A Look Behind the Animation: “The Podkamieners”

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Richard O’Connor, owner of Ace & Son Moving Picture Co., discusses the approach and style behind the animation of “The Podkamieners” series as well as the use of animation in a historical context.

For more on Ace & Son Moving Picture Co., please visit: http://www.aceandson.com/

Yad Vashem Classroom Dedication

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In March 2013, our family donated a classroom to Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies, in memory of two of our closest relatives who perished in the Holocaust: Mordechai Tau, my grandmother Malcia’s father and Sarah Geller, my grandfather Israel’s sister, who I’m named after.

Watch the video above of Martin Geller speaking at the classroom dedication at Yad Vashem.

Animating the Past

Over the past few months I’ve delved into the world of post-production on our family project, submerged in the hours and hours of interview footage that I’ve collected over the past year.

What I’ve come up with is five short films based on our respective family groups, which include films on Yitzchak Sarid (told by his wife and children); siblings Fay Brandwein and Josh Geller; Max Geller; Isidore Shapiro; and Benny Brody; and culminating with a larger film on my grandparents, Malcia and Israel Geller (told by my mother, Ellen Kamaras, and my uncle, Marty Geller).

The films were powerful. Each story revealed a new layer of what life was like in hiding and the varying age groups of the storytellers brought a unique perspective to each piece.

With such compelling narratives I knew I had the onus to bring equally compelling visuals to do these pieces justice. I had shied away from watching other Holocaust films and featurettes. I didn’t want this project to be like anything else. I wanted to create something new from something old, something bold, something that could bring a new generation into a world they could have never imagined otherwise. Something that they could understand and pass along through generations to come.

I wanted to animate the past.

My gut reaction was that there was no better way to animate the past than through the process of animation, drawing out key scenes from the films. The decision to animate parts of these films presented a handful of new and exciting possibilities, namely the opportunity to visualize certain experiences that could otherwise only be told through words.

But with that opportunity also came a host of challenges, the biggest one being the responsibility to portray my family’s experiences in the most effective yet sensitive way possible, ensuring that animation was used to enhance their experiences rather than demean them.

The more I thought about it the more I realized that using animation to visualize these scenes would actually help make these experiences more palpable for a viewer rather than hinder a viewer from looking at something that might be too physically and emotionally graphic to bear through something like stock footage or recreations, whether it be the close calls and close quarters of the ghetto or the brutal and often tragic conditions of hiding in the forest. Ultimately, it would give us a better and fuller understanding of what our family and the Jews of Podkamien endured.

I look forward to sharing the animation process with you all and am proud to be working with the talented Ace & Son Moving Picture Co. here in New York City.

Below is a sample of some animation for an opening sequence for the short films – our family – or the “Podkamieners” – centered around the large overhanging rock, a defining feature of Podkamien (Podkamien literally meaning “at the foot of the rock,” with “pod” being “foot” and “kamien” being “rock”).

Podkamieners around the rock. Animation by Ace & Son Moving Picture Co.

Podkamieners around the rock. Animation by Ace & Son Moving Picture Co.

I can’t think of a better image, not only to kick off this new chapter in our project but also to represent our family. While there is not much left in Podkamien today as it was 70 years ago, this emblematic rock still stands, a testament to what was and what came from this town – the most important thing being the people, our family – that still remain and should continue to remain forever.

The overhanging rock in Podkamien (circa 2011). Photo credit: Sarid Family.

The overhanging rock in Podkamien (circa 2011). Photo credit: Sarid Family.

Marty Geller: Sparking a Fire

Marty Geller, lighting a candle with his parents, Malcia and Israel, at his Bar Mitzvah.

Marty Geller, lighting a candle with his parents, Malcia and Israel, at his Bar Mitzvah.

On the last day of Chanukah, I sat down to interview my uncle, Marty Geller, the founder of this family documentary project.

The day before the interview I saw my cousin, Fay Brandwein. When I told her that I’d be interviewing Marty the next day, she was curious as to what I’d be discussing with him. I told her how I’d ask him about the deep rooted impacts of being a child of survivors.

Fay responded humbly, “I understand. I’m a child of survivors too.”

It was a simple point but something I had never thought about before. Fay, as many of the survivors that I interviewed, not only carried the weight of their own experiences but also the experiences of their parents. In many cases, only one parent survived, which packed a whole new punch of pain, guilt and regret.

Moreover, I was fascinated by not only how a child of survivors recognized the resonating aftermath of the Holocaust in their parents, but also how those effects rippled through the child’s life as well.

I listened intently to my uncle bring that thought to life, as he told one of the most prominent stories of his childhood: the murder of his grandfather, Mordechai Tau, who was shot while running from the Nazis.

Marty explained how the story’s effect took different forms as it trickled down through the generations: his grandmother’s reticence toward her husband’s absence, his mother’s outward pain that constantly led her back to discuss her father’s death. And for Marty, hearing that story over and over, the topic of the Holocaust eventually became too traumatic to discuss.

“I think I just got so burnt out,” Marty admitted, “I just couldn’t take to hear about the pain, the anguish. I would listen but I would probably just start blocking things out.”

Marty explained how it wasn’t until his parents passed away that he began to open up about his parents’ experiences. He no longer looked toward the pain of the Holocaust and its residual effects but how to take those unfathomable experiences and use them to heal, grow and become stronger than ever. And with that strength came the drive to preserve our family’s history and with it our identity- as a family, as survivors, as Jews.

Watch the clip below as Marty discusses one of the first sparks that led him to create the family documentary project.

Josh Geller: Keeping the Faith

Interview with Josh Geller. Pittsburgh, PA. July 2012. (left to right) Sarah Kamaras, Josh Geller and his wife, Rose)

Last month I traveled to Pittsburgh, PA to interview my cousin Josh Geller, my grandfather Israel’s nephew and Fay Brandwein’s older brother.

Josh was at a critical age during the crux of the war – at just 10 years old, Josh was too young to be alone yet old enough to remember his crucial experiences during the Holocaust. But in fact, at one point Josh was alone, separated from his mother and sister on a journey back  to town. Josh was caught and held by policemen but managed to escape, fending off any opposition along the way and miraculously making it back to town.

At such a young age and during such unfathomable situations, I wondered how Josh found the courage to fight through and continue on.

Josh credited his persistence to his faith and attributed his ability to maintain his faith to a young teacher who escaped from the German-occupied part of Poland when the war broke out and came to live in Podkamien, which was occupied by the Russians at the time.

The teacher established a small school of about seven or eight children and Josh’s parents sent him there to learn for a few days. Josh associates his strong grounding in Judaism with this teacher, a gentle man who was passionate about his teaching.

Moreover, Josh credited his teacher with passing on certain phrases that he would later find solace in during harsh times. The teacher, who was also a victim of the Holocaust, believed that reciting certain verses from prayers had the potential power to save.

70 years later, Josh still remembered one particular phrase and how he would recite it when he was stuck in the most treacherous situations during the Holocaust: “Shomer petaim Hashem,” literally “God protects the foolish,” a verse from Psalms that allows one to take a risk to one’s life when absolutely necessary, as one will be under God’s guardianship.

“The only dilemma which bothers me is that he (the teacher) probably said it too and he was also taken to that labor camp called Sassov and unfortunately he never survived,” Josh admitted, “But I do feel that it gave me sustenance to withstand the terrible events in escaping from death.”

Josh was not the only one who found a way to keep hope during dark times. Watch the clip below, as Josh discusses the incredible faith that he witnessed among the Jews that he was in hiding with.

Ellen Kamaras: A Child of Survivors

Ellen with her parents, Israel and Malcia Geller.

It was finally time. Over six months I had interviewed almost all of my relatives who hailed from the small town of Podkamien and survived the Holocaust: from those who were teenagers at the time and had performed heroic acts beyond their years to those who were just young children, whose brief glimpses of the war have had lifetime impacts.

