Acclaimed filmmaker turns camera on his own Holocaust experience for ‘Frontline’

In his new film, Marian Marzynski returns to Poland to tell his story and that of other child survivors of the Holocaust.  (WGBH)

In his new film, Marian Marzynski returns to Poland to tell his story and that of other child survivors of the Holocaust. (WGBH)

BOSTON (JTA) — When he was 5 years old, Marian Marzynski’s parents hatched a plan to smuggle him out of the Warsaw Ghetto.

It was 1942, and Marzynski and his family were among the 400,000 Jews rounded up two years earlier by the Nazis, confined to the 1.3-sq.-mile ghetto in the heart of the city. To stay alive, Marzynski’s parents warned him, you must forget who you are.

That lesson in survival shepherded the young boy over the next three years as he hid from his tormentors, separated from his parents. He eventually became one of the few child survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Marzynski (born Marian Kuszner) would go on to become an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker in the United States. Now, 70 years later, after a career in which he made acclaimed films about Polish Jewry and the Holocaust, Marzynski has trained the camera on himself, telling his own story and those of other survivors in “Never Forget to Lie,” a film scheduled for nationwide broadcast on May 14 on the PBS series “Frontline.”

In the hourlong film co-produced with Jason Longo, Marzynski retraces his early years, chronicling his parents’ secular lives in prewar Warsaw, their confinement in the ghetto, his escape to the Aryan side of the wall, and his jounrey to the Catholic orphanage where he embraced life as a dutiful altar boy.

With an artful, empathic hand, he tells the stories of other survivors as well, capturing their childhood memories as they grapple with the trauma and loss of their early lives. There are uplifting scenes, too, of Jewish culture and heritage being celebrated in the streets of Krakow.

“If there is news in this film, it’s about a new perception of the Holocaust,” Marzynski told JTA in an interview in his suburban Boston home. “It’s basically a question of unfinished business. We are coming back to our childhood — a story of stolen childhood.”

Most Holocaust films have focused on the harsh realities of life in the concentration camps, not child survivors, so Marzynski views his film as a corrective of sorts, and a timely one. Child survivors are the last witnesses, and Marzynski says they have reached a point in their lives where they are ready to share their stories with the world.

“Other directors come in and tell the stories of other people,” said Sharon Pucker Rivo, an adjunct associate professor of Jewish film at Brandeis University. “Marian is a native insider. He knows the language, the territory. He didn’t need intermediaries.”

After the war, Marzynski reunited with his mother. His father, who escaped a transport train to a death camp, was murdered in the forest outside of Warsaw. Unlike most survivors, Marzynski remained in Poland with his mother, who remarried another survivor, and took his stepfather’s name.

Growing up under Communist rule, Marzynski said he understood the political realities. The message was, “We all suffered from the Nazis. Everyone’s equal. Don’t brag about being Jewish, that you suffered more than other people.”

Marzynski became a journalist and a successful radio and television personality. But in 1969, during a wave of politically motivated anti-Semitism in Poland, Marzynski fled to Denmark with his family — his wife, their young son and his mother and stepfather. Later, they resettled in the United States.

“We did not want our son to have to live the lie that I had to live,” he says.

In “Never Forget to Lie,” Marzynski ventures for the first time into the forest where his father was murdered. The camera lingers on the filmmaker as he holds his father’s watch, telling viewers that it is the first time he is wearing it. For a few moments, the otherwise voluble, opinionated director can hardly speak.

“It’s a quiet moment,” Rivo said. “There’s no swelling music, no gimmicks. You can see he is moved.”

Marzynski hopes the film reaches a wide audience, especially non-Jews. The survivor stories reflect the universal human experience, he says.

Marzynski got a taste of that broader resonance in January, when he and his wife were invited to join a group of 560 European high school students and 85 teachers on a trip from Tuscany to Poland on the Treno della Memoria (“train of memory”), an Italian Holocaust education project. After visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau and seeing his film, many students approached him, fascinated to meet a survivor. He says he was impressed by how eager they were were to learn about this history, and their perspectives were completely changed.

“I want non-Jews to know the Holocaust in such a way that they can apply it to their own lives,” Marzynski said. “This is the job I am doing, transferring the Holocaust experience to a new audience.”

“Never Forget to Lie” will air on Tuesday, May 14, at 10 p.m. on PBS.

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