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
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.
Wow. I can't even get my mind around the breadth of this project! Almost all of the interviewees had never talked to anyone before. If you hadn't come along, their stories would have gone to the grave with them. After they opened their hearts to you, were any of them sorry they did? How did their families react? Many of them had never known any details about this aspect of their parents' lives.