Bittersweet journey into a Holocaust past
A trip by four siblings to Austria, to delve into the Holocaust past of the father they never really knew, is the subject of a moving new documentary.
Joseph Fisher's four children wear white helmets, hold flashlights in their hands and walk through a long and massive tunnel. "Reminds me of 'Hasamba,'" mumbles one of them, referring to the series of popular Hebrew children's books, as they enter one of the darker sections. Signs of manual excavation are apparent on the walls. The Austrian guide explains that the tunnel is seven-and-a-half kilometers long and that thousands of planes were built inside it during World War II for the German air force. As the four walk on, a voice reads out a passage from the journal of their late father, who had been a forced laborer in this tunnel.
"I remember the image in the tunnel. Five Jews, including a father and son, carrying a log on their shoulders, and a tall, redheaded Pole whipping them - the way you would whip a horse," wrote the father, Joseph Fisher.
In the darkness, the four sit down.
"You're the craziest," says Estee, the oldest sister, to her brother, David, who is directing the film about their father. "No one else would bring his siblings to this place - certainly not without telling them where he was taking them. You're totally nuts."
When another brother, Gideon, says that perhaps now they can appreciate their father more than they did when he was alive, Estee loses it. "I can't appreciate my father any more than I already did! I can't connect to this any more than I already have my whole life!" she shouts at her brothers. "I don't need this Holocaust trip to know where my parents were. I've lived with it my whole life. Everything about me is Holocaust from head to toe."
Gideon tries again: "When you learn here about what Dad went through, you realize that the little bits that we experienced were insignificant in comparison to what he went through."
But his sister refuses to agree. "I don't want to be cruel and tell you the truth. I grew up without a father, sweetie," she says. "And in my opinion, you also grew up without a father. My childhood growing up with these parents was not normal and was messed up - like growing up in a freezer."
Like all the heart-to-heart conversations held among the Israeli-born Fisher siblings in the film "Six Million and One," this one is also heated, sharp and painful - and yet also full of humor. At the end of it, the youngest of the four, journalist and attorney Ronel Fisher, turns to his brother the director and says with a smile: "I want you take out a patent on this story here. We'll bring people into this cave and let them spill their guts. It's therapy like Freud's psychoanalysis. You're the next Freud, but [work] inside a cave."
David Fisher's "Six Million and One," which will be screened in local theaters starting on Thursday, came about due to circumstances similar to those that gave rise to another documentary, which has been filling Cinematheques around the country lately. Like Arnon Goldfinger's film, "The Flat," in which the director embarks on a journey to Germany together with his mother - after discovering in her apartment of documents indicating that his late grandparents had maintained close ties to a Nazi couple - Fisher's movie also evolved from a surprising document that his late father left behind.
Joseph Fisher, who died some 12 years ago, apparently spoke very little about is experiences during the war.
"When he was alive the talked sparingly to us about the Holocaust," says David Fisher. "That is, his stories were about 'they deported us from the village, loaded us onto the train cars, thirst, hunger, suffering, pains, Auschwitz, Mengele, to the right and to the left, my sister and I were the only ones left.' That was the end of his Holocaust story. He told us what everyone basically knows."
After his death, the Fisher children found in his apartment a journal that described in detail his experiences during the war - everything that he never told them. It turned out he was in Auschwitz for just a week, and most of his horrific journey took place in Austria, involving forced labor in camps whose names are practically unknown: Gusen (one of Mauthausen's many "sub-camps" ) and Gunskirchen. There he toiled under harsh conditions that crushed most of the other prisoners.
David Fisher became engrossed in the journal. "I wanted to connect and rediscover my real father," he explains. "Suddenly I had a sense of some kind of intellectual power that I didn't know had existed in him. He wrote not only about what happened during the war, but also described the difficult feelings that arose within him while he was writing, and related significant moments. Because of this, many times he just had to stop writing. There was a feeling of a need to protect himself from madness, a feeling that if he would tell the story, he would go mad."
But for their part, David Fisher's other siblings adamantly refused to read the memoir their father had left behind.
"I printed it and prepared a copy for each one, but none them were willing to read it," says Fisher. "They explained that [their refusal] was part of a daily struggle with life: the need to survive and move forward. For them, delving into the journal meant getting stuck in the pain - in a place with no way out - and they didn't want to go there."
For that reason, Fisher set the journal aside for a few years, and instead enlisted the help of his siblings to make a film in 2000 called "Love Inventory." In it, the four mounted a search for their lost sister, who had been taken from their parents right after her birth in Israel and disappeared. "Love Inventory" won best documentary film award in 2000 at the Jerusalem Film Festival and at the Israel Film Academy.
