As Time Runs Out, Young Filmmakers Seek Survivors

At this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, several such young filmmakers presented documentaries on the Holocaust which managed to look at the subject with original eyes.

The time left to hear from those who lived through the Holocaust is clearly running out. Even those who were children then are today approaching their seventies. It is the weighty recognition of this fact that seems to be driving a new generation of filmmakers to seek out those remaining survivors and record their testimonies.

They are asking probing questions and looking for lessons, answers or some final words of wisdom, not only about the Holocaust itself but also about the lives that came after it.

At this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, which wrapped up Saturday evening, several such young filmmakers presented documentaries on the Holocaust which managed to look at the subject with original eyes.

“Numbered” by Israelis Dana Doron and Uriel Sinai tells the story of survivors who, for the last six decades, have been living daily lives with the grayish-blue numbers tattooed on them by Nazis in Auschwitz. What do those numbers on the forearms mean to the people bearing them, the filmmakers set out to find out. There is no one answer, of course. For some, they are marks of shame to be hidden. For others they are badges of honor.

For many outsiders, meanwhile, these survivors have become living, walking exhibits of the Holocaust, with their trauma on display for all to see − whether they are eating an ice cream or taking money out of an ATM or just reading a book on the bench. Which immediately raises the question of how the next generations will remember those numbers when the survivors are no longer sitting on those benches.

Doron, a medical doctor and filmmaker, and Sinai, a still photographer, not only take testimony from the survivors themselves but also introduce some extreme attempts by some of the younger generation to capture these numbers, and all they symbolize, and hold onto them.

One middle-aged woman interviewed explains how her family has come to use her father’s Auschwitz number in their lives − it serves as the house alarm code, for example, the bank code, and the Internet password. When her father passed away recently, she takes this a step further, going to get his number tattooed on her ankle − with unforeseen results.

Another young man does the same with his grandfather’s number. “This is our connection,” says the grandson, posing for a photo with his elderly grandfather − each holding out an arm with the identical number etched onto it. “I don’t want it to fade.”

“These are really important times to record testimony. “Not only because we are the last generation that will be able to do so, but also because there are many survivors who only now are willing to open up and speak,” says Brad Rothschild, one of the producers of “Kinderblock 66: Return to Buchenwald,” a film that follows four men who were children in that block as they go back to the camp on the 65th anniversary of its liberation.

“For many years, there were survivors who did not want to talk about what happened. There was a sense that it was time to ‘move on get on with life,’” says Rothschild.”And there was also a desire on the part of many of them to protect their children from the horror of it. I think it is different when it comes to grandchildren.”

Jordan Bahat’s “Jealous of the Birds,” also looks at scars − albeit, those of a different kind. The young filmmaker was 22 when he started interviewing his grandparents − two weeks out of college and with practically no experience either in documentaries, or with Holocaust material.

“I don’t have a background in history or Jewish literature or Holocaust studies. And I remember being very nervous at the start of production for that reason,” he admits. “At the time I really wished I could make this film later in life. When I knew more and had dedicated more time to research and study. But I was concerned that the clock was ticking.”

What Bahat, who grew up in Los Angeles, the son of an Israeli father and German-Jewish mother, did have, however, was a burning question: He could never understand why his mother’s parents, survivors, were living there − in Germany.

Visiting his grandparents in Frankfurt in the summers of his youth, Bahat says he would often wonder what the adults around him − the elderly policeman who gave him directions for example, or the kindly old owner of the cafe on the corner − had been doing during the war. He would begin fantasizing, he says, as kids do. “It was easy to be confused. It is still confusing.”

Later, when he went to film his grandparents and broach this question, Bahat realized that this was more than a personal quest. “It dawned on me that the story went beyond my own personal curiosities. That the questions, in fact, touched a nerve and confronted taboos,” he says. “When we ask, ‘why did survivors remain in Germany?’ what we’re really asking is ‘how could they?’ The question comes with an inherent sense of judgment...and normally we do all we can to avoid disturbing survivors or questioning them.”

“Jealous of the Birds” ultimately does not find any easy or common answer to the question of why, but what the film does provide is a sense of how these survivors and their children lived in Germany, reconciling the scars of memory with their daily post-war identity.

Bahat admits that his father always quietly condemned his in-laws and those other survivors living in post-war Germany, believing they remained there solely for economic incentives. But the filmmaker himself is far less sure. “I am not judging,” says Bahat. “I learned to embrace the fact that it is very complicated.”

Bahat’s grandfather, a main character, who speaks throughout the film from the heart − and clearly with mixed emotions and difficulty − about why and how he decided to live out his days in Frankfurt, passed away before the documentary was completed. He asked, says Bahat, to be buried in Israel, not Germany.