THE ARTS AT LARGE BY ROBYN SASSEN
HER FINGERS ARE riddled with arthritis, the skin almost transparent with veins criss-crossing one another. Her eyebrows are penciled in, in a fashion redolent of years gone by. The red lipstick slips into the crevices of her lips and blue veins punctuate her forehead. But she tells her story with an earth-shattering clarity. And it is her startling blue eyes, punctuated with the fire of deep intelligence, profound humanity and horrifying memories that grab you most of all. Meet Veronica Phillips.
Seventy years after the widespread and cruel atrocities associated with the European Holocaust, many memories have been recalled, written down and translated onto celluloid; thousands of war diaries have been published and the broader facts of the persecution of modern Jewry are widely known. The survivors are now elderly. And few. Film director Johnathan Andrews has been working intensely over the last several months to bring the previously unknown story of South African-based Hungarian-born survivor Phillips to recorded life, and its release follows her 92nd birthday on November 9 2018.
This exhaustively detailed documentary offers a portrait of an indomitable woman. Born in 1926 in Budapest to ordinary, religiously observant Jewish people – her father was a cabinet maker – in a society that was anti-semitic to its core, Phillips studied micro-biology and genetics at Brunel University in London. She was head-hunted by the South African government to come and work as an academic, and later joined the staff of the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, which she worked for two decades. But there’s a gap missing in this trajectory.
From the time she was 14 years old, the spectre of hate infiltrated her life. Politics rudely invaded all she considered to be hers, as it slapped rules which narrowed her freedoms, to the point of closure. Her experience in a ghetto, a cattle truck and concentration camps, on death marches and in disease-laden contexts designed to kill her and her people, was sheer horror. As she evolved into adulthood, not once did she give voice to the ghosts that crowded her memories and her sense of self, until now. She didn’t even tell the man she married, because he, too, had terrible war wounds in his soul, and they needed to create a future, not drown in the past.
The Secret Survivor is a riveting, difficult-to-watch 145 minutes of film; an archival gem. It takes you, not only through the full Holocaust experience which Phillips weathered in a few months, but also offers insight into Hungary’s position in relation to the unfolding war horrors. Andrews segues together his conversations with Phillips, with the recorded words of Yad Vashem’s senior historian Robert Rozett, the director of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, Tali Nates; and diplomatic dignitaries. And as such, the film is a conventional documentary foray, which brings together talking heads, archival footage and direct memories.
It’s the kind of work which can stand proudly alongside filmic achievements of the ilk of Jeremy Isaacs’s 1973 series The World at War, in its careful bringing together of facts and realities, to give you a strong and informed sense of history. Here, you get to understand the subtle infiltration of antisemitic values in a country that wasn’t really touched by the havoc of Jewish deportation in the rest of Europe. Until March of 1944, that is.
Hungary was the last European country to get mixed into the fray of the Holocaust, and the end of the war coalesced with a desperate urge on the part of Adolf Eichmann to attempt to ‘beat’ the deportation record established some time earlier by Hermann Höfle. He succeeded, in the space of two months, in orchestrating the deportation of some 420 000 Jews, most of whom were murdered.
The value of a film of this calibre – similar to the work on Holocaust survivor Lina Amato, which Andrews released early this year – at this point in society’s trajectory cannot be underestimated. This is not only for a Jewish viewership, who may suffer from something akin to Holocaust fatigue. It is also for a young audience – for people who may know the ugly face of xenophobia or racism but consider it to be African or colonialist; people who know about job reservation and political correctness but perhaps do not understand how its premises can be driven to a terrible conclusion. This film does more than put the face of Veronica Phillips in the public domain: it brings her story back to a society and a generation that can learn from it. Today.
- The Secret Survivor is directed and produced by Johnathan Andrews and features interviews with Helene Budliger Artieda, Agnes Hirschi, Lior Keinan, Tali Nates, Veronica Phillips, Robert Rozett, Martin Schäfer and François Wisard. Release date through Cinema Nouveau Ster Kinekor: November 13 2018. It will be screened as follows:
- Johannesburg (Rosebank): November 13 in three cinemas;
- Cape Town (V&A Waterfront) November 15 in two cinemas;
- Durban (Gateway): November 20 in two cinemas; and
- Pretoria (Brooklyn): November 22, in two cinemas.