoratively.

“You know what I was screamed at? ‘Jew, you Jew, you Jew,’ literally right to my face,” the student who was attacked said to a friend. “Some woman — then she spit at me.”

Shaya Keyvanfar, a student, told The Algemeiner that her sister was spit and that the incident was unlike any she had ever witnessed.

“Once the doors were closed, the protesters somehow found a side door and pushed it open, and a few of them managed to get in, and once they did, they tried to open the door for the rest of them,” Keyvanfar said. “It was really scary. They were pounding on the windows outside — they broke one — they spit at my sister and others. They called someone a dirty Jew. It was eerie.”

Keyvanfar added that it may be difficult to identify the culprits because anti-Zionists activists wear masks to conceal their identities.

Security concerns plagued the event all week, according to the Daily Wire, and after arriving on campus Bar-Yoshafat was required to conceal his identity. Prior to that, the location of the event was changed to various locations to prevent violence.

“I just felt really bad for these kids because they were scared,” Bar-Yoshafat told Daily Wire. “Girls were crying from being attacked, and I think the kid that was spat on was just so shocked. I don’t think the students anticipated so many people being violent, they thought they would just chant outside.”

During Tuesday’s interview with The Algemeiner Mogulof stressed that the university “understands now that we are in new territory” and called the incident a “black mark” on its reputation. He also explained that UC Berkeley launched an antisemitism awareness program in 2019, which included panels and talks with esteemed scholars of Jewish history such as Deborah Lipstadt, because it takes the issue of campus antisemitism seriously.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

The post ‘You Jew!’: UC Berkeley Mob Attacks Jews During Event With IDF Soldier, University Pledges Investigation first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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