New Documentary Depicts Vibrant Jewish Life in Poland Prior to Nazi Onslaught - The Jewish Voice
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New Documentary Depicts Vibrant Jewish Life in Poland Prior to Nazi Onslaught

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By: Ilana Siyance

Dutch filmmaker, Bianca Stigter, has utilized a rare home video found of Polish life before World War II to create, “Three Minutes: A Lengthening.” The 70-minute feature film provides a peek into the vibrant life Jews had lived in Poland, before everything was devoured in the Holocaust.

“It’s a short piece of footage, but it’s amazing how much it yields,” Stigter said in a recent interview in Amsterdam. “Every time I see it, I see something I haven’t really seen before. I must have seen it thousands and thousands of times, but still, I can always see a detail that has escaped my attention before.”

As per the NY Times, the documentary is based on a three-minute film reel which Glenn Kurtz found in 2009, in a dusty corner of his parents’ closet in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. It was a home movie, entitled “Our Trip to Holland, Belgium, Poland, Switzerland, France and England, 1938.” His grandfather, David Kurtz, had taken the footage shortly before the war began. He had never chanced to meet his grandfather, who had emigrated from Poland to the United States as a child, and had died before he was born.

It captured the calm before the storm – the Swiss Alps, picturesque Dutch villages and a vibrant Jewish community in a small Polish town. It took Kurtz a year to identify the town as Nasielsk—his grandfather’s birthplace, a tiny town roughly 30 miles northwest of Warsaw. At the time of the video, there were about 3,000 Jews living there— only 100 of them would survive the horrors of the war to come. Kurtz understood that this video had broader implications than just his own family album. It was evidence of an era lost, innocence taken. The video- astoundingly in color- captures old men in yarmulkes, skinny boys in caps, girls without a care in the world—all smiling and carefree. It depicts Jews pouring into a large synagogue. The footage is way too short, but it captures so much of a world that was lost forever.

The videotape was transferred to DVD by Kurtz’s family and sent to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in 2009. “We knew it was unique,” said Leslie Swift, chief of the film, oral history and recorded sound branch of the museum. “I immediately communicated with him and said, ‘If you have the original film, that’s what we want.’” The Holocaust museum was able to restore and digitize the old film. The footage was then posted on its website.

Then came four years of detective work on Kurtz’s part. He tried to decipher who the people were and find out about the little town. Kurtz ended up writing an acclaimed book about it, named “Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film,” published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2014. Kurtz, an author and journalist, did he best to find clues about the 150 faces featured in the footage.

As per the NY Times, Nasielsk, had been home to Jews for centuries. It was overtaken on Sept. 4, 1939, three days after the Germans invaded Poland. Just three months later, on Dec. 3, the entire Jewish population of the town was rounded up and expelled. They were forced into cattle cars, traveled for days without any basic provisions, and were taken to the towns of Lukow and Miedzyrzec, in the Lublin region of Nazi-occupied Poland. Most of them ended up being deported to the Treblinka death camp. “When you see it, you want to scream to these people run away, go, go, go,” said Stigter, a historian, author and film critic for a Dutch national newspaper. “We know what happens and they obviously don’t know what starts to happen, just a year later. That puts a tremendous pressure on those images. It is inescapable.”

Stigter used information from the book to complete the film, and did more research as well. The film is co-produced by her husband, Steve McQueen, the British Academy Award-winning director, producer and screenwriter. The documentary has recently been selected for this month’s Sundance Film Festival.

Maurice Chandler, a Nasielsk survivor who is now in his 90s, was identified as one of the smiling teenage boys in the video. His granddaughter in Detroit had recognized him from a digitized clip on the Holocaust museum’s website. Chandler lost his entire family in the Holocaust. He helped identify seven other people in the footage. He said the tape helped him recall a childhood lost so abruptly. He joked that he could finally prove, “that I’m not from Mars.”

“We had to work as archaeologists to extract as much information out of this movie as possible,” Stigter said. “What’s interesting is that, at a certain moment you say, ‘we can’t go any further; this is where it stops.’ But then you discover something else.”

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