Out of the Ashes (2003)
Director: Joseph Sargent.
Starring: Christine Lahti (Gisella Perl), Beau Bridges (Herman Prentiss), Richard Crenna (Jake Smith), Bruce Davison (Peter Schuman), Jonathan Cake (Dr. Mengele), Jolyon Baker (Frederick Krauss), Jessica Beitchman (Marta Weiss), Oliver Cotton (Moshe Perl), Michelle Fine (Fanny Perl), Zoie Palmer (Didi Goldstein), Maria Ricossa (Esther Jacob), Ingrid Veninger (Zozia), Emma Wellbelove (Young Gisella), Nina Young (Irma Griese), Vytautas Rumsas (David Perl).
the story of concentration camp survivor Dr. Gisella Perl
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.
Dr. Gisella Perl gets off the boat from Europe in New York City. A pregnant Didi Goldstein is there to meet her. Didi takes her on a shopping tour. One of the first things Gisella gets is a new pair of shoes.
Flashback to Gisella's childhood in Hungary. Gisella tells her father that she wants to be a doctor and go to the university. Her father tells her that for her it's not enough that she would be the first girl, but also the only Jew at the university.
Back to New York City. Mrs. Goldstein learns that her sister Rachel, who was at Auschwitz, is dead.
Flashback. At the concentration camp Gisella is split off from her mother, and Rachel shouts to her not to worry, she will take care of her mother.
Flashback to Gisella's childhood. She tells her father that one day "I could be very, very important."
Back to New York City. Gisella wants to start practicing medicine again. In order for her to do this she has to apply for American citizenship and pass all the medical boards. She has to start almost at the bottom again. She washes test tubes. She mentions to one of the American doctors that the Americans are far behind in medicine compared to the Europeans.
Flashback. Gisella gets married. She gives birth to a boy.
Back to New York City. Gisella gets upset when she hears the Blue Danube Waltz because this was the tune that Dr. Mengele of Auschwitz would whistle as he determined who would die and who would live a little longer. She sees Didi after her giving birth and tells her that a C section was not necessary. She also tells Isaac Goldstein that it is not right that she should have to wait such a long time to practice gynecology when she is better than most of the doctors now practicing.
At the hospital Dr. Reuben's wife has been in labor for eighteen hours. The doctor starts panicking and rushes to see Gisella. He begs her to come help his wife. The operating doctor is upset at Gisella taking over, but Dr. Reuben insists. Gisella saves the baby and the mother. Gisella moves into a big, fancy apartment thanks to the gratitude of Dr. Reuben.
Flashback. A bleeding woman is brought to Dr. Perl's office. The woman tells Gisella that her parents are dead and she lives with her uncle, who tries to have sex with her and has now beaten her. She tells the doctor that she cannot go back to her uncle's place. Gisella tells the woman that she can stay with her.
Back to New York City. Dr. Reuben calls to tell Gisella that she has passed the final board. Now she just has to get her citizenship. She asks her colleague if he thinks there might be some problem with her citizenship case because it has been a long time. Dr. Reuben tells her she has no reason to worry.
Flashback. Gisella is asked to do a Shakespeare soliloquy and then to sing for a large group of family and friends. She leads the group in song.
Back to New York City. A group of men representing the Department of Immigration and Naturalization Services talk with Gisella about her citizenship application. They have certain ethical questions they want to ask her. It seems they are questioning her character. She is suspected of having collaborated with the Nazis at Auschwitz. The main charge is that she worked alongside Nazi doctors. Gisella decides to tell her entire story.
Flashback. Gisella tells her father and mother that the family must get out of Sighet. The Hungarians are helping the Nazis round up Jews and other "objectionable" groups. But her father gives her an emphatic no. Then one day the Nazis force their way into their house. They grab the men, including Gisella's husband. She spits on a Nazi officer and a soldier hits her in the gut with his rifle butt. She goes down in a heap.
Her family are now all in the Sighet Ghetto. There they learn that they will be taken to Poland. Her medical partner gives Gisella and everyone else a vial of poison just in case they want to commit suicide rather than let the Germans kill them. The family is forced onto the train headed to Auschwitz. (Her medical partner is not present because he committed suicide.)
Arriving at Auschwitz the men and women are separated. Then the women walk in a line before Dr. Mengele who decides which ones are to die immediately and which ones can stay alive for a while. Gisella gets separated from her mother, but Rachel tells her that she will take care of her mother. The women get their hair all cut off and have a number tattooed onto their left forearm.
Back to New York City. Gisella tells the immigration board that she was a prisoner not a collaborator. They ask her when she first worked as a doctor. She says she volunteered, but she was not aware of the full extent of the evil the Nazis were doing.
Flashback. A woman who has been there for awhile tries to straighten out Gisella She explains that the Nazis have to burn them all before the Russians arrive. Dr. Mengele arrives and asks if there are any doctors in the group of women inmates. Gisella hesitates for a long while, but finally steps forward. She speaks with Mengele and asks him if he will help her find out what happened to her son and husband. He tells her "Your family will be reunited before you know." He asks Gisella to help him get all the pregnant women onto the trucks that will take them to an infirmary where they will get the medical care they need. Gisella complies. But when she rejoins the ranks of inmates, the know-it-all inmate tells her that the infirmary is really a gas chamber. She adds "Your son is dead." Gisella is so distraught that she takes the vial of poison and downs it. (But it does not kill her.)
