NEW YORK, Aug. 7 (JTA) — At the beginning of the new documentary, “From Third Reich to Third Generation,” 21-year-old Christoph Erbsloeh, the grandson of a doctor in Hitler’s army, asks 101-year-old Holocaust survivor Arthur Lederman, “Do you think every German has a little Hitler in them?”
Lederman’s response: “Yes, and I told you that, deep in your being, you’re a Hitler.”
This frank dialogue is typical of the film, which was written and produced last winter by three recent graduates of Columbia University’s School of Journalism and received an award from BNNtv.com, a company that produces documentaries and supports up-and-coming film makers.
The examination of Lederman and Erbsloeh’s relationship serves as a case study of efforts at small-scale German-Jewish reconciliation.
Erbsloeh is in the U.S. on an 18-month program sponsored by the Berlin-based Action Reconciliation/Service for Peace, an organization that sends about 160 young Germans around the world to help those who were harmed by the Nazis.
He meets each week with Polish survivor Lederman, whose entire family was murdered by the Nazis.
Lederman, who left Poland in 1938, has been too weak to leave his tiny apartment for the past two years. Erbsloeh comes each week to help Lederman with necessary chores, and more importantly, provide him with some human contact.
Their discussions in the film focus almost exclusively on the Holocaust. Lederman, who has had plenty of time to think about what he went through, offers tidbits of personal philosophies.
He tells Erbsloeh, “I wouldn’t want to be in your skin. You know why? Because your children and your children’s children will always have a stamp: Hitler.”
But despite these comments, Lederman appears to harbor little ill-will toward the young German.
Lederman was an accomplished concert violinist before the war, and loves German music and poetry. He and Erbsloeh — who plays the cello — use such shared interests to forge a bond.
The documentary is sprinkled with the melancholic sounds of Erbsloeh’s cello, as well as other moving sounds that match the unhurried flow of images.
The film also relies on experts in the field.
William Helmreich, a professor at City College in New York, emphasizes that Erbsloeh and his generation are more likely than their parents to examine Germany’s past.
He explains it by quoting Marcus Hansen, a prominent historian: “What the second generation tried to forget, the third generation tries to remember.”
Christian Staffa, the executive director of Action Reconciliation, tells the camera, “There is still an incredibly strong feeling of guilt among the third and fourth generation. You can sense it right away when they meet a survivor or grandchild of a survivor.”
The three film makers — Amy Rubin, Michael Rey, and Stefan Knerrich, all in their early 30s — developed, photographed and edited the film during a six-month period beginning last October, condensing 50-plus hours of footage into a 25-minute movie.
The film was the brainchild of Rubin, who spent the past five years working in the oral history department at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial in Washington, where she learned about Action Reconciliation.
The match with Rey and Knerrich turned out to be ideal, because each had a very different perspective to offer.
Rubin is of Jewish and Irish ancestries, Rey is a Polish Catholic, while Knerrich is German, having come to the United States only a year ago.
Like Erbsloeh, Knerrich’s grandfather served in the Nazi army.
Their goal, the film makers said, was not to create yet another Holocaust story that would get lost among the dozens made each year, but to provide a fresh perspective.
“My personal goal was to look at the opportunity of one-on-one reconciliation within this really complicated issue,” Rubin said. “I’m not sure that any large-scale reconciliation between Jews and Germans is going to happen at all.”
Rey said he wanted to use new visual elements to tell the story.
The film makers relied on old photographs of Lederman’s and Erbsloeh’s families, as well as their own shots of present-day New York and Berlin, shying away from stock footage of Hitler and the Nazi army.
“We specifically decided not to use the images people expect from a Holocaust movie,” he said. “At this point, I think that’s what turns people off.”
The film has had limited showings, having been screened at Columbia and to the German consul general, who lauded it.
BNNtv.com and the three film makers are considering expanding the film to an hour or more. The film makers hope to show the film in other venues.
Regardless of any changes that might be made to the film, the three are pleased with the current product.
As Rey put it, the film is “not about numbers or big scary words, but about human beings.”
The last scene of the film shows the final meeting between Lederman and Erbsloeh. As Erbsloeh prepares to leave the apartment he helps Lederman out of his chair to give him a hug goodbye, and Lederman lets out pent-up feelings that he has been holding back.
“I wish you would stay another year,” he tells Erbsloeh in a sorrowful voice. “I became fond of you.”