In honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, here are five “don’t miss” Holocaust movies.
Per the United Nations website, “During the Holocaust, the Nazis went to great lengths to dehumanize their victims. Defying the Nazis took extraordinary courage.” These movies accurately portray courageous people who deserve wide recognition. They remind us that one person can indeed make a difference.
Go ahead. Watch these films and meet some extraordinary people from World War II: Irena Sendlerowa. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Jan and Antonina Żabiński. Stefania Podgórska. Tadeusz “Teddy” Pietrzykowski.
The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler.
Irena Sendlerowa (1910-2008) was a Catholic Pole who helped rescue more than 2,500 Jewish children in Poland during World War II. She is perhaps my favorite heroine of all time. (See my 2016 Mother’s Day post on Irena.)
Between 1939 and 1942, Irena and her colleagues created over 3,000 false documents for Jewish families to escape the Warsaw Ghetto. She then joined the underground Polish resistance organization, Żegota. Sendler participated, with dozens of others, in smuggling Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. She placed them with willing Polish families, convents, and other locations throughout Poland. When arrested and tortured by the Germans, she never revealed a single name. She barely escaped execution by firing squad.
Later in life, Irena received many accolades and awards for her heroism. In 2007 the Polish government nominated her as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. The State of Israel, the Organization of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, and the authorities of the town of Oświęcim (location of Auschwitz) all supported the nomination.
The movie is available free on YouTube, and from many public libraries. Click here to watch.
Bonhoeffer, Agent of Grace.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a pacifist German Lutheran minister and author, during the rise of Adolf Hitler. While the majority of Germans joined the Nationalist Socialist Party and practiced vehement anti-Semitism, there was a small minority of Germans who stood up to Hitler. The prominent Bonhoeffer family resisted the ideals of Adolf Hitler and Nazism, and the entire family paid dearly for exercising their conscience. The Nazis executed Dietrich, his brother, and two sons-in-law for their part in the German Resistance.
The 2000 movie is based on the lengthy biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. A newer version of the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is planned for release in 2024. (Click here for the trailer.) Whichever version you watch, Dietrich Bonhoeffer must be remembered as an important man of conscience who stood by his Christian beliefs in the face of overwhelming evil.
Above the west entrance of Westminster Abbey, are ten statues that were unveiled in July 1998. Bonhoeffer is commemorated here as one of the ten most important Christian martyrs of modern times.
The Zookeeper’s Wife.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is the true life story of Jan (1897-1974) and Antonina (1906-1971) Żabiński. They were the directors of the Warsaw Zoo when World War II broke out. Poland was the only occupied country in which the penalty for helping any Jew was death to you and your entire family. Under their leadership, the zoo became a way station and safe harbor for more than three hundred Jews and escaping Poles. In recognition of their acts, Yad Vashem in Israel recognized Jan and Antonina as Righteous Among the Gentiles. Jan never accepted payment or gifts for their actions. Click here for the movie trailer.
The movie is based on the book The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman. Today you can tour their villa at the Warsaw Zoo. There is an excellent ten-minute recorded interview with Teresa Żabinski on YouTube produced by the Polish Embassy UK. It was filmed in their villa. For more information on the Warsaw Zoo, click here.
Hidden in Silence.
Hidden in Silence is based on the true story, of a Catholic teenager who hid thirteen Jews from the Nazis in 1940s Poland. Stefania Podgórska, (1921-2018) a Catholic Pole born in 1921*, was seventeen at the time; her sister Helena was seven years old. Her family lived in a village near Przemyśl, the second-oldest city in southern Poland after Krakow. It is located in southeastern Poland, near the Russian border. At the outbreak of the war, Stefania’s mother and brother were taken to Germany as forced labor, leaving the two young sisters to fend for themselves.
Stefania Podgorska, at the age of 14, worked in a grocery store in Przemyśl owned by the Diamants, a Jewish family. Stefania grew very close to the Diamants. In July 1942, the Germans created a ghetto in Przemyśl. She remained in touch with them. In the summer of 1943, shortly before the liquidation of the Przemyśl ghetto, two Diamant brothers, Maksymilian and Henryk, managed to escape and get to Stefania’s place. They brought more people with them.
Everyone they hid survived the war. In 1989, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum recorded an oral history interview with Stefania. The movie is available free with Amazon Prime Video. (I first wrote of Podgórska in this 2014 blog post.)
(*various reputable sites list her date of birth as 1921, 1923, and 1925.)
Tadeusz “Teddy” Pietrzykowski (1917-1991) was a Warsaw bantamweight champion boxer before war broke out. He arrived in Auschwitz in June 1940 on the first transport of Polish prisoners, as prisoner #77. He survived, in part, because the Germans discovered his skills at boxing. On Sunday afternoons, boxing matches entertained the German personnel, as they placed bets on the competitors, primarily prisoners and German staff. The Germans liked their entertainment on Sunday afternoons, whether it was a concert by the prison orchestra or a competitive boxing match. The boxing ring was the only place prisoners were allowed, or cheered on, to punch their German opponents.
Ironically, I knew about Pietrzykowski twenty years ago when I began interviewing Henry Zguda. Henry knew “Teddy” as a friend, and filled me in on several stories. The story of Pietrzykowski is included in my book Henry, on pages 151-156.
The movie is well-done and I thoroughly recommend it. It also conveys the historical reality that Polish political prisoners were the first to arrive in Auschwitz, and the first to die there. I prefer the UK version which is in Polish and German with English subtitles. The English version available on Netflix is still excellent. Click here for the UK trailer.
No single list can include all Holocaust movies.
Films such as Schindler’s List, The Pianist, and The Diary of Anne Frank enjoy wide name recognition. (Well, can everyone spell the name of the Polish pianist? It’s Władysław Szpilman.) There are dozens of quality films related to the Holocaust, and more come out all the time.
The latest is a new German-language movie, The Zone of Interest. It was nominated for Best Picture of the Year in 2024 and has earned multiple awards and accolades. It is a chilling version of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of the commandant of Auschwitz, and his equally anti-Semitic wife. The Smithsonian Magazine published an excellent article and explanation of the film on January 4, 2024. Read it here. The article includes the movie trailer.
I chose the first five as well-done, historically accurate, and focused on courageous people worthy of wide recognition.