Six Million and One adds to the documentary canon of the Holocaust as it grapples with the repercussions and impact decades later on the next generation. A dozen years ago, the father of director David Fisher died in Israel. While David and his four siblings knew generally that their parents were Holocaust survivors, they were surprised to discover that Joseph Fisher had just handwritten a detailed memoir. But only David could bring himself to read about his father’s harrowing experiences and against-all-odds survival. After the native Hungarian was rounded up in May 1944 at age 17, Joseph avoided extermination at Auschwitz by being selected for the work camp at Mauthausen, then endured slave labor at Gusen and a death march to Gunskirchen concentration camp, which was liberated by Americans in 1945.
At first, only David can bear to retrace his father’s steps, using the memoir as a guide (though it is much too sparingly quoted in the film). His father saw death constantly—throughout a woman calmly recites in German to the camera the “61 causes of death in Gusen,” presumably from the efficient S.S. administration log. In Austria, David finds in the archives of Mauthausen his father’s arrival number and transfer dates. Most of what was the Gusen hellhole is now a housing development, and to the discomfiture of the suburbanites shopping and shoveling snow from their sidewalks, the Gusen Commemoration Committee conducts an “audio-walk” tour of where camp buildings were, including the crematorium that was virtually at the residents’ front doors. While there have been a couple of short documentaries critical of kitschy Holocaust tourism, Fisher captures well the irony when it soberly intersects with collective amnesia.
A year later, when David cajoles three of his reluctant, grumbling siblings to leave their families in Israel to return with him, they recoil at even hearing German spoken, and fume at the lack of physical evidence preserved. He finally convinced them to come along because the Austrian government had just agreed to open up the last remains of Gusen, the rarely seen tunnels where the Nazis hid airplane construction to successfully avoid Allied bombing and whose dire forced labor conditions were a separate count in the Nuremberg indictments. Their tour guide cites statistics that Jewish prisoners usually only lasted a week, and is incredulous that their father survived to explicitly describe the starvation and backbreaking digging.
Sitting in the dark, lit only by spooky flashlights, they’re confounded that when their father migrated to Israel he worked long hours doing similar construction for a utility. They now sympathize how that must have daily brought back difficult memories and may explain why he was so distant. At least that’s one insight that is clear as the sister and brothers self-consciously and confusingly struggle to be pithy on camera. Though the context of this unusual reunion with the past looks emotionally resonant, viewers may find the jocular tone and arguments hard to follow. The necessary background was covered in the earlier parts of Fisher’s family trilogy—the first, Love Inventory (2000), was shown on PBS’s Independent Lens—where the talkative siblings set ground rules for his filming, which unfortunately included that he couldn’t pepper them with questions or guide their conversations.
David insists they continue to follow their father’s footsteps to Gunskirchen. They are very much aware that picnicking by a memorial in what is now a pretty forest is a stark contrast to the descriptions in their father’s memoir and in the frank interviews the director conducted in the United States with elderly veterans of the 71st infantry division who liberated the camp. Not only do these men still have nightmares of the concentration camp they were horrified to come upon, but are still consumed with guilt that their spontaneous efforts to help the survivors are now known to have been counter-productive in saving the sick and starving. (My cousin, who liberated another camp in Austria with the 36th Infantry, has also had long-term reactions.)
The Fisher siblings struggle with how their father manage to survive—as the “one” of the title—under these extreme conditions. For all their issues with him looming over their lives, his legacy includes the warm qualities that keep these affectionate siblings close together with humor, honesty, and dedication to family.