MAKING THE FILMS
Initially I was driven by a desire to find out what happened to my family during WWII, and in particular to my Grandfather. He was carted off already in 1939 to Nisko in Poland, in Adolf Eichmann's first deportation scheme. I greatly loved and admired my Grandfather but he died before he could tell me his story. As I was reconstructing his fate and the history of the camp where he had been taken, I kept coming across many other obscure places of Jewish suffering that were not even listed in encyclopedias and literature on the Holocaust. What started as a personal quest then developed into a decade of researching, photographing, collecting archival material, editing and producing of the Forgotten Transports series.
For the final six hours of the four part film series (4x90 minutes), about 400 hours of raw footage were collected: Interviews with survivors were recorded in about twenty countries on five continents, as well interviews with "bystanders" and even "perpetrators" (though I chose not to use these in the films, nor additional location footage). The visual material was collected in about thirty countries.
The witness accounts recall the experience of Jews deported from Bohemia, Moravia and Central Europe to virtually unknown camps and ghettos in Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and the Lublin region in eastern Poland. The names of camps where hundreds to tens of thousands of people perished - like Maly Trostinec, Jägala, Kalevi Liiva, Ereda, Lagedi, Salaspils, Kaiserwald, Zamosc or Sawin - are virtually unknown, since there was almost no one left to tell the story. The survival chances in these places were extremely low. Out of dozens of thousands, fewer than three hundred Czech Jews emerged from these camps alive. The total number of Jews from other countries who survived similar death transports was even lower (the fact can be attributed largely to Czech Jews' ability to understand both German and Eastern European Slavic languages, an important prerequisite for enduring in the East).
Finding the few remaining eyewitnesses was a most arduous task. The search for people's memories commenced with wartime deportation lists and post-war Jewish community records. Most Jews left Czechoslovakia after 1945, many adopted new surnames or changed them through matrimony. Jewish communities were contacted; newspaper advertisements posted; marriage, birth and death registers studied; survivor organizations and community centres contacted; police files perused; I looked through phone books of dozens of countries, dialling hundreds of people of a given name.
In the end I managed to trace the fate of basically all Czech survivors of transports to Latvia, Belarus, Estonia and eastern Poland and after often lengthy period of persuasion, sometimes lasting up to two years, I convinced the still living to share their experiences. Many spoke about their past for the very first time, and only to me. I am honored I can consider them my friends now. Often it was only through our footage that children of men and women with the most uncommon of recollections at last learned of their parent's wartime fate. Dispersed all over the world, traumatized and with experiences exceptionally unusual and rare, most of the people I talked to were never contacted by or chose to evade interviewing programs organized by Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation and various Holocaust museums. Many confessed to a subjective suspicion that since they had not been inmates of "better-known camps", they were not listened to, had no one to share past with and their experience was somehow deemed less worthy, even by fellow survivors. Unfortunately, since my interviews with them were conducted, more than three quarters have died. Their recollections in my films thus remain as the only existing, unique testaments to what happened to people swept by the "forgotten transports".
Conscious of the inadequacies of human memory, I exerted much effort to "check" each interview using all sources of information available. Overall, I found the testimonies of survivors from the under-researched places exceptionally accurate. For a single person who lived out of a transport of a thousand, there isn't anyone to confabulate reminiscences with - it is salient how pristine and uncorrupted by other accounts they remain. Memory of these men and women simply could not suffer from integration of post-survival knowledge acquired from books, documentaries and people as no such readily accessible materials exist and there are virtually no fellow survivors. They could tell only what they remembered.
Naturally, the process of interviewing was preceded and accompanied by hundreds of hours of archival research. One has to remember that when I began my work, there were almost no written studies on these camps and ghettos. For the film to raise qualified questions and draw correct conclusions on the historical context beyond knowledge of individual witnesses, tens of thousands of pages of documents in many world archives had to be inspected and scrutinized.
Told only through the eyes and words of the survivors themselves, there is no commentary, no present-day and make-believe footage, only true, time and place precise images, as I set out to collect such material as to be able to depict almost every detail mentioned by the witnesses. Behind each of the authentic photos used, there is much travel, many meetings and hundreds of phone calls. I believe there is a visual record of almost anything, however little of this evidence is held in public archives and therefore I put great emphasis on pursuing images in private possession. The extremely time exacting effort was rewarded by obtaining snapshots taken by Polish or German supervisors at slave labor works or pictures unearthed in garages of children of the former SS men.
Each small detail mentioned by the witnesses is painstakingly documented, not only depicting their words, but also confirming them. We can thus recognize their faces on photos and footage from the given time and place, as well as the events they describe. (It was also very touching to see the remaining survivors watch the films and themselves on pictures they had never known existed, recognize their long perished friends, boyfriends who did not make it out alive.)
The meticulousness paid to locating photos in private holdings was also applied to images in film and photo archives. Major archives in the West and little visited and researched collections in Eastern Europe, as well as the files held in KGB were examined to find the film fragments to illustrate particular events.
Among my goals was also not to ascribe the witnesses the role of mere commentators of history. Instead of dealing with millions of faceless victims the films concentrate on gripping stories of individual human beings. The narrative is pieced together from narrow personal viewpoints, telling the big story "from the bottom up", through the words of the people "on the ground". Throughout the film we see events with their eyes and our camera focuses on what they themselves observed. Thus we find little use of footage of Adolf Hitler and the top Nazi dignitaries, as they played no part in the immediate lives of the people we give voice to. They did not attend mass rallies or military parades and were banished from cinemas with Goebbels' or Goering's speeches on newsreels. The deportees recall their immediate surroundings and people they had firsthand interaction with.
Each of the four films describes one geographic destination where deportation trains were dispatched to and focuses on a particular ?mode? of survival, on one way people adjusted to their situation. We generally associate the "survival story" with striped uniforms and "phone numbers to heaven" tattooed onto forearms. My films document other, "untold" stories of the Holocaust. Each film is designed to stand on its own and can be screened independently of others. However, when seen consecutively, a certain overarching idea becomes apparent, allowing the viewer to compare the individual survival strategies, reactions and the difficult choices faced by people exposed to ultimate violence.
The film about deportations to Estonia describes a fascinating story of a group of women and girls who -thanks to their youthful naivety and constant mutual help - managed to pass through the Holocaust while remaining largely oblivious to the genocide raging around them. The segment about Belarus is devoted to resistance and armed struggle by Jewish escapees from camps, about people who were being killed but also killed. Latvia describes the effort to preserve a semblance of normal life in the ghetto in Riga. Young people fell in love and organized parties (under the penalty of death), children attended school but on the way to it had to pass under the gallows - all the while contrasting this "normality" with the cut-throat egoism of men forced to fight for survival in the nearby Salaspils death camp. The documentary about eastern Poland is concerned with the psyche of people permanently on the run, constantly in hiding, who had to continually feign and change identities - with a great deal of ingenuity and much humor. And so while the film on transports to Poland is really a story of the inner loneliness of individuals who joke to survive, "Latvia" is a story of families, "Estonia" of women and "Belarus" of men.
I hope that together these narrow perspectives, private experiences and impressions form into a new, surprising picture of the Holocaust "as we don't know it". And though the stories of these men and women unfold on the background of the greatest genocide in the history of mankind, survival is never possible without belief in living, humor and optimism. My films are, I believe, foremost a life-affirming tribute to human spirit.