Glenn Kurtz, a musician-turned-professor, had been working on his first novel about a young woman in Vienna who discovers an old reel of film in a flea market and becomes obsessed with identifying the people in it.
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But truth always trumps fiction, which is why Kurtz never got around to finishing that novel. Another old film, one belonging to his grandparents and also filled with many unknown faces, began to consume his life instead.
It was about five years ago that Kurtz, who teaches at New York University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies, was deep in research on film preservation and restoration for his novel. He knew that his grandparents had long ago taken film of a trip to Europe, and he began to wonder what had happened to the old reels.
After a little snooping around, he discovered in the closet of his parents’ Florida home what he was after: a box of old 16mm reels of film from David and Lena Kurtz’s 1938 summer trip to Holland, Belgium, Poland, Switzerland, France and England.
The films had deteriorated to the point that they were unplayable, so Kurtz had them carefully restored. When he was eventually able to watch the many hours of footage they had taken on that grand tour of Europe, it was three particular minutes that drew his undivided attention. Somewhere in Poland, before the Holocaust swept it all away, his grandparents had captured vibrant scenes of street life and happy-looking children in a shtetl.
But that’s not what made this footage extraordinary. Moving image documentation of Jewish life before the war is not hard to come by, much of it thanks to people like the Kurtzes, affluent American Jews visiting Europe during their summer vacations, cameras in tow.
What distinguishes this particular clip is when it was shot and in what format: The Kurtz family movies were filmed in August 1938, with Hitler already in power and only a few months to go before Kristallnacht – the so-called “night of broken glass” that would portend the eventual shattering of European Jewry as a whole.
Almost all the other known amateur footage of pre-war Jewish life in Europe was shot much earlier, according to a leading authority on such films, Rivka Aderet of Beth Hatefutsoth, the Museum of the Jewish People. “There were not many people who, as late as the summer of 1938, were making trips to Europe,” she says.
It is also virtually unheard of, she says, that such footage would be shot in color. “We have been collecting home movies like these for 30 years – we have no other film from this time period that’s in color.”
David and Lena Kurtz were both born in Poland, and in the 1890s immigrated to New York, where David founded a successful clothing company. They were probably among the first Americans to own the Kodachrome color camera, which came out not long before their cruise liner trip to Europe. The three minutes of footage they shot in Poland depict street scenes in the town, children laughing and goofing around, and the Kurtzes themselves, dressed in their Sunday finest, emerging from someone’s home.
“To see the world before the war in color like this,” says their grandson, “gives it much more immediacy and vibrancy. Because it feels so close, it’s also more heartbreaking to watch it. That divide you usually get with black-and-white simply isn’t there.”
For quite a while, Kurtz had assumed the footage was shot in his grandmother’s hometown of Berezna in eastern Poland. Only after a bit of research did he learn that the location in question was, in fact, his grandfather’s hometown of Nasielsk, about 30 miles north of Warsaw. Once he made that discovery, he deposited the film in the archive of the U.S. National Holocaust Memorial Museum, and that’s where the story of the Kurtzes’ 1938 trip to Europe takes off again.
Enter Marcy Rosen, a descendant of Holocaust survivors, who happened to come across the film on the USHMM website and immediately identified her grandfather as a 14-year-old boy in a three-second segment of the film. She contacted Kurtz and notified him that her grandfather, who now goes by the name Maurice Chandler, is alive and well in Boca Raton, Fla.
Kurtz immediately booked a flight to Florida to meet Chandler, one of the last of the remaining 80 survivors of Nasielsk, a town that before the war had a Jewish population of 3,000. Despite his advanced years, Chandler’s photographic memory turns out to be intact. “He was able to identify many people in the film and their stories,” recalls Kurtz. “I was then able to follow up and find other descendants, survivors and their relatives.”
The discovery of this film and Kurtz’s subsequent quest to learn the stories of the faces that appear in it is the subject of his forthcoming book, “Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Home Movie,” scheduled for publication in 2014 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. (His previous book, “Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music,” was published in 2007 by Knopf.) He says this latest publication, for which he is still gathering material, is meant to answer one key question about the three-minute film: “What am I looking at here?”
His search for an answer has not only taken him to Florida and other locations in the United States, but more recently to Israel, where he met with survivors from Nasielsk and their children, many of whom live in the town of Kiryat Ono, outside Tel Aviv. It also took him on a trip back to the Polish town itself six months ago.
“What struck me most on that visit was that there was no more vitality there,” he says. “The film shows so much liveliness, with kids jumping up and down, but that’s gone now.”
What also struck him as significant was that when he made that trip back to the old country, he was just about to turn 50, the same age his grandfather was when those three minutes in Nasielsk were shot.
For Aderet, who has seen many home movies of this sort, what makes this particular one so heart-wrenching is that the smiling townspeople, many of them children, seemed to have no idea of the great catastrophe awaiting them. “The fact that it’s in color makes it so much more alive and tangible,” she says, “and therefore so much more painful to look at.”