How We Remember to ‘Never Forget’?

Never forget.

It’s a phrase that has become synonymous with the Holocaust.

It’s a phrase that promotes solidarity, in an attempt to prevent history from repeating itself. It’s a phrase that fosters unity, in bringing together anyone and everyone affected from Jew to gentile. It’s a phrase that creates defiance, in rising up against all acts of terror and genocide.

Seventy-one years later, the phrase “never forget” has generated an unspoken comfort among many who join together to reassure ourselves that we’ll always remember the horrific events of the Holocaust, while equally paying tribute to the survivors who have allowed us to continue to thrive until today.

But what happens when survivors don’t want to remember the things we’re told to “never forget?”

The reticence and reluctance of survivors to speak about the Holocaust pushes against the very notion of “never forget.” In fact, it’s the antithesis of “never forget.” It’s an idea that has pervaded my mind ever since I began working on “The Podkamieners,” a six-part docu-series on my family’s experiences in the Holocaust.

I recognized it immediately during the first interview that I conducted with my cousin, Mark, now 85 and flippant as ever. When asked how his children have reacted to him being a survivor, he responded that he simply told them to, “Forget it.”

Forget it. The very idea that we should forget about the Holocaust feels inherently uncomfortable, dishonorable, and just morally wrong. We talk about the Holocaust, but we never talk about not talking about the Holocaust. And why would we? We’ve been indoctrinated with the concept of “never forget,” we commemorate an annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, and we’ve been inundated by Holocaust literature, imagery, films, and a plethora of other genocidal media paraphernalia up to a point where we have become nearly desensitized. In short, the Holocaust has become commonplace.

The Holocaust should never become commonplace, nor should any other act of genocide (though we’d be remiss in not recognizing that it has become all too common). My project made me realize that recognizing a survivor’s unwillingness to speak about his or her experiences bridges the gap between “universal” and “unique” when it comes to understanding the events of the Holocaust. And while it’s not the main objective of my film series, it’s certainly a strong subtext that shifted these six films from a place of reticence to relevance.

Out of the five survivors who I interviewed, four had barely — or in some cases never — spoken about their experiences before in any personal or public forum, my cousin, Mark, falling under the “never” category. That’s on a micro scale, but considering the extent of endless future generations as well as other survivors with a similar mentality, that micro scale can have a macro effect. I’ve seen that effect already take shape in my own mother and uncle, children of survivors who acknowledge that their childhood was shrouded by the cloud of the Holocaust and yet admit that they only have a superficial understanding of what their parents had truly endured.

Understanding why survivors have stayed silent about the Holocaust opened up a conversation that in turn allowed my family members to share their experiences. I know that I would not have been able to capture these stories if I did not recognize and respect these sensitivities. Thankfully, I did. And with it, I learned that among my family members, there was a strong desire to simply “move on” — though there’s nothing simple about it. They didn’t want praise for their survival or pity for their struggles. They just wanted to live a normal life and look forward.

These are not outlandish or surprising sentiments by any means — it’s understandable that people who experience trauma wouldn’t want to talk about that trauma, especially to this unfathomable degree. Rather, it’s about acknowledging, respecting, and validating these feelings to ultimately gain a better understanding and sensitivity to both survivors and to the Holocaust.

Instead of just talking about the Holocaust, it’s time for us to listen, even through the silence. And if we truly listen, then we’ll always remember why we should never forget.

 

Sound and Silence

It’s hard to qualify what makes good music. It’s even harder to anticipate what it will sound like.

Many people say that good music blends into the background so seamlessly that you don’t even notice it’s there.

But in film, music is just one of three layers of sound that need to be braided together to create that perfect blend. There’s the score itself, the music that weaves through the background or even sometimes takes the foreground of a piece; there’s the dialogue, the narrative that strings the story together; and then there’s the sound design, the natural, acquired or manipulated audio that’s used to punctuate a segment and highlight its emotion.

While each sound can sometimes be heard separately, they are eventually mixed together to create a perfect audible cocktail that can either make or break a film.

I’ll admit, the first composer that I hired to score The Podkamieners broke the film. After 8 months of work, I was left with a wall-to-wall score that was overpowering, outpacing, and overall unmemorable.

In filmmaking just as in anything in life, sometimes the only way to find out what’s good is to weed out what’s bad. It was at that moment that I realized that good music just didn’t sound that bad.

One year and tons of talent later by composer Tom Phillips and sound designer Chris Anderson, and the score for The Podkamieners is nearly complete.

One of the most important things that I learned during this process is that often times what sounds best is no sound at all. Sometimes that means letting the narrative speak for itself and sometimes that means letting a few beats stand in silence.

I found this particularly integral in the two Hebrew films, where leaving room to hear the intonation of the words spoken was just as important as reading them. Just like when Benny carefully unravels the chilling aftermath of being separated from his mother and sister after an attack.

The other instance that exemplified the importance of silence was in allowing certain moments for sound design to take center stage. This included the haunting ambient tones, the gunshots, the footsteps — all sounds that turned the animation into the utmost visceral experience when working in tandem with a delicate yet powerful score. Just like when Josh describes how he and his sister were forced to stay still in an attic while the Germans stormed and searched their hiding spot.

Above all, I learned that when it came to The Podkamieners, what qualified as good music was a balance between sound and silence.

And good music sounds great.

Today We Remember

Today we remember those who perished, those we never met, those we’ll never forget. Today we remember those who lived, those who survived, those who thrived so that we could be here today.

I know I wouldn’t be here today without my grandparents’ utter heroism, determination and will to live.

In honor of Yom Ha’shoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, I’d like to share an excerpt from the story of Yitzchak Sarid. Yitzchak lived by the words, דעו שמשריד נבנתם” “Know that you came from a remnant,” which encapsulates the sentiment of this day perfectly.

A Look Behind the Animation: “The Podkamieners”

Video

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/

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.