One of the last big Holocaust trials happened in Germany last year. Reports from the hearing affected young Portsmouth film-makers Rachael Sutton and Dan Bevan so deeply they have become the first to make a movie based on what happened in that courtoom.
On a warm spring day two elderly men sit down to pit their wits against each other over a game of outdoor chess.
The board is one of those permanent stone structures you find in many parks, especially in central Europe.
The men are strangers, but as the moves unfold and the game takes shape, the younger man starts to recognise idiosyncracies in the other.
There is something about the meticulous way in which he places pieces on the board which rings vague bells.
As the sun grows warmer the older man removes his jacket revealing a battered, ageing notebook. The words ‘personal possessions’ are still visible on the spine.
And suddenly it dawns on the younger man – they have met before, 70-odd years previously... in the processing centre of Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.
The younger man is known simply as Lemel; the older, 94-year-old, is Oskar Groening, a former SS junior guard known as The Bookkeeper of Auschwitz.
When Lemel arrived at the camp as a boy his meagre possessions were precisely laid out on a table by Groening, in a way just as exact as a chess player might place his pieces.
Groening recorded every item in his notebook before sending anything of value to Berlin to help the Nazi war effort.
Educating young people about the Holocaust should be happening more, not letting it fade into forgotten historyRachael Sutton
And so begins the story of The Bookkeeper.
It’s a short film being made in Portsmouth by a young team of final-year students on the television and film production course at the city’s university and although it is a drama, it is based on fact and a sensational court case last year.
Director Dan Bevan, 22, says: ‘It’s an untold, true story which has not been put on film yet, but I think it has real potential to be made into a feature film because it’s so powerful.’
The film is the brainchild of Rachael Sutton, 21, who lives at Southsea but comes from Felpham, near Bognor Regis. She is the producer.
‘Some people might think this strange for someone as young as me, but I’ve always been fascinated by the Second World War.
‘Then last summer I read the news stories from the court case in which Oskar Groening was convicted of being an accessory at Auschwitz to the murder of 300,000 people.’ She recites the number slowly, not for dramatic impact, but because she cannot quite get her head around the enormity of it all. Few people can.
Ninety-four-year-old Groening, who was 21 when he was posted to the death camp, was convicted and jailed for four years.
But there was a surprise twist to the hearing, one which captured the imagination of Rachael and Dan and persuaded them that here was a subject around which their film could be written.
In April last year and during the trial, Auschwitz survivor Eva Kor travelled to Germany from her home in the United States to testify at Groening’s hearing.
In the courtroom she forgave him. They shared an embrace and a kiss with Eva thanking Groening for his willingness to testify about what happened in the extermination camp seven decades previously. It was later made into a documentary by Channel 4 called The Girl Who Forgave The Nazis.
‘The whole issue of forgiveness and what the human spirit is capable of in the most awful circumstances is what impressed me so much,’ adds Rachael.
In January she and Dan travelled to Poland and visited the camp ‘to educate ourselves and justify our intentions to make this short film’.
Rachael adds: ‘It’s incomprehensible what happened there. Until you’ve visited you can’t begin to imagine what went on. It’s such an important part of history which needs to be kept alive.
‘Our visit was one of the most emotional things I’ve ever done.
‘Our tutor was particularly surprised at our interest in this adult topic and excited that a version of this untold true story can be put on screen.
‘Educating young people about the Holocaust should be happening more, not letting it fade into forgotten history,’ she adds.
In Rachael and Dan’s film, the character Lemel is ficticious.
‘That is quite deliberate,’ says Dan.
‘This will only be a 10 or 15-minute work and we thought that if we had a man and a woman the whole issue of romance would rear its head. That would have been a distraction.’
They will use flashback to look at the arrival of Lemel at Auschwitz as a child. Dan adds: ‘This is a different way of telling the story, from a young person’s view, but it might make it more relevant to young people and that’s one of our aims.’
Rachael, Dan and the other three members of the team, Matilda Dray, 22; Josie Downing, 20; and Naomi Luckhoo, 21, start shooting at the end of the month. Their deadline for ‘handing in’ this major piece of their coursework is May 6.
‘If all goes well we’d like to enter it into the Making Waves short-film festival in Portsmouth and submit it to the Imperial War Museum for consideration in its festival.’
First they need to raise £2,000 before they can start shooting. They’ve got £439 so far through a variety of events.
Rachael says: ‘It’s a vitally important subject and a new story which we think deserves to reach a wider audience, but we can’t do it without raising the money.
Follow the film’s progress at facebook.com/The-Bookkeeper-574892342676843/.
THE BOOKKEEPER OF AUSCHWITZ
Oskar Groening did not kill anyone himself while working at Auschwitz during the Second World War, but at his trial last year prosecutors argued that by sorting the banknotes taken from the trainloads of arriving Jews he helped support a regime responsible for mass murder.
Groening admitted moral guilt but said it was up to the court to decide whether he was legally guilty.
He said he could only ask God to forgive him as he was not entitled to ask this of victims of the Holocaust.
The trial went to the heart of the question of whether people who were small cogs in the Nazi machinery, but did not actively participate in the killing of six million Jews during the Holocaust, were guilty of crimes. Until recently, the answer from the German justice system was no.
During his time at Auschwitz, Groening’s job was to collect the belongings of the deportees after they arrived by train and had been put through a selection process that resulted in many being sent directly to the gas chambers.
Groening, who was 21 and by his own admission an enthusiastic Nazi when he was sent to work at the camp in 1942, inspected people’s luggage, removing and counting banknotes that were inside and sending them on to SS offices in Berlin, where they helped to fund the Nazi war effort.
Prosecutors concentrated the charge on the period between May and July 1944, the time of the mass deportation of Hungary’s Jewish community during which 137 trains brought 425,000 people to Auschwitz, of which at least 300,000 were exterminated in the gas chambers.
During that period guards worked around the clock as the trains rolled in, sometimes several at once, to ensure as many Jews were murdered as possible as the war began drawing to a close.