In the meantime, Fisher was appointed director of the New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and Television, one of the most important and influential jobs in the local cinema scene; he served in that capacity until 2008. Only after he left the organization and decided to go back to filmmaking did he decide to return to his father's memoir.
Fisher decided he wanted to see the places his father wrote about with his own eyes, and suggested that his siblings join him. But they declined and he was forced to board the plane alone. Indeed, in "Six Million and One," he is seen wandering alone through the snow-covered Mauthausen camp, and also in the charming and tranquil town of Gusen built on the ruins of the concentration camp where his father was held. The son is seen visiting a nearby quarry, where thousands of forced laborers died, and discovering that a residential project is to be built on the site.
He also manages to shock an Austrian researcher when he tells him that his father spent 10 months to excavate the tunnel used to build aircraft. "That's a real miracle," says the researcher, "because the average survival time of the Jews there was one week."
Weeping and shuddering
One scene in "Six Million and One" shows footage of the birthday party, years ago, of one of Joseph Fisher's granddaughters. The grandfather is seen seated and clapping along, but his eyes seem dim. In a voice-over the following excerpt from his journal are recited: "They tell me I'm sad. That sometimes I sink into melancholy. I know that it's hard for people to accept this 'hybrid' that is me, my dear children, even at the celebrations that I have in my life. I am there. Many times I regret that I remained alive and ask, why me. I'm convinced that all those people in my category are like me. That is, everyone's an actor."
To better understand his father, David Fisher travels to the United States and meets with soldiers that liberated the Austrian camp where his father was after a long death march. The elderly Americans, it quickly emerges, are suffering post-traumatic problems as a result of that long-ago libration. When they recall that day, and talk about their encounters with the survivors - they weep and shudder in front of the camera. Given this reaction of the once-strong soldiers who were on the winning side, it is hard to fathom the baggage the survivors were left with.
Fisher realizes he must return to Gusen to complete the documentary, but feels he cannot handle another trip like that alone, with the cold, the snow, the loneliness - and primarily, because of having to deal with memories of his father. This time he wants people to share the burden with him, so he again approaches his siblings and manages to persuade them to join him.
Fisher: "I think back then I had more strength to fight with them over this trip, to bring them there. I already had the feeling that I had discovered a new father, someone who wasn't just mine, but also theirs. When I came and shared this feeling with them, there was more willingness on their part to come along on this journey with me."
Subsequently, the dynamics between the siblings quickly became the focus of the film. With its focus on the fascinating mix of closeness and love, arguments, pain, jokes and an honest look at the complex relationship of each one with their parents and other siblings - "Six Million and One" reveals the bleeding insides of one family, which was forced, like many others, for many years, to live a seemingly normal life in the shadow of the Holocaust, a permanent, invisible presence in their home.
Fisher says that before the trip with his siblings he was worried. "The openness was present among us, but I was concerned that it could disappear, that someone could close up at the sight of these places and the journey in the path of Dad's memoir. I was worried that we'd be four silent people, each one keeping inside what he felt. But fortunately, this did not happen. In the end everything between us was open for discussion, open to emotions. Apparently, we all had a need to share our experiences and feelings with each other every moment."
Actually, he says, it was only after the shooting was finished that he realized that the interaction between the siblings would become the main thread of the film. "I understand that is where the power was, because that is where the optimism was and remains. After all, my father died, what remains behind is the memoir, and the rest is history. The memoir encompasses a lot of pain, but it doesn't have solutions or [ideas for] ways to heal. I realized the place where it possible to find these things is in the moments I spend with my siblings, especially since most of the time we laughed."
While working on "Six Million and One," Fisher was also working on another film, "Mostar Round Trip," which was screened at the last Jerusalem Film Festival. This documentary is about Fisher's son and his friends, who are attending the international school in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina.
"The film about my son emerged from the film about my father, because at the end of the shooting of my first trip to Austria, I had a need to visit him," he says. "I took a bus and traveled 10 hours to see him. When I met him, I just felt a desire to not let what happened between my father and me happen between my son and me. That I wouldn't give him the chance to miss getting to know me."
The family journey to Austria, Fisher sums up, also made him and his siblings reassess their relationships with their own children: "Seeing what my father went through and what he kept bottled up inside his whole life - making sure it wouldn't come out and influence us - this caused us to consider, among other things, our behavior in front of our children. Since this was joint trip, we talked about the openness between us and our children. We made a joint decision to tell them everything that we can, and we will do this while we are still alive. We will not leave behind any memoirs."