Film Review: The Touch of an Angel

The up close and personal approach of this Holocaust doc proves to be its very strength, through one man's harrowing yet inspiring reminiscences.

Few survivors’ stories can match that of Henryk Schönker, in Marek Tomasz Pawlowski's The Touch of an Angel. Schönker was a Jewish child in the Polish town of Oswiecim in 1939 when the Nazis swept in. They renamed the village Auschwitz and his father was appointed head of the community, charged with organizing the immigration of Jews to Palestine. What they did not know was that in reality the Jews were being gathered together to be slaughtered in that infamous concentration camp, rather than to travel abroad to safety.

Schönker, now a wrinkled gnome of a man, revisits that dreaded location, set in an ironically placid-seeming, bucolic countryside, and as memories doubtlessly flood his mind, he recounts his turbulent tale. Pawlowski embellishes his words with reconfigured period photographs and re-enactments which, for once, due to his low-key and unmelodramatic approach, add to, rather than detract from, Schönker's simple yet elementally powerful words.

The horrible fact of other countries refusing to allow refugee Jews across their borders recurs frequently here, as Schönker's people's plight becomes ever more dire. When the actual roundup for the camps occurred, his family found their titular guardian angel in the form of an old man who showed them a hiding place under the floorboards of a barn. Like Anne Frank, however, the Schönkers were eventually discovered and Henryk's account of what followed is truly harrowing. With tears streaming down his face, he recalls the repetitive cries of a woman being beaten by the Nazis while holding her baby.

Miraculously, Schönker was able to leave Poland, and live to the ripe old age he now enjoys as a painter, exorcising the past with his canvases. One wishes more information had been given of his subsequent life out of Poland, as well as his wife and the family they created, but this film, in the ocean of Holocaust-themed works, does really put you in searing human contact with this greatest of tragedies and horrors.