For Holocaust remembrance 2013, what do we remember? As my mother, a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, and liberated from Stutthof used to teach us, life is a gift. And it really does matter, how you survive.
Stories of survival can read like fairy tales, best case scenarios fueled by heroism, ingenuity, and luck. In the documentary No Place on Earth, guided by a strong-minded matriarch, Esther Stermer, who insisted that rather than follow their town in Ukraine to the ghettos and camps, the younger men should find hiding places. The family hid in caves, large enough in places, and also sufficiently sinewy and muddy to elude anyone trying to look for them.
On one level, No Place on Earth is a geologist's dream as filmmaker Janet Tobias takes her cameras to the site. The caves were narrow and difficult to navigate; a producer was terrified to go down. Meeting with the families recently, with brothers Sam and Saul Stermer, and their neices, sisters Sonia and Sima Dodyk, I was struck by their memories of the caves as a place of security, not a place of claustrophobia, darkness and fear. 32 members of one family survived there. But the story goes beyond the uplifting safety of the caves. After, emerging, two members including Sonia and Sima's father were murdered by their Ukrainian neighbors who did not want to give back the garden they seized in the absence of the Jews.
In HBO's 50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, a wealthy Philadelphia couple left their children and ventured to Germany in 1939 to rescue 50 Jewish children. Acting when it was still possible for Jews to get out of Germany and Austria, they procured visas, and interviewed parents who lined up and prayed to have their children chosen. Liz Perle, a granddaughter of the Krauses spoke at a private screening last week co-presented by the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, explaining that all this was done without fanfare. Something needed to be done. Sure, they stayed in posh hotels, ate good food, yet nevertheless they understood that no one was helping the Jews of Europe. Why did it take so long to tell this story, nearly 70 years since WWII ended? They never talked about what happened. Only now after her grandmother's death did she read her unpublished memoir, showing it to her journalist husband Steven Pressman who decided to make the film. She is gratified to have this legacy of menschlichkeit.
In Here I Learned to Love, Israeli filmmaker Avi Angel tells the story of his father-in-law and brother Itzik Weinberg and Avner who at age 3 and 2 were taken in by three women, moved around, landing on a transport that was en route to the camps but then rerouted to Switzerland, part of a lesser known rescue in the manner of Schindler. I would have hoped that the filmmaker would explore this little known history. It will have to wait for another film. Yes, another Holocaust story.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.