July 17, 2024
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July 17, 2024
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Rafi Röhrig Shines in New Epic Holocaust Film

Riverdale—Like the character he plays in the award-winning Holocaust film “Son of Saul,” Rafi Röhrig defies description. In his youth, the Hungarian-born Röhrig, known then by the name Geza, started an underground band called Huckleberry and studied Polish literature and film. A trip to Auschwitz at age 17 changed Röhrig’s life forever, prompting him to learn more about his Jewish roots, a journey that took him first to Jerusalem and then to New York. Today, the 48-year-old Riverdale resident and father of four is a published poet, a Judaic studies teacher and possibly the only Shomer Shabbos actor to be named as a serious contender for an Oscar nomination in the Best Actor category.

“Son of Saul,” being released in the United States on December 18, is like no other Holocaust film. Winner of the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, the film continues to wow critics, as it tells the story of Saul Auslander, who has the dubious distinction of being part of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz.

“Their lives were way more difficult than those of the prisoners,” Röhrig, who prefers to be called Rafi, told The Jewish Link. “They were recruited upon their arrival at Auschwitz. The Nazis promised them a better life, told them they would live in a heated area but they didn’t give them any advance notice or an accurate job description.”

That job was to usher unknowing victims into the gas chambers and after their deaths, readying the room for the next group to be annihilated.

“They would separate the inter-tangled bodies, search them for valuables, cut the women’s hair, burn the bodies, pulverize the bigger bones that were still somewhat intact, take the ashes and dispose of them in the river,” said Röhrig. “The crematorium did not stop. There were day shifts. There were night shifts. And then every four months, they themselves were gassed.”

The film portrays an aspect of the Holocaust that has yet to be explored.

“Two out of three Jews were murdered in the Holocaust in Europe,” explained Rohrig. “Most or all I have seen in movies are always about the lucky third one. These movies are survival tales and we wanted to make a movie not about the exception but the norm, and the norm was death.”

“Son of Saul” marks the directorial debut of Laszlo Nemes, a friend of Röhrig’s who sent him the script.

“I thought it was very convincing how he approached the topic from a different angle than your regular Holocaust movie and I thought this was a movie that must be made,” said Röhrig. “I let him know I would be happy to be a part of the project in any capacity he wanted. We started to work and improvise and about two months later he offered me the lead role.”

Immersing himself in his role as a member of the Sonderkommando was challenging for Röhrig.

“It was the most demonic and appalling aspect of the Holocaust,” noted Röhrig. “They were deprived of even the solace of being innocent. The Germans made the Sonderkommando their partners in crime, dragging them down to the rock bottom of their own morality and these poor Jews had no way to refuse or resign. They were absolutely traumatized.”

Becoming Saul for the movie gave Röhrig the ability to understand how so many lost their faith in God during the war, but quoting the words of Tehillim, Röhrig noted that while God may have seemed deaf to those whose pleas for mercy seemingly went unanswered, his presence could still be felt even during the most horrific of eras.

“All of this death creates a terrible emptiness and through that you can be touched with the divine,” observed Röhrig. “The people who paid attention to others, who tried to take care of each other, who shared their bread, those kedoshim who were able to keep their high standards of emunah to help others, God spoke through those people. It is very important to remember that even in that dark hour, even if it seemed that God wasn’t listening to the prayers, that he was there in action, through those people who cared for others.”

Rohrig has taken a one-year leave from his teaching position to promote “Son of Saul” and he is open to the possibility of taking on other dramatic roles. He has received offers for additional film work, but is waiting for a meaningful script with a part that will truly suit him.

Just days ago, Röhrig traveled to Washington to show “Son of Saul” to a group of senators, and prior to that he met with Dario Gabay, one of just a handful of members of the Sonderkommando who are still alive. The 93-year-old Greek-born Gabay lives in Los Angeles and is still haunted by the thousands of people who passed before him just moments before being gassed.

“Nobody ever gets out of the crematorium,” said Röhrig. “He told me that as soon as he feels some sort of joy, something closes up immediately and that the only time he is not haunted is when he is exercising.”

Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who writes for numerous websites, newspapers, magazines and many private clients. She can be contacted at [email protected].

By Sandy Eller

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