Documentaries Chronicle Holocaust Horror

Films Tell Piercing Tales of an Unimaginable Time

As official records and personal stories about the Holocaust continue to come to light, documentaries serve as a vehicle for making them known to the public. Some documentaries chronicle circumstances of horror and unfathomable human cruelty, of life in the ghettos and survival in the concentration camps. Others tell stories of Jewish resistance, of extraordinary courage and inspiration and of those who defied the Nazis and expresses their humanity through music and art. These documentaries are keeping knowledge of the Holocaust alive in an attempt to prevent a repeat of this devastating period in human history. Here is a list of excellent documentaries that present important context for the Holocaust. 

Conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto are known to have been intolerable. However, after the defeat of the Nazis, Allied forces discovered reels of raw footage that Nazi filmmakers had shot in the Warshaw Ghetto, showing that ghetto life had been normal and pleasant for the Jews who'd been forced to live there. There have been questions about why the Nazis shot the film and how they intended to use it. Yael Hersonski's "A Film Unfinished" investigates the footage, using two additional reels -- more recently found -- to show that the happy ghetto life scenes were staged. Conditions in the ghetto were more accurately described by survivors whose stories are told in other Holocaust documentaries. But the story behind the footage is fascinating, and the film reveals another dimension of the Nazi mind set -- and use of propaganda. "A Film Unfinished" is an important historical expose and a cautionary tale about the necessity to verify information presented in films that are presented as documentaries. ​Full review.

'Blessed Is the Match' (2008)

Katahdin Foundation, Balcony Releasing

"Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh" is the heartbreaking story of a young Jewish woman who emigrated from Hungary to Palestine before the Nazis took over her homeland and began transporting Jews to concentration camps. In 1944, Senesh joined the British Army to be part of a clandestine military mission to rescue the Hungarian Jews. Senesh parachuted into Yugoslavia and tried to sneak across the border into her native country in a valiant attempt to save the Jewish community -- including her mother -- from death at the hands of Hungarian Nazis and lead them to safety. Senesh was captured, imprisoned and killed. The film effectively uses re-enactments to tell the story of her life. Senesh was an accomplished poet and her quoted work, used in the film's narration, expresses the depth of her humanity. Full review.​

'Dear Uncle Adolf: The Germans and Their Fuhrer' (2010)

First Run Features

During his reign of power, Adolf Hitler received countless personal letters from Germans in their homeland and around the globe. Recently, a cache of some 100,000 Hitler fan letters was discovered in a secret archive in Russia. Filmmakers Michael Kloft and Mathias von der Heide use a representative selection of these to illustrate how the Germans felt about their leader and how great a hold their Fuhrer had over them. The letters are read in English by actors -- men, women and children -- as voice-over narration, while the actual handwritten or typed German documents are shown on screen, along with still photos of the authors of the letters and/or of archival footage that is directly related to the letter's theme or content. ​Full review.

'Defiant Requiem' (2012)

Partisan Pictures

Filmmaker Doug Shultz's stirring documentary follows American conductor Murry Sidlin and his chorus as they travel to Terezin, the Nazi concentration camp located near Prague, to perform Verdi's "Requiem" as a memorial to the Jews who were imprisoned there from 1941 to 1945. In particular, the concert is intended to pay tribute to and recognize the heroism of Raphael Schachter, the Jewish musician and conductor who organized a chorus of 150 imprisoned Jews to perform Verdi's passionate "Catholic Mass" 15 times as an expression of defiance against Nazi authority, cruelty and horrors at Terezin, which was under the command of the notorious Adolf Eichmann. Schachter's final performance was for the Swiss Red Cross investigators who accepted the Nazi propaganda that Terezin was established to protect Jews and failed to understand that the Jews imprisoned there were using the music as a plea and a demand for rescue and retribution. ​Full review.

'Inside Hana's Suitcase' (2009)

Menemsha Films

Fumiko Ishioka, a curator at the Tokyo Holocaust Resource Center, was so curious about a battered suitcase she received to be put on display with the museum's collection that she decided she must find out more about its owner, whose name was painted in white letters on the suitcase's cover: Hana. As Ishioka found out, Hana Brady was a young and vivacious Jewish girl who'd been transported from her parents' home in Prague to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, where she'd perished. Ishioka shared Hana's story with Japanese children as a lesson to teach them about tolerance and having respect for other cultures. Eventually, Hana's story became a bestselling book titled "Hana's Suitcase," which is the primary resource for filmmaker Larry Weinstein's documentary. ​Full review.

'Hitler's Children' (2011)

It's hard to imagine what it might be like to be born the progeny of Holocaust perpetrators and to grow up with the knowledge that your forebears were responsible for one of the most harrowing genocides in human history. Hitler had no children of his own, but "Hitler's Children" focuses on several of the heirs of members of Hitler's high command and reveals the shame and anguish that their ancestral legacy has caused them throughout their lives. They grew up within the Third Reich's inner circle, some of them in Hitler's presence, others living in the very shadow of the chimneys that towered over Nazi extermination camps. They were children and not responsible Nazi policies toward Jews, Poles, homosexuals and others who were persecuted and slaughtered by the Germans during World War II, yet they bear infamous family names, carry their genes, have personal memories of the Third Reich and events associated with the Holocaust, and they now live their lives with the full knowledge of their ancestral legacy of evil. ​Full review.

