NEW YORK, July 9 (JTA) — The true story that inspired director Joan Stein’s award-winning Holocaust film may be just as suspenseful as the film itself.
Near the end of World War II, Stein’s grandmother fled her Eastern European village to hide in Budapest. The residents of her village were later killed by the Nazis or their allies.
In Budapest, unable to support all of her children, Stein’s grandmother placed Stein’s uncle in an orphanage.
In October 1944, the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s homegrown anti-Semitic movement, assumed power. Extermination squads shot Jews and threw them into the Danube River.
Stein’s uncle was among a group of Jews rounded up, but he managed to escape and make his way back to the residence where Stein’s grandmother was hiding with a number of other Jews.
The superintendent of the building refused to allow Stein’s uncle into the building out of fear that the others would be discovered.
According to the story she’d been told, Stein said, “Twenty people had to hold my grandmother down” so that she would not rush to her son standing at the door. Stein’s uncle was later found and killed.
“I was always haunted by this story,” Stein said.
After receiving a master’s degree in business administration at Georgetown, Stein moved to Budapest in the late 1980s to work as a management consultant. In the early 1990s, after war broke out in Bosnia, Stein began entertaining refugee children.
The war, she said, “was just mortifying, a group of people singled out for ethnic cleansing.”
The connections Stein made between the events in Bosnia and the Holocaust motivated her to launch her own film project.
The result is “One Day Crossing,” an award-winning, 25-minute black- and-white film set in Hungary in 1944.
The film is in Hungarian with English subtitles. Stein tried to get actors who speak English, “but it sounded so unnatural. I wanted the audience to be in the film, living it through the situation these people were in.”
The film follows Theresa, formerly Sarah, a Jewish woman posing as a Christian to protect her son, Peter, formerly Benjamin. The subterfuge becomes more complicated when Theresa’s husband, a freedom fighter, brings home a boy he’s rescued from execution, also named Benjamin.
Many elements of the film, including the plight of the orphans, are hauntingly reminiscent of Stein’s family’s story. Though she was initially anxious about her family’s reaction, she needn’t have worried: They, too, believe that it is important she made the film.
“People will see this film, learn about what happened in Budapest at this time, and ask questions,” Stein said.
Stein is working to have her film shown at Jewish film festivals around the United States. She’s been approached about having the film distributed to schools.
The film, completed as part of Stein’s master’s thesis at Columbia University, won the Gold Medal for best narrative film at the 27th Annual Student Academy Awards, and the Director’s Guild of America’s Student Film Award.
“There’s something about the human sprit that makes us want to go on and do good, even in the darkest moments,” Stein said. Watching the film, “People will question, ‘What would I have done?’ “