The fundamental question of human evil is addressed in Oscar-winning film “Son of Saul.” Hungarian actor Geza Rohrig plays the main character in this death-camp film, but he was no ordinary actor among Oscar contenders. He is a poet, novelist and teacher — and most of all an Orthodox Jew. Adopted as a child by a Hungarian Jewish couple whose relatives were murdered by the Nazis, Rohrig in his late teens intensively studied the Holocaust, and made an extended visit to Auschwitz. Rohrig’s character in the film, Saul, is a member of the Sonderkommando — groups of Jewish prisoners forced to herd fellow Jews into the gas chambers and dispose of their remains as part of the Nazis’ industrial process of extermination.
Q: How do you describe your own Jewish faith?
A: Modern Orthodox, I would say, with a little Hasidic touch.
Q: How did it come about?
A: That has a lot to do with Auschwitz. Immediately I had a sense that I felt like I belong there. I started to examine this very strong reaction of mine. Why can’t I just let go, and go back to the train station? I rented a room and came back for a month. There’s a lot of unburied dead people there. It’s the largest cemetery of Jews. Every third victim in Auschwitz was Hungarian.
RELATED STORY: ‘Son of Saul’ unflinchingly portrays Holocaust horrors
Q: Why would you want to engage that particular horrific slice of history?
A: We are talking about the heart of Europe in the middle of the 20th century. With the cooperation of lawyers and doctors and architects and the clergy, in front of their very own eyes 10,000 images of God were gassed and burned every day in Auschwitz. I lost faith in man, and I have a moral necessity to believe, and if I couldn’t believe in man, that kind of led me to believe in God.
Q: Jews and many others, too, have remained perplexed and agonized by this lasting question of how could a loving God have this happen on his watch presiding over the human world? How have you wrestled with it?
A: It’s very hard to justify God’s conduct in those years. Avraham (Abraham), when he was trying to negotiate about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, says, “Will the judge of the whole world not do justice? How can you destroy the righteous with the wicked?” All I can tell you is that whenever I came across an argument against God, I always found a counterargument for God. It eventually comes down to the question of who you are. If, by believing, you are more you, then you have to believe — and I am more myself believing. I’m kind of disoriented if I try to take a position that will deny the existence of God, because that’s not who I am.
Q: So for you where was God in the death camps?
A: I believe God was right in the middle of it. God was not abandoning his people. I think we are given free choice and God was suffering along with everybody else who were suffering there. I think that he escorted us all the way.
Q: Even into the gas chambers?
A: Yes. If I wouldn’t believe that, a million-and-a-half Jewish children who were murdered upon arrival, then I would have no choice but to spit God into his face. There is no other way to make this case of God unless I believe that he was there.
Q: Can I ask about the role of the Sonderkommando? I gather you’re dismayed at having had to take up the role of defending them. What’s dismaying about that?
A: I really think that the most demonic aspect of Nazism was this sort of division of labor, to leave the dirty work of the Holocaust to the victims themselves. Let them burn their brothers and sisters. And by doing that their innocence was taken away from them. They were kind of dragged down to the rock bottom of the morality of the perpetrators.
Q: What do you see as the meaning of your character Saul’s conviction that even around all this evil and nihilism he wanted to achieve a proper burial for one young boy?
A: His pursuit is to bury this one boy. He can’t bury them all. He’s going to bury this one. It’s his job, it’s his purpose from now on. That’s what keeps him alive. I always defend Saul. People walk up to me after screenings and they say “This guy is a fool, he is an idiot. What difference does it make to bury one boy, when there are so many others going in the oven?” And I say, “Listen, just because something is impractical, it doesn’t mean that it’s not important or even not substantial.” So for Saul this was absolutely paramount to make sure this one is buried, and I think it’s beautiful.
Q: Do you fear future generations won’t feel connected to the Holocaust?
A: Younger generations, they go to Auschwitz and do selfies. It’s not a lack of knowledge. These kids don’t deny it happened, they all know it’s 6 million, they all know it’s gas. But they don’t feel it.
Q: Seventy-one years after the liberation of Auschwitz, are you hopeful?
A: I don’t think history turned a page. I think genocide is a permanent possibility. And I thought the bloodiest possible century is just behind us; the 21st must be much better. Well, 15 years into the 21st, it doesn’t seem very promising.
(David Tereshchuk is a reporter for PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly)
Watch Tereshchuk’s interview with Rohrig and scenes from movie: