Monday, October 25, 2010

Memorandum by Donald Brittain and John Spotton,1966, documentary

"[A]ll [scenes] examine the Holocaust from two perspectives - past and present - and they all remind the viewers of the character of the Holocaust as well as the deep feelings of its survivors, like Bernard Laufer ..." from the book The Technique of Film and Video Editing: history, theory, and practice, by Ken Dancyger, 2007

In 1965 Bernard Laufer, who had been born in Poland and after the war settled in Toronto, Canada, went with a group of thirty to revisit Bergen-Belsen, the last of many camps where Laufer had been a prisoner. Accompanying him was his son Joseph. The writer/director team of Brittain and Spotton made a one-hour documentary for the National Film Board of Canada on the occasion of this return visit.

The fact that this black and white documentary was made in 1965, forty-five years ago, and only twenty years after the war, points to its being part of a pioneering effort to focus on the Holocaust as a political/historical event that needed to be probed and investigated.

The creators of this documentary have embedded Laufer’s experience during the war and during his 1965 visit into the context of the larger war. They intersperse scenes of the trip and of on-going 1965 trials of Nazis with footage from WWII Nazi propaganda newsreels, with local street scenes in Germany, and with footage from WWII ghettos and concentration camps. Joseph Laufer, Bernard’s son, talks about his experience observing Germans in 1965 on their visit. He tries to reconcile the Germans going about their everyday business in 1965 with their counterparts in the 1930s and 40s..

The camera frequently trains its lens on Laufer as he contemplates Germany in 1965. The film ends up at the Bergen-Belsen memorial where the visitors say Kaddish. The camp itself was off-limits; in 1965 it was being used as a NATO artillery range. As the film shows newsreel footage of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and the wasted bodies that lay everywhere, Laufer explains that he was one of them. He weighed seventy pounds when the camp was liberated.

He looks around at the memorial and is upset. He reads the markers on top of mounds of buried victims where are inscribed the numbers of the estimated dead. (The narrator mentions that Anne Frank’s remains are interred somewhere in one of the mounds.) Laufer is convinced the count has been intentionally underestimated. He worries that in time the numbers will shrink further. He envisions “revised” markers. He does not like that the camp now looks like a German Garden.

You can watch the entire one-hour documentary, Memorandum, on the National Board of Film of Canada website for free. Click here to access the documentary.

Click here for a link to the new Bergen Belsen Memorial opened in 2009.

Bernard Laufer
    Joseph – his son
Peter Weiss
Simon Weisenthal
Klara Silbernik
Josef Rosensaft
Erika Millay
Norbert Prager
Herbert Weichmann
Zenon Gotaszewski

Auschwitz, Poland
Buchenwald, Germany
Frankfurt, Germany
Hanover, Germany
Bavaria, Germany
Berlin, Germany

Monday, October 18, 2010

Speak You Also: A Survivor's Reckoning by Paul Steinberg, published in France in 1996, in English in 2000

“It's an unsettling book, from the first page showing Steinberg's fierce will to survive.” From Martin Arnold’s review in the New York Times in October of 2000.

In 1943, when Paul Steinberg was almost seventeen, he was picked up on the streets in Paris where he thought he could pass unnoticed since he was not wearing the required yellow star. He spent the next fifteen months in concentration camps, mostly in Buna (Monowitz), a part of Auschwitz.

Several aspects of Steinberg’s story make this memoir particularly interesting. The memoir serves as an interesting document about the effects of trauma.  He tells us that he made an attempt to write a memoir earlier in the 1960’s but that re-living the experience was too painful and anxiety-producing and he put the manuscript away. When, in the 1990’s he decided to have another go at it, he writes that he became interested in his selective memory: some moments were crystal clear and he remembered minute details. On the other hand, there were long stretches of time that remained blank.  He also recounts how he reacted to this second attempt at writing down his story. Although he got through it, many nights he didn’t sleep. He knows he withdrew emotionally from family and friends.

Another aspect of his story that is particularly interesting is that Steinberg was assigned to work in the same group as Primo Levi and it wasn’t until years after Levi wrote his memoir, Survival in Auschwitz (subject of an earlier post)  that he was willing to read Levi’s memoir at the urging of a friend, and he realized that he made an appearance in it as “Henri.”  He does not object to Levi’s characterization of him as a boy who would do anything to survive.

He describes in detail exactly what the conditions were like in the camp and what he had to do to survive. He describes the power structure and the rules, and then he describes what he did to make sure he could make the power structure and the rules work for him. It started the minute he got to the camp. It involved lying when asked his age – he said eighteen – and lying about what he knew about chemistry so he could get a “good” placement. He capitalized on the fact he spoke German fluently. (He came from a Russian Jewish family who lived in Berlin when he was born and then moved to Paris.)  He turned on his boyish charm and befriended those he knew could help him. At the same time he cared for others, getting extra soup, for example, for his friends when he could.

He also stresses that luck played a big role in his survival and the survival of others; sometimes bad luck turned into good luck. For example, when his number was tattooed on his arm, the needle was infected and he ended up in the camp hospital where he got enough food and was free to recuperate slowly. He thinks he might have been the only one to have survived who came down with hepatitis from that re-used needle.

This is a very interesting memoir about being a Holocaust survivor as well as the trauma of the war, recovering the memories and reliving the trauma.

If you would like to read a scholarly article about British Prisoners of War and their reaction to the Jewish inmates at Auschwitz published in the Journal of Holocaust and Genocide Studies  click here.

To read a 2/18/11 New York Times article on current thoughts about the need for new kinds of exhibitions at Auschwitz written by Michael Kimmelman, click here.

Note: Steinberg spends very little time discussing family. No family names are mentioned. He does say that his mother died at his birth and is buried in Berlin. That he has an older brother and sister who survived the war, his brother in England, his sister in France with false papers. His father was Russian born and active in the Bolshevik revolution.

Friends and Acquaintances
Victor Young Perez
Robert Levy
Philippe Hagenauer
Robert Frances
Jean Olchanski
Pierre Bloch
Albert Cases

Drancy, France
Auschwitz, Poland
Monowitz (Buna), Poland
Juan-les-Pins, France

Monday, October 11, 2010

Charlotte: Life or Theater?: An Autobiographical Play by Charlotte Salomon, work created 1940-1942

" [Charlotte Salomon's] intense fervor for life, which flamed up in the face of gradual processes of dehumanization, was also deeply political. It was an urgent assertion of her existence against the twin threats of suicide and annihilation." From a review by Leslie Camhi in the Village Voice in January, 2002 of a selection of Salomon's paintings that were being exhibited at the Jewish Museum in New York.

Charlotte Salomon (1917- 1943)  was born and brought up in Berlin, Germany, the daughter of accomplished, assimilated Jews involved in the rich intellectual life of Berlin before the war. But because of the war and the continued assault on the increasingly diminishing Jewish population, she fled in 1939 to the south of France to live with her grandparents who had moved there in 1933 when Hitler came to power. There Charlotte Salomon feverishly painted and dramatized her life in over 1000 gouaches which she completed and handed over to the village doctor for safe-keeping before she was deported and killed at Auschwitz.
Charlotte Salomon was a serious art student. She was an accomplished young artist, whose influences are apparent. She has presented her life as theater – theater of the absurd is what comes to mind. Her work is quite original – avante garde in conception and execution – consisting of painting as well as narration (often rhymed) with directions for musical accompaniment. It should be noted that she has created characters based on their real-life counterparts and given family members fictional last names.

The focus of her work is, on the surface, her family and its personal history – which caused her great pain and anxiety. There were multiple suicides on the maternal side of her family, including her mother’s sister Charlotte, after whom she was named. Her own mother took her life when Salomon was nine years old, and then her grandmother killed herself when Charlotte Salomon was living with her and her grandfather in the south of France. Knowing this family history, Salomon feared for her own mental stability.

Beneath that layer, intensifying the nightmare quality of the family story is the horror of the war and its immediate effect on her and her family. There has been some critical discussion about how in Theater or Life? Solomon blended fiction and fact. But however Salomon might have re-calibrated some events in her life to serve her art, there can be no question about her accuracy in portraying the war and its effect on her, her family and friends. The paintings that are specifically about the war have a documentary feel – the bare facts compromise a nightmare in and of themselves.

