31 March 2010

Holocaust: Czech Jews documentary

Several years ago, when I was still writing "It's All Relative" for the Jerusalem Post, it was my pleasure to meet a young filmmaker and director Lukas Pribyl of Prague.

A detailed story in the Jerusalem Post was the result of our Tel Aviv meetings. Lukas and Jakub shared a Persian dinner at our home. They later traveled to Australia, where my cousins - Bob and Di Conley of Sydney - took good care of them while the young men interviewed more survivors.

Lukas, born in 1973 in Ostrava, was one of the first young Czech students allowed to attend high school and university in the US, following the Velvet Revolution.

He studied at Philips Andover Academy, followed by political science, Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and History at Brandeis University, Columbia and Central European University. His interest in World War II and Jewish history resulted in a number of published studies on various chapters of the Holocaust and exhibits in the Jewish Museum in Prague.

Lukas became interested in the Holocaust as a direct result of his own family's experiences (his grandfather survived a little-known camps) and devastation. He spent 10 years researching, photographing and collecting archive material to document exactly what happened to them. It took a long time, but he eventually persuaded almost all the survivors to share their stories. For most of them, it was the first time they had spoken.

The series of four feature-length (90-minute) documentary films on virtually unknown concentration camps and ghettos and little known modes of survival is Lukas's directorial debut.

The four segments have been screened on their own at various venues in the past, but the full six-hour series was shown in its entirety at its US premiere Sunday at the Legacy of Shoah Film Festival (John Jay College, Manhattan). Read Joseph Berger's review of "Survival Tales Told in Snapshots: Czech Jews Enduring the Holocaust" in the New York Times. It details the survivors and how they survived.
The survivors sometimes chuckle as they look back in disbelief. Mr. Pribyl said he felt that survivors had a sense of humor and an optimistic outlook in common. But ultimately, Mr. Pribyl said, his research proved that “the only recipe for survival is to have a lot of goodluck.”
The four segments are "To Poland," To Latvia, To Belarus, and To Estonia.

Two have already won awards: 2008 Academia Film Olomouc - Dějiny a současnost magazine Award for Best Czech Documentary Film in the Humanities and Social Sciences (Forgotten Transports: To Belarus); 2007 Czech Film and Television Association's Trilobit Award for Best Czech Documentary (Forgotten Transports: To Latvia).

He and his team have traveled the world, interviewing the few remaining Czech survivors and hearing their stories.

The segments trace the experiences of 76 of 270 survivors among thousands of Czech Jews deported to rarely-mentioned camps like Jagala and Kaiserwald. The documentary process produced more than 260 hours of interviews, collected in 30 countries. Each tells the story of the people deported to a particular destination, as well as a different method of survival.

Each is based on the experience of Jews sent to virtually unknown camps and ghettos - in Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and the Lublin region of eastern Poland. Almost all of them were sent to places where nearly everyone perished. The locations of Ereda, Maly Trostinec, Salaspils and Sawin don't appear in most Holocaust histories as hardly any people survived to tell what had happened.

Read more about it at the film's website:
It is not just that the tragic events depicted are almost unknown, even to specialist historians. Just as significant is the way they have been recreated. Instead of a detached outsider’s narrative, each film is built from the gripping stories of individual survivors, seen through their own eyes and told entirely in their own words. While they speak only of what they experienced themselves, their impressions weave together to form a poignant picture of ordinary individuals caught up in an era of atrocity and terrible violence. Every detail of what they describe is illustrated and confirmed through contemporary photographs and other visual material, most of it previously unseen, meticulously sourced everywhere from official archives to the garages of former SS men.
The films illuminate a neglected chapter of the Holocaust, as well as spotlight the tactics adopted by people who suffered such persecution and terror. Importantly, those who survived relied on many strategies including self-reliance, family loyalty and solidarity.

According to the website, it is thrilling to hear a handful of elderly survivors - who defied all Nazi attempts to kill them - who still tell their stories. It also reveals much about the sheer lust for life of human beings everywhere.

Check your local film festivals and other venues to see if the segments or the entire series will be screened.

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