The story of the Holocaust has been told so many times and in so many ways, that ensuring its horrific legacy is never forgotten can sometimes be a struggle unto itself.
However, one underreported but essential story is how Holocaust survivors lived their lives after World War II: starting families, careers, and legacies of their own all while carrying the weight of one of history’s darkest hours.
92-year-old Ed Mosberg says, “For me, every day is the Holocaust.”
Today, more than 70 years after his liberation, he continues to travel the world speaking to just about anyone who will listen about the crimes and tragedies he and millions of others experienced during the brutal reign of the Nazi regime. “This is my duty and obligation to go and talk about the Holocaust and what happened to my family.”
Mosberg tells his story in the powerful new documentary “Destination Unknown,” which follows the lives of 12 Holocaust survivors and what they did in the decades after the war ended. For Mosberg, the film forced him to relive his darkest moment.
While living as a prisoner in the notorious Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp, he made a desperate effort to save his sister that went tragically wrong.
The camp was run by Nazi commandant Amon Göth, who modern audiences may know best as the notorious villain in the film “Schindler’s List.” At the end of each day, Göth would order the camp prisoners to march in a line. Those in the front were executed, oftentimes by Göth’s own hand. One day, in an effort to save her, he was able to move his sister to the back of the line. However, in a seemingly random moment that horrifically encapsulated Göth’s sadism, he decided on that day to execute those in the back of the line.
By the time the war ended, Mosberg realized all 13 of his family members had died, leaving him as the sole survivor.
“It bothers me to this day. Because maybe if I had not interfered, maybe if I had not tried to save my sister this way, maybe if I had just not tried to keep them in the back maybe they would have survived,” Mosberg says, fighting back tears during our conversation.
Even knowing he could never in any way be responsible for his sister’s death, he still carries the burden of guilt with him all these years later. “This bothered me that I did something bad or wrong. I don’t know. It’s terrible thinking that I did something that killed them. I never want to talk about it.”
Director Claire Ferguson and producer Llion Roberts used these moments to illustrate what they call an “intimate portrait of survival,” showing that while the pain of their experience remains, it wasn’t enough to stop them from living their lives.
“The thing I found the most daunting was how can you make a film about the unfilmable?” Ferguson says.
The project didn’t originally begin as a standard documentary film. Roberts had been compiling interviews with Holocaust survivors for years, conducting his interviews in an open-ended fashion, where he simply let them tell their entire life stories. He also obtained access to never-before-seen footage of Russian forces liberating concentration camps and conducting raids against Nazi forces.
“In the film, you are not hearing people analyzing trauma, you’re witnessing people experiencing it,” Ferguson says.
After the war, Mosberg and the other survivors chronicled in the film were left to pick up their lives in very different ways.
One fellow survivor named Stanley Glogover describes in the film how he traveled to relocation camps looking for any surviving members of his family. At those locations, he would find rosters with the Glogover name, but most would turn out to be records of himself. Finally, after traveling to literally the last camp he hadn’t already visited in Italy, Glogover was reunited with his father, the only other surviving family member from the war.
“I rescued my father, a year and a half after the war,” he says.
For other survivors, carrying on meant finding a sense of purpose in both the psychological wreckage of their former lives and the literal devastation the war left on much of Europe. Each person processed those experiences differently, but they did so in an era that was still decades from even beginning to come to terms with the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Watching their stories on screen is both heartbreaking and inspiring, seeing people who have lost everything continue to fight for meaning, happiness, and even survival in their lives.
I asked Mosberg if there are still stories he isn’t ready to tell about his experiences. He explains that nearly every time he meets a fellow Holocaust survivor, he learns something important that has not yet made it into the history books and may never do so.
He tells me one such anecdote from his time in Kraków-Płaszów. Like in most concentration camps, new arrivals had their heads shaved, both for the practical purpose of avoiding the spread of lice but also a darkly convenient way of further separating the prisoners from their captors. Never one to miss an opportunity for horror, Göth took things one step further.
“When they would shave their heads, they would use a scalpel knife to leave a mark of hair left,” Mosberg explained. “So, that when they were outside, if they escaped, the guards could see a mark on their heads to target.”
As to his own survival, Mosberg says, “There was just luck. There’s no such thing as one survivor was smarter than the other ones.”
Over the course of the war, he was imprisoned in three different concentration camps. After being moved out of Kraków-Płaszów, he was transferred to a stone mine in Austria, forced to carry boulders up and down 186 steps each day. Finally, near the end of the war, he was moved to Linz, the Hermann Goering factory.
He notes that on May 5, 1945, the day his camp was liberated, their Nazi captors had attempted to blow up the mine he was working in, killing everyone still inside. By pure fortune, the dynamite did not explode, allowing Mosberg and others to escape when the Allies finally arrived.
Things came full circle for Mosberg after the war. Göth was arrested and put on trial in Poland. Thousands of survivors showed up to his trial hoping to catch their former captor facing justice.
However, Göth was proving elusive in the courtroom, denying his role in executions and other war crimes. Mosberg had brought a camera with him and waited in the space between the courtroom and Göth’s prison cell for his opportunity.
At the end of the day, as the guards were escorting Göth back to his cell, Mosberg stepped out to confront the war criminal.
“I was still afraid of him,” Mosberg freely admits. “As he was standing, I said to him, ‘While you were killing the Jews, you were always smiling. You were smiling when you killed my sister.’ He starts smiling, laughing. At that time, I took one of the pictures.”
That haunting photo ended up becoming an actual piece of evidence and history that was used to successfully convict Göth, who was eventually executed for his crimes against humanity.
Mosberg says he’ll never stop fighting against the memory of the Nazi’s and the Holocaust itself. With the rise of anti-Semitism and authoritarianism both abroad and at home, he says the message is as urgent as ever.
Despite the pain he and his wife carry with them to this day, they managed to lead productive lives and build a family, something war was never able to take away from them.
“My grandchildren are my insult to Hitler’s final solution,” he says.