‘Hunters': Were Those Nazi Concentration Camp Flashbacks Based on True Stories?

Did the Nazis really use Jewish prisoners as chess pieces? Or hold murderous singing competitions? Or force prisoners to drink seawater?

(This article contains some light spoilers for “Hunters” on Amazon Prime Video, just for the flashbacks and not for any of the context from the 1977 part of the narrative)

“Hunters,” as you almost certainly know if you found your way into this article, is set in the 1970s and follows a group of vigilantes, most of whom are Jewish, who are hunting down former Nazis living in America since World War II — Nazis who are planning more crimes against humanity. The older members of the group are Holocaust survivors, who managed to make it out of Nazi death camps alive — though of course no one who survived that insanity came out of it the same way they went in.

These older hunters — Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino), Ruth Heidelbaum (Jeannie Berlin), Murray Markowitz (Saul Rubinek) and Mindy Markowitz (Carol Kane) — are, of course, marked by their time imprisoned in those camps. A few of their targets are those who were responsible for some of the truly savage crimes against humanity they had witnessed.

It’s pretty heinous stuff. We get a story about a Jewish master chess player, who is forced into a game of chess in which the pieces are other prisoners in the camp. And when a piece is taken, the person is killed. There’s another in which the Nazi running the camp forced a group of prisoners to sing a Nazi song and would shoot anyone who he thought missed a note until only one was left. Then there was the one about a Nazi scientist who would force prisoners to drink seawater until it killed them, just to see what would happen.

There are more horror stories from the camps on “Hunters,” but those are the most extreme atrocities that were depicted in Season 1. These bits are all very disturbing, but they’re also a bit… out there. The Nazis proved over and over again that they were more than capable of that kind of pure madness, but some of these tales are so extreme that it felt like they might have been examples of creative license taken by “Hunters” showrunner David Weil and the writing staff.

Such license is to be expected, since “Hunters” is not a true story, and the main characters were not real people. This is a fictional tale. So their traumatic histories don’t have to match up exactly with those of real historical people who experienced the horrors of the Nazi regime.

And it turns out, they generally don’t. The chess story and the murderous singing competition appear to be original to the show, but the seawater thing is definitely not an invention of “Hunters.” The Nazis performed all sorts of the most horrendous “medical experiments” on prisoners at the camps, like freezing people in order to test hypothermia treatments. Or taking sets of twins and attempting to manually conjoin them, which is another thing that is mentioned on the show.

At Dachau, Nazi scientists would force prisoners to ingest salt water that had been filtered by various means, allegedly in order to find a method of making seawater drinkable. It didn’t work and nothing was learned, and the only effect was extreme dehydration of the subjects, who weren’t allowed to eat or drink anything other than salt water during the experiments.

And the disturbing singing competition and the earlier scene in which members of a small Jewish orchestra forced to play for new arrivals at a concentration camp, are killed when they play the Jewish folk song “Hava Nagila” are certainly rooted in a very real musical tradition in the camps. Auschwitz, for example, had an orchestra with dozens of musicians. And having them play for new arrivals was a real thing.

The creation of the whole human chess thing for “Hunters” has proven to be controversial, with the the folks at the Auschwitz memorial calling it out as “dangerous foolishness & caricature” that “also welcomes future deniers.”

But “Hunters” creator David Weil defended the show in a statement: “And why did I feel the need to create a fictional event when there were so many real horrors that existed? After all, it is true that Nazis perpetrated widespread and extreme acts of sadism and torture – and even incidents of cruel ‘games’ – against their victims. I simply did not want to depict those specific, real acts of trauma.”

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