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Life Arts    H2'ed 10/12/10

Czech Filmmaker Lukas Pribyl on His Holocaust Documentary, "Forgotten Transports"

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My guest today is Czech filmmaker Lukas Pribyl. He directed and produced the four-part series, Forgotten Transports , about the Nazi deportation of Czech Jews during World War II. Welcome to OpEdNews, Lukas. Over the years, the Holocaust has been covered by hundreds of memoirs, historical accounts, books of fiction, as well as movies and documentaries in many languages. Some would say that the subject has been overdone and that it's time to move on already. What drew you to the subject and why did you spend so much time exploring and documenting it?

credit: Sarah Shatz

The fact that many consider the subject of the Holocaust "overdone" is something that actually drew me to it. It is true that some stories are repeated over and over and the same images recycled again and again. I have watched dozens of documentaries on the Holocaust and I am very aware that there must be a sort of "Holocaust documentary fatigue" because a lot of the films look alike. They show a few weeping survivors, the music is sad, with prominent violin" What has also always struck me is that while most documentary filmmakers attempt to depict the situation of the Jews in Europe during WWII, they are really showing us the perspective of the Nazis, or at best the view of the so-called "bystanders". What we see is not really the perspective of the Jews. Think of it: In how many documentaries have you seen footage from Nazi newsreels of Hitler's followers goose-stepping at a stadium with lit torches or images of Hitler shouting into a microphone? But Jews did not attend Nazi marches and certainly did not go out of their way to personally see and hear Hitler. They would have to be stupid or suicidal" Jews actually did not even see such footage that much because they were soon not allowed to go to movie theaters. And the oft-repeated images of children pulling their sleeves up in Auschwitz or of the huge piles of corpses in Bergen Belsen, that's post-Holocaust, liberation footage. It was filmed by the Allied armies, as they came across the concentration camps.

The fact that the Allies could film these things was because there was still something there in late 1944 or in 1945 the bodies, the crematoria, the piles of hair and looted things. Many of the places my films depict however ceased to exist, or better said, were liquidated by the Nazis already in 1942 or 1943. Very few people survived from there and most of them did not speak after the war. We generally associate the "survival story" with striped uniforms and "phone numbers to heaven" tattooed onto forearms. I however set out to document other, "untold" stories of the Holocaust that took place in locations we have mostly not heard about Sawin or Maly Trostinetz, Jagalla or Kaiserwald. I was interested in depicting other "modes" of survival, not the Auschwitz one. That's why the films are designed the way they are: Each of the four films describes one geographic destination where deportation trains were dispatched to and focuses on a particular "mode" of survival, on one unique way people adjusted to their situation.

The film about deportations to eastern Poland is concerned with the psyche of people permanently on the run, constantly in hiding, who had to continually feign and change identities with a great deal of ingenuity and much humor. Forgotten Transports to Estonia is a film describing a fascinating story of a group of young women and girls who thanks to their youthful naivety and constant mutual help managed to pass through the Holocaust while remaining largely oblivious to the genocide raging around them. The segment about Belarus is devoted to resistance and armed struggle by Jewish escapees from camps, to people who were being killed but also killed. Latvia talks about the effort to preserve a semblance of normal life in the ghetto in Riga. Young people fell in love and organized parties (under the penalty of death), children attended school but on the way to it had to pass under the gallows.

And so while the film on "Poland" is really a story of the inner loneliness of individuals who joke to survive, "Latvia" is a story of families, "Belarus" of men and "Estonia" of women. Each of my films is designed to stand by itself and can be screened independently of others. However, when seen consecutively, a certain overarching idea becomes apparent. None of the information given in one film is repeated in another but there are these "horizontal" stories and themes and so in the film about Estonia you learn about what happens when you manage to protect your shoes from a kapo who wants to take them away. In Poland, you get to know what happens when they are stolen from you. In the film about Belarus shoes lead to a silly mistake, a killing and becoming a hero, the film about Latvia tells you how stealing shoes can help you survive.

And since I did not want to recycle the already told stories and known images, I ended up filming people from twenty countries on five continents. The visual material in my documentaries comes from over thirty countries. I wanted to tell the story only through the eyes and words of the survivors themselves, so there is no commentary, no present-day and make-believe footage, only true, time and place precise images. I wanted every word in the films to be substantiated by a true picture, so I have gone through several hundred hours of extant archival film in a number of countries to find the fragments I needed to illustrate particular events.

