Stories of Holocaust survival told by the survivors themselves will be featured in a documentary scheduled to make its debut May 1 on PBS.
“Witness: Voices From The Holocaust” contains some of the earliest archival footage of Holocaust survivors. Through the survivors’ first-person stories, the pain of the Shoah is relived in chronological order.
“My brother died in my arms,” says Helen K. from Poland in the film. “There was not enough oxygen for all those people and they kept us in those wagons for days. They wanted us to die in those wagons. You know the cattle cars with the very little windows?”
“That’s the power of testimony,” said Joshua Greene, co-producer/director of the film. “It vividly establishes the human dimension of the catastrophe.”
The 19 accounts in the film were first taped in 1979 for the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University.
The witnesses are only referred to by their first names and last initials for privacy reasons, although Green said that would not be the case if the interviews were conducted today.
“It was still somewhat anathema to talk about those things,” said Greene of the era when the testimonies were first recorded. He said those who volunteered to speak of their experiences were “rare and unusual.”
“It’s not quite the same today,” he said. “If anything, now survivors are celebrities.”
The idea for the film came when the producers tried to preserve the deteriorating tapes.
“Just the words of the people themselves transcended any feeling of this as a Jewish project,” said Shiva Kumar, a native of India who is co-producer/ director of the film.
“It became a project about people.”
Including interviews with survivors, Resistance fighters and a priest, the 86- minute film, taken from 600 hours of tape, depict a wide array of voices.
The producers hoped it would unravel the story of Hitler’s terror into single strands of survival.
“I sometimes think I was made too inhuman because I didn’t care about anyone else,” says Martin S. from Poland of his survival tactics.
An accompanying book of more-extensive interviews complements the film for use in educational settings.
“Like many of the children of the ’60s, I had perhaps a two-week unit on the Holocaust in high school and figured that’s all I needed or wanted to know,” Greene said. “Watching the tapes was a shock because, first of all, it alerted me to how little I understood.”
Frank G. of Germany speaks of his school experience during Hitler’s rise to power in and his class on “raciology.”
“Students were to learn what makes a difference between a blond, blue-eyed pure Aryan to a Jew.”
The stark testimonies are played for the audience without narration to “avoid imposing any third-person narrator or editorializing on experiences of the witnesses,” Greene said. There’s “no attempt in this film to glamorize survival,” he added.
When asked what her tattooed number is, Hanna F. of Poland answered, “50069.
“I still have it. I’m not ashamed of it. They should be ashamed of it.”
Father John S. of Czechoslovakia watched as Jews were deported to concentration camps and helped hide non-Jewish partisans slated for deportation.
“I never saw anything like that in my life,” he says of a man who was beaten after asking for some water.
In further testimony transcribed in the book, he continues, “I see it, personally, as the greatest tragedy of my life that Jewish people were deported all around me. I didn’t do anything. I panicked.”
Helen K. speaks of her resistance while working in an ammunition factory, and of the actions taken by neighbors during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
“We weren’t really that passive. If you want to look at history, countries like France or Belgium or Holland, they went in a few days,” she said. “The Warsaw Ghetto was holding out for four weeks. Even Poland didn’t hold out for four weeks.”
Producers of children’s films, Greene and Kumar have not given up their past work but have stumbled upon a subject they hope to continue in the future. A film about the war crimes trial at Dachau is in the works as “Witness” continues to garner nominations and awards, including top honors at the Houston International Film Festival.
Kumar sees the film as an opportunity to open the subject of the Holocaust to a wider audience.
“I am not Jewish; I did not come at this from a specifically Jewish vantage point,” he said.
The film is currently making appearances around the country, often accompanied by a lecture.
For both Kumar and Greene, the film is a way to transport events of the past into the present.
“Did we really learn anything,” Helen K. asks in the last line of the film. “I don’t know,” she answers, as the film trails off.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.