And now it was time for what I considered one of the most difficult interviews: my mother’s. Although my mother, Ellen Kamaras, isn’t a Holocaust survivor, she and my uncle, Marty, are the key links to uncovering my grandparents’ story.

My relatives have provided me with more than I could have imagined. Their stories of struggle and survival have given me a clear sense and timeline of what life was like for a Jew in Podkamien once the war broke out, therefore bringing me one step closer to understanding what my grandparents, Malcia and Israel Geller, experienced during the Holocaust. However, besides for one miraculous story that a relative told of my grandfather and his cousin hiding in a monastery, so far no relative was able to reveal much more about my grandparents’ time in hiding.

My mother knew the basics, she knew about my grandparents’ families and shared a few anecdotes that my grandparents always told during her childhood and stood as their representation of WWII. But to my mother, that wasn’t enough.

“There are a lot of missing pieces,” my mother, Ellen, said, “I do know other children of survivors who have told me their parents refused to talk about the war. My parents were not like that. They talked about it and yet I am sad and a little embarrassed that I don’t have more facts.”

Still there was something to be said about being the child of survivors and the importance of my mother’s second-hand accounts, though somewhat scattered. My mother emphasized how she felt my grandparents’ experiences in the war affected both them as well as my mother and uncle. It was clear that even though my grandparents never delved in to great detail about what they went through, the Holocaust was something that shaped their lives and the lives of their children, sometimes in the best of ways and sometimes not in the best of ways.

(Video: Ellen Kamaras discusses the effects of being a child of survivors)

Hearing how my grandparents’ experiences still resonated after all of these years made me gain a new appreciation for their stories, although there aren’t many. Moreover, it made me consider that maybe they didn’t want to dwell on the pain. Maybe this was how they wanted to be remembered, in the same way that they had described themselves during the war- courageous: my grandfather, Israel, bartering a fur coat for his life, my grandmother, Malcia, overcoming the deathly cold and lack of food.

For two people who lived humble lives in America, maybe all they wanted was to be remembered for what they were and always will be: heroes.

Fay Brandwein: “My Mother, the Hero.”

Interviewing Fay Brandwein. April 2012. Forest Hills, NY. (left to right) Sarah Kamaras, Fay Brandwein, Harrison Geller.

Today we commemorate the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day or “Yom Hashoah,” marking over 70 years since the horrific events of the Holocaust occurred.  Yom Hashoah is twofold: a day to remember those who were murdered and also to appreciate those who have survived.

This year I have felt that appreciation more than ever through my relatives that I have interviewed over the past five months. Hearing about their fight to survive has reminded me that without their persistence, courage, and will to live, not only would they not be here today, but I, as well as my family, would not be here today.

My cousin Fay Brandwein’s stories really emphasized this notion. Last Sunday, I sat down with Fay for what would become almost three hours of stories of struggle and survival. While Fay was only a young child during the war, she was able to recount her experience in the Holocaust through the stories her mother told her.

Fay’s appreciation for her mother was boundless. Her father, Aaron Geller, was taken to a labor camp and never returned and her mother, Sarah, was left to care for Fay and older brother, Josh. Fay told myriad stories of how her mother, who she referred to as a hero, helped save her and her brother, always ensuring that her children had what to eat and where to sleep as they fled from bunker to bunker.

(Video: Fay recounts one of her mother’s many heroic acts)

“She could’ve said, ‘I’ll never make it, I might as well give up.’ But she didn’t,” Fay said.

Sarah’s perseverance not only helped her and her children survive but also had a lasting impact on Fay. Fay continues to share her mother’s stories by speaking about her family’s experience to various schools and organizations. “The most important thing in my opinion is not to give up and say ‘Well my parents are gone so let’s forget about the Holocaust,” Fay said, “No, on the contrary. Get involved, do good by letting the world know and don’t give up.”