'In Heaven Underground: The Weissensee Jewish Cemetery' (2011)

Seventh Art Releasing

Northeast of Berlin sits Weissensee Jewish Cemetery, a quiet, peaceful 100-acre retreat that holds the graves of 115,000 people and houses a remarkable archive of family histories dating back to the 1850s, when the burial ground was established. It has withstood all of the warfare and social unrest that swept over Europe during the ensuing decades, including the Nazi regime. It's miraculous that the Nazis did not seize, loot and destroy Weissensee Jewish Cemetery as they did other centers of Jewish tradition and culture. Some say it is because the Nazis were extremely superstitious and feared ghosts. ​Full review.

'It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl' (2012)

Moriah Films

In "It Is No Dream: The Life of Theodor Herzl," filmmaker Richard Trank profiles the forceful, determined and complex man who is credited with the foundation of the modern state of Israel. Produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center's documentary division, the film is an in-depth study of how Herzl's vision was affected by the blatant anti-Semitism rising throughout Europe. Although Herzl wasn't a religious man, he became convinced that people of Jewish heritage and faith would be at risk of persecution until they established a homeland, an independent state where their safety and rights were guaranteed. Herzl traveled around the world, persuading leaders to support his mission. Without his persistence, modern Israel would not exist. ​Full review.

'The Lion of Judah' (2011)

Matt Mindell

Leo Zisman, an 81-year-old Holocaust survivor, was determined that young Jews and everyone else be fully informed about how Jews were treated in the Nazi death camps. Based on his personal history and firsthand experiences, Zisman leads guided tours of the Nazi death camps at Majdanek, Birkenau and Auschwitz as a way of making sure that Nazi cruelty and inhumanity is never forgotten. Filmmaker Matt Mindell follows Zisman on one of his guided tours and documents Zisman's graphic recollections about having being torn from his family, about the horrendous living conditions in the camps, being transported from one camp to another, and his terrifying stories about his enraged defiance of his brutal guards when he actually challenged them to shoot him. The tourists who travel with Zisman are deeply affected, as are audiences who watch the film. ​​Full review.

'Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today' (1948 and 2010)

Completed in 1948 but not released until 2010, ​"Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today" is an extraordinary cinematic document of one of the most important trials of the 20th century, the post-World War II trial of Nazi officials for crimes against humanity. The film was directed and edited by Stuart Schulberg, who compiled footage shot during the first Nuremberg Trial (from Nov. 20, 1945. to Oct. 1, 1946) and archival Nazi-shot footage that was presented as evidence during the trial to show in no uncertain terms that Nazi officials were guilty as charged of crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes against the peace and deserved severe punishment for their actions. The film shows how trial proceedings led to the establishment of the Nuremberg principles, guidelines that still prevail today in the punishment of war criminals. guide the definition of treatment of war criminals. ​Full review.

'Orchestra of Exiles' (2012)

First Run Features

In "Orchestra of Exiles," filmmaker Josh Aronson presents the gripping story of Bronislaw Huberman, the celebrated Polish violinist who escaped the onslaught of Nazi terror in his homeland and settled in Palestine but then returned to Europe, risking his own personal safety, to rescue some of the world's greatest musicians from the Holocaust. With his colleagues and compatriots, Huberman established one of the world's greatest orchestras, the Palestine Philharmonic, which would later become the Israeli Philharmonic. Using rarely seen archival footage of performances and social events, as well as insightful interviews with today's most acclaimed international concert musicians -- including Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman -- and a stirring soundtrack with clips from performances by Huberman and others, this film brings Huberman's inspiring story to life and honors the maestro with the praise he deserves. ​​Full review.

'The Rape of Europa' (2006)

"The Rape of Europa" is a gripping nonfiction thriller about the systematic plunder of Europe's great art treasures by the Nazis during the years of Third Reich and World War II. Centered on the theft of Gustav Klimt's famous "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer," stolen in 1938 from a family of Viennese Jews, then eventually recovered and returned to them after the war, this fascinating documentary tells how the Nazis stole paintings, sculptures, religious and decorative art and other treasures from museums and private collections in all of the countries they occupied and chronicles the complexities authorities encountered in trying to recover and return them after the war. ​​Full review.

Nancy Fishman Film Releasing

Israeli documentary filmmaker David Fisher documents the journey in which he and his siblings set off to visit the concentration camps in which their father was imprisoned while he struggled to survive the Nazi Holocaust. Fisher and his siblings -- Gideon, Ronel and Estee Fisher Heim -- learned of the specifics of father's harrowing survival struggle only upon his death, when David Fisher discovered and read his handwritten memoir. David Fisher was the only one who could bring himself to read the memoir, but he persuaded his brother and sisters to come with him when he went to Gusen to see the place his father so vividly described in the memoir. He thought it would be a healing journey. They resisted but eventually joined in -- and learned a lot about themselves, as well as their father.  ​Full review. More »

'Steal a Pencil for Me' (2007)

Red Envelope Entertainment

Award-winning filmmaker Michele Ohayon's documentary is a touching tale of true love between Jack and Ina Polak, who celebrated 60 years of marriage in 2006. In the film, they talk about how they met in Amsterdam in 1943 during the Nazi occupation, fell in love, survived the concentration camps and married. After the war, they moved to the U.S. Their sustaining strength, indomitable spirit and dedication to each other are absolutely inspiring. Full review.