Back to New York City. The immigration board appears to be composed of a bunch of knuckleheads because they don't seem to understand the nature of how horrible the situation was at Auschwitz. They persist in grilling her. They want to know if she participated in Mengele's experiments on inmates. They are also upset about the fact that while she was at Auschwitz, Gisella performed around 1,000 abortions -- an appalling number say the men on the board.
Gisella explains to them that she performed the abortions in order to save the lives of the mothers. Any pregnant woman would be sent to the gas chamber at once. If a woman did happen to give birth to a baby, the baby would be killed. Gisella performed the abortions and in those cases where a live baby was born, she suffocated it by putting her hand over the mouth and nose. In all there were about 30,000 Hungarian women at Auschwitz.
She tells the board members that Dr. Mengele experimented on pregnant women with sterile instruments but without anesthesia. The women were then brought to Gisella for her to patch up that is if they were still alive.
The board members complain that she seems to have no remorse. She explains that Auschwitz was its own country with its own rules and regulations and that they cannot judge her as if she was living in a normal situation. (At night she has a nightmare that she gets a telephone call from Mengele.)
Back with the immigration board the men ask her when she was put in charge of the hospital.
Flashback. She says it was about two months after her arrival. Dr. Mengele came into her barracks and asked for the women doctors. Only one comes forward so Mengele shoots a woman inmate in the head with his pistol. Gisella steps forward along with another woman. Next Gisella answers the charge that she treated an S.S. officer. Yes, she did. But this was at gunpoint. It was a female Nazi guard who thought she was pregnant and forced Gisella to examine her.
Back to New York City. Gisella gets so mad at the men of the board that she asks them a very good question. What were the Americans doing to stop the concentration camp work. She tries to turn the tables on the moralizing men by suggesting that there hands are not so clean. (She has to apologize to one man, however, because he lost a son on D-Day.)
On the streets of New York City, Gisella runs into a woman from her Hungarian village named Marta Weiss, whose life Gisella has saved several times. Marta accompanies Gisella at the next meeting of the immigration board. The men say that a woman who knows Gisella from Auschwitz has written a letter saying that Gisella let her sister die when she had nothing she could give her. Gisella responds that the sister was one of the "walking dead" who was beyond help. Marta speaks up in Gisella's defense. She tells the board how Gisella hid her during each selection of those who would go to the gas chamber. And Gisella could have been shot for this if Marta was discovered.
After the meeting Gisella tells Marta that she saw Mengele today, but Marta insists that he would not dare come to New York City. Gisella responds that Mengele knows that she knows what he did to those poor women he operated on. She feels he has to silence her.
Flashback. Mengele tells Gisella to come help him birth twins from a gypsy woman who previously gave birth to twins. He wonders if somehow this ability to have multiple births of twins could be bred into German women to increase the German birth rate. So Gisella had to assist Dr. Mengele. The twins are born, but Mengele was so disturbed by the screams of the mother that he shot her in the head.
It appears that Gisella may be suffering from a bit of post-traumatic stress disorder. She has another flashback to the case where she rejected the woman's sister because she was one of the walking dead. At about the same time a woman comes in with a broken wrist and asks Gisella to set it quickly because she has to go back on work detail in two hours. Gisella tells her to step to the back of the waiting line, but the woman flashes her something she has in her hand. When Gisella sees the item she takes it and then immediately sets the woman's wrist. The sister of the walking dead woman scolds Gisella for her actions.
One of the women doctors tells Gisella to be more realistic about their chances of survival. But Gisella refuses and shouts "I will not die here. I refuse to die here."
Back to New York City. Gisella remarks that she has blood on her hands. She admits to the board that she did some things that she is not proud of, but adds "I only did what I had to do to survive." She explains to the men that in the camps she lost everybody in her family. She feels she must be allowed to practice medicine because she wants to give birth to the children of Jewish women so that the Germans won't win (that is, in their attempt to wipe out the Jews). She wants to give life to make up for having to take the lives of so many babies.
Flashback. While helping to give birth, Gisella sees the Russian soldiers arrive. They are finally free.
Back in New York City. The board approves Gisella's request for citizenship.
She sets up a private practice. One day she gets a call to help save a woman from Sighet who is giving birth. Gisella rushes to her side. She recognizes the woman who had been at Auschwitz and whose life Gisella saved. The two women embrace. Gisella examines the woman and says: "I should be able to give back life today."
Dr. Gisella Perl delivered over 2,000 babies before emigrating to Israel in 1981. There she donated her time to Shaare Zedec Hospital in Jerusalem. She died in 1988.
Good movie. Christine Lahti did a very good job of acting. The only thing that bothered me was that the immigration board of all men was portrayed as dense, non-empathetic, overly moralistic, judgmental and idiotic. It also struck me as funny that the men would be so moralistic when the United States was giving sanctuary to ex-Nazis emigrating from Germany in the name of the defense against the Soviet Union and communism. Otherwise it was not very fun, but interesting to watch the ways in which the evil Nazis went about their job of committing genocide. From this movie, you will certainly understand why the Nazi hunters wanted Dr. Mengele so badly.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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