For example Act II starts with the April 1, 1933 Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses. She includes a rendering of a page from the Nazi newspaper, Der Sturmer, and then paints several pictures showing his father’s being fired from his medical position. She also builds a painting around a rendering of a 1938 page from a copy of Der Angriff, a Berlin Nazi newspaper full of anti-Jewish propaganda. What follows are family scenes of distress in reaction to the intensifying anti-Semitism. There’s a knock on the door – the Nazi police come for her father. His prominent wife, an opera singer, sets out to see if she can pull strings to get him released.

Salomon’s stated goal was to make an artistic creation of life as a way to reclaim her life. The tragic irony of course is that her immersion in this project did save her from suicide – but not from Auschwitz.

Note: As stated above, Charlotte Salomon changed the last name of family members and the full name of a close family friend. The Viking 1981 edition of Life or Theater has three introductory essays that, in giving us background information, use some of her characters’ real names. In the Preface, Judith C.E. Belinfante, the Director of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, explains how the paintings came to be a part of their collection and what they have done to preserve and display them. In the Foreword, Judith Herzberg fills out the circumstances of Charlotte Salomon’s life including the circumstances surrounding her marriage shortly before her death to Alexander Nagler, an autobiographical event that Salomon does not include in her work. In an Editorial note, Gary Schwartz discusses how this Viking edition was constructed out of her paintings. (The Viking edition is now out of print but is available in libraries and for purchase as a used book.)

Since Charlotte Salomon's work is owned by the Jewish History Museum of Amsterdam, you can often find pictures of Charlotte Salomon's work on their site, but the museum changes what they feature on their site.To go to the website of the Jewish History of Amsterdam click here.

Albert Salomon – married Franziska; 2nd marriage to Paula Lindberg
     Charlotte – daughter of Albert and Franziska

Kurt Singer
Alfred Wolfsohn
Alexander Nagler

Berlin, Germany
Villefranche, France
Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp
Gurs Internment Camp, France
Auschwitz, Poland

Monday, October 4, 2010

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, written and directed by Aviva Kempner, 2009 (documentary)

"The documentary Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg salutes Berg and her far-reaching influence." from a review by Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times in July, 2009

Gertrude Berg (the stage name of Tillie Edelstein 1898-1966), whose father owned a Catskills hotel in Fleishmanns, New York, became an early pioneer in radio and TV, creating and playing the character Molly Goldberg from 1929 into the 1950’s.

It is very interesting to hear Gertrude Berg talk in her own cultured voice about the character of Molly who spoke with a pronounced Yiddish-inflected voice. Berg did not only act the part, she wrote thoughtful but often humorous scripts, forging the way for the weekly situation comedy which was to become a staple of television programming, introducing what became a beloved character to all America. Through interviews with Gertrude Berg and others, as well as through excerpts from the shows, the film recounts how important and popular the Goldberg family became to a very large and varied audience. In fact, Berg received the first "lead actress in a comic series" Emmy award.

The documentary also deals extensively with the actor Philip Loeb who played her husband on the show but who was blacklisted and the insidious effect blacklisting had on writers and actors in the entertainment industry, many of them Jewish.

Mordechai Edelstein –Tillie Edelstein’s grandfather
    Jacob Edelstein – his son; Tillie’s father
    Dina Edelstein – his wife; Tillie’s mother
        Tillie Edelstein (Gertrude Berg who played Molly Goldberg) – their daughter
        Cherney Edelstein – their son
        Lewis Berg – Gertrude’s husband
            Harriett Berg Schwartz – their daughter
            Dr. David Schwartz – their son-in-law
                Adam Berg – her grandson
                Anne Schwartz – her granddaughter
                Henry Schwarz – her grandson
Philip Loeb – actor on show
Anna Berger – actress on show
Fannie Merrill – her secretary/friend
    Judith Abrams – Fannie Merrill’s daughter

To learn more about the film and see family pictures click here.
To see a twelve minute trailer click here.

Fleishmanns, New York
New York City, New York