I managed to get pictures from the KGB archives, traded bottles of vodka for photos in Polish villages, incessantly pressed the doorbells of families of former SS men. Behind each of the authentic photos used, there is much travel, many meetings, hundreds of phone calls, as most of these snapshots do not originate in official archives but rather come from private sources (and from people often hostile to Jews). Each small detail mentioned by the witnesses is painstakingly documented, not only depicting their words, but also confirming them. Zuzana Justman, an Emmy-winning filmmaker and a Holocaust survivor herself incidentally, in the ghetto she worked as a nurse and was helping my Grandfather, who was a doctor there said that my films are the best documented Holocaust movies she has seen. I take this for a great compliment. To achieve that level of visual authenticity was my goal, that's why the films too ten years to make.

What a huge undertaking! When you began, did you ever imagine it would take you so long to complete it?

I knew it was going to be a long and difficult project but I have to admit that I had not expected it would take more than ten years. It took so long because it was difficult to find witnesses, find all the relevant visual material and last but not least, find finances to pay for all of it. Regarding witnesses, from the approximately 40.000 Czech and Moravian Jews deported to the places my films are about, i.e. Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and Poland, only about 270 survived the war. I found out the post-war fate of almost all of them. About seventy of them were still alive and we filmed them in twenty countries on five continents. First I focused on looking for all the people who would be under 100 years old at the time as I thought the chance of meeting someone older was quite slim. However, in Australia we actually filmed a lady who was 103.

I started with German deportation records, which are quite precise, then consulted the lists of survivors people who came back from the war registered and looked for their relatives, if any of them survived. So these lists were also quite exact, even though I found a few people alive even though they were listed as having perished. I perused marriage records since women married and got new surnames, many people after the war also decided to change their German-sounding last names to Czech ones. To give you an example, I discovered that one man I was looking for changed his German name to Czech one. Then he immigrated to Israel, where he took a Hebrew name. In the end, he moved to the United States and anglicized his Hebrew name. It took me four years to find him.

I also searched emigration records. Czech Jews left to different parts of the world with each post-war emigration wave. Those who left already in 1945 or never went back home for example because they knew none of their relatives survived mostly went as far as possible, like to Australia. Those who left when the Communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948 mostly went to North and South America. A few went to Israel but from the group of people I was looking for, relatively few did. They were often sole survivors from their transports and people who went to Israel often left in groups of friends. And finally, those who left after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 mostly left for European countries, more often than not to Germany. By then they already had new friends in Czechoslovakia and it is easier to keep in touch with someone beyond the Iron Curtain from Germany than from Australia.

They also knew the language; in Germany they got citizenship almost immediately, their sons as Jews did not have to go to the army, etc. I placed ads in the papers, inquired with Jewish communities and so on but found out the most useful way was actually calling people. At the time I was doing this only a few phone directories were listed on the internet, so I simply ordered phone books from the big cities in a country where I was searching Jews being city people and if the surname was not too common and there were not more than several hundred people of that last name in that country, I simply called them all. You always know whether you find the person you are looking for because when you ask: "Sorry for bothering you, but were you in Salaspils?", most people answer: "What?" If they answer: "Why do you ask?", you have found your survivor. Now you only have to convince that person to talk to you, which in some cases took up to two years. In the end we collected four hundred hours of raw footage.

With the visual material, it was the same. I believe there is a visual record of almost everything but it is usually not to be found in archives but rather in private hands. I have gone through hundreds of hours of footage, each photograph in the film has a story behind it. I got them from the families of SS men, traded them for bottles of vodka in Polish villages and so on. The visual material in my films comes from thirty countries. I had to work out my own method for looking for photographs, as well as for interviewing.

Finally, getting financing for all this was the most arduous task. I am not a filmmaker by training and when you look for funding, they always ask you: "So what films have you done?" You tell them that you had never held a camera in your hands but that you have a wonderful plan of making four feature-length films on the subject of the Holocaust but you plan to make them a bit differently from the hundreds of documentaries already out there. Of course, first they get a good laugh at you and then they show you the door. If it weren't for the support of my family and a few good friends who believed I could pull it off no matter my lack of experience, I would never have been able to finish these films. So it took a while but I don't regret it because I met so many interesting people and learned a lot along the way.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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