Horror of Holocaust still unfathomable, Lantos says

There is a surreal moment in the Holocaust documentary "The Last Days," when Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone interviews the Nazi doctor who experimented on her sister.

Huddled together over the death records of Auschwitz as if it were the Sunday paper, Firestone asks Hans Munch to explain what happened to her sister.

Peering over the documents, Munch takes off his glasses, scans the list, and pronounces that Klara Firestone died at Auschwitz but that "everything is good — nothing out of the ordinary."

When pressed for details by his interviewer, Munch offers a quizzical look and shrugs, saying, "Six months was the normal period."

The gulf of disbelief — whether articulated in the interchange between Firestone and Munch, by American liberators of the death camps, or by other survivors — is a theme that permeates the film.

"The Holocaust is a series of questions without answers," said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), one of five Hungarian survivors interviewed in the Academy Award-winning documentary, which will make its world television debut on HBO at 8:30 p.m.Thursday, May 25.

"What moral person can grasp the joy that the Nazis felt in seeing vast numbers of men, women and children carted off to their deaths?" Lantos asked in a recent phone interview from Washington, D.C.

"Nothing gave the Nazis more of a high, or more of an emotional rush, than killing Jews," continued the congressman. Lantos escaped from a slave-labor camp, spent time in a "safe house" operated by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, and later assisted Wallenberg in the Underground before coming to the United States Lantos lost his mother and several cousins in the Shoah.

"The record speaks for itself — I think the reason [executive director Steven] Spielberg selected five Hungarian Jews for this film is that the Hungarian Holocaust experience was the ultimate in the politics of hatred."

As the title of the documentary suggests, Hungary's Jews were sent to their deaths even as the Nazis were all but assured of losing the war. Undeterred, Hitler ordered the "final solution" to be implemented swiftly and dramatically.

The film reveals that within three months of the Nazi invasion of Hungary, 440,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz, where the majority of them perished.

"That was when the full fury of the Nazi regime was felt," said Lantos. "Hitler was an obviously intelligent man who knew he was going to lose the war.

"He could have earned brownie points by stopping the killings — but instead he decided to concentrate on the elimination of European Jewry, because that goal still seemed to be within his reach."

At the time of Nazi Germany's invasion of Budapest on March 19, 1944, the capital city's Jews were both extremely "assimilated" and "proud of their Hungarian heritage," according to Lantos.

The high level of assimilation and patriotism perhaps may have provided Hungary's Jews with a false sense of security — even with the whispers of what had happened to the Jews of Germany, Poland and other countries.

"To the extent German Jews were German Jews, and Polish Jews were Polish Jews, we were Hungarian Jews," Lantos said, "and we didn't think it could happen."

Many Hungarian survivors of the Holocaust have decidedly mixed feelings about the country of their birth. Lantos, who was filmed returning to Budapest along with his grandchildren, called his relationship with the country "unbelievably complex."

"I have tremendous admiration for Hungarian literature, theater and music, and an appreciation toward those Hungarians that share my values," said Lantos. "But the number of outright killers and murderers among people we would consider 'normal citizens,' was very high."

When asked to clarify a comment made in the film about having been an "extremely old 16 ," Lantos paused, and measured his words carefully.

"As a teenager I dealt with questions of life, death and meaning that most people living a life of comfortable circumstances will never have to face," Lantos said.

"And that innocence will never be replaced."