Anyone ‘watching’ might hopefully note that included in my mission during most of my 20 Years of Inside Press publishing has been supporting the amazing work of the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center, (find out more at hhrecny.org). Here, as an HHREC advisory board member, I was honored to join HHREC Director Millie Jasper, HHREC Board Member and past Chairperson David Alpert and Greenburgh councilwoman Ellen Hendrickx to also offer remarks at a Westchester County January 27th commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. County Executive George Latimer hosted the speakers commending them for their long-time commitment and support of Holocaust education and advocacy against antisemitism and all hate. Said Jasper to Latimer: ”Once again you struck the perfect tone about the importance of being an Upstander in the Westchester Community, and around the world.” — Grace Bennett, Publisher @ Editor, Inside Press, Inc.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day
Can you imagine climbing through an unlikely opening and hurling yourself off a speeding train (while your beloved family members huddle together, terrified and exhausted) to take your chances at surviving so that you can escape arrival of almost certain murder at the death factory, Treblinka?
Or of attempting to convince others to take that chance with you? So that you can both LIVE and one day tell the story? To tell what happened–a reason to live that Holocaust survivors collectively have shared in many documentaries.
To jumping anyway when others would not or could not?
In Julie Mintz’s riveting and inspiring documentary Four Winters, we learn of such unimaginable circumstances and also mind bogglingly courageous acts of Jewish resistance through the testimony of eight survivors who were members of the estimated 25,000 Jewish Partisans in the forests of World War II Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine. In Mintz’s discussion following the movie with Bruni Burres, the curator of the Jacob Burns Film Center Jewish Film Festival, we learn that only one of the survivors Mintz worked with to tell their stories and produce this film as authentically as possible, is still with us today for the film’s release. A takeaway reminder to me that the survivors are leaving us. A reminder that so are their stories. So we must honor them. And this film, honors them immensely.
If I may go on. I also don’t consider these spoilers as you MUST see this wonderful documentary to understand its edge of your seat quality, and my own words aside, you MUST hear the stories from the survivors themselves to truly digest the Jewish Partisans story and the Four Winters theme of perseverance.
Can you imagine walking for miles in a weakened state in an expansive, eerie forest in the cold and the snow, with only the glowing eyes of wolves in the distance to guide you, without survival gear or survival skills per se, at different junctures being hunted down like animals for slaughter by the sick Nazi regime and its unholy web of spies and collaborators?
It was a story I was startled and almost embarrassed to have never heard before, or have heard about in snips and pieces, as more folklore. The survivor witnesses in Four Winters weave a tapestry of this most remarkable aspect of Holocaust survival, of Jewish survival. Julie Mintz has lovingly, painstakingly helped each of these dear souls revisit and recall details of those horrific times, so that the story, each story, the collective story, can be released into the world, and so that these survivors can be celebrated and embraced not for what they survived, but for their courage, for the lives they helped save, for whatever evil they conquered or thwarted too against all odds.
None of us really could imagine, and no doubt the survivors who describe their experiences never could have either preceding the horrific genocide that ensued. Or how they eventually banded together in groups and underground, camouflaged bunkers to form true fighting units sabotaging and killing Nazis at assorted opportunities, and surviving against all odds over four endless, brutal winters, often starving, often not knowing what day it was, or what the future held. Early in the film: footage of their happy and productive lives, vacationing in pre-Nazi invasion Poland.
As we approach International Holocaust Remembrance Day tomorrow, I am grateful I had the opportunity to watch the pre-screening of Four Winters yesterday. As the subject matter never stops hitting too close to home (I am a child of Holocaust survivors; most of my family perished), the usual trepidation I feel watching the footage of crimes perpetrated against humanity by the Nazis never goes away. But this story was incredibly uplifting in that we much more rarely hear about the resistance efforts to the Nazi evil. The Jewish partisans collaborated with Polish and Russian partisan units in the forests too. I am eternally grateful to every astoundingly brave and moral person of every religion and race who courageously resisted and fought the seemingly endless atrocities to save innocent lives at grave risk to their own. I’m in awe of the courage it took to save themselves. I’m eternally heartened to learn and proud to know that included a sizeable number of Jewish persons, too.
Family Documentary Presented by HBO with the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, the short film “The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm” debuts this Saturday, January 27, from 6 p.m. to 6:20 p.m (ET/PT).
“A17606. That was his number and he told us back then that your number was your name. That is all he was to them.” Elliott Saiontz
Article and Photos by Grace Bennett
Mount Kisco, January 22–Hundreds of parents and their children packed the Bet Torah Synagogue sanctuary for an early screening of “The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm,” a powerful 19-minute HBO family documentary directed and produced by Amy Schatz. Filmed two years ago, it depicts 10-year-old Elliott’s adoring relationship with his great grandfather, the soft spoken and big hearted 90-year-old Jack Feldman. Through the film, Elliott first asks Jack questions about his experiences, and then we hear Jack’s heartbreaking answers.
At the film’s start–and with a backdrop of historical footage and the striking animation of acclaimed artist Jeff Scher throughout–Jack describes happy childhood memories of Poland (in his hometown of Sosnoweicz) predating the war. He tells his great grandson of an eclectic hat collection or of watching soccer games. Jack speaks of a close knit family, a successful family business and summertime vacations.
The documentary quickly segues into Jack describing harrowing experiences surviving Nazi brutality… from the forced wearing of yellow stars, confinement in a ghetto (“We had maybe 15-20 people sleeping in a room.”) to his separation from his family (“They grabbed me and took me away.”), of Auschwitz and of the notorious death march. (“A lot of people couldn’t make it. Thousands and thousands just died.”)
Bet Torah’s Rabbi Aaron Brusso and Edna Friedberg, a historian with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, spoke before the film with remarks sensitive to and frequently directed to the children in the room. “History is what happens to real people. It’s not just a flat idea; it’s something that happens to me and to you,” said Friedberg. She challenged the kids to explore their personal connections to the Holocaust as well. “If you have a connection to it, you as kids can be detectives on it too.”
Following the screening, Feldman and Elliott participated in a panel discussion. Jack was asked how old he is today. Not missing a beat, he quipped: 72. Laughter filled the sanctuary–the light moment a reprieve from the darkness of what was being discussed. Elliott’s grandfather, Sammy Feldman (92-year-old Jack Feldman’s first son) told attendees: “Between the ages of 12 and 17, hopefully you were enjoying your life… the Holocaust changed all that for the children of Europe. They were bullied and lost all their privileges. They lost all their rights.”
Rabbi Brusso noted fondly, “I wish I had a grandpoppy Jack.” Turning to Elliott, he offered his appreciation for “how you hold his hand and rub his arm.” He compared that kind of tenderness to Nazis “who treated people like objects.” Elliott’s example of caring and kindness, in contrast, are “how we preserve every human being.”
On the panel, too: Elliott’s brother Jared and his mom Stacey Saiontz (“without whom it is safe to say we would not be having this program today,” noted Freidberg). Saiontz, a member of the group GenerationsForward of the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center in White Plains, described a serendipitous meeting between herself and Sheila Nevins, a producer at HBO–ultimately leading to the film’s production. Elliott’s younger brother Jared, 10, answered a child’s question about when he learned of the Holocaust. He said his whole life he listened to his Mom interviewing his grandpa and started slowly learning.
Questions to the panel were mostly from children attending. More than one questioner seemed to want to find the good in human souls. Children are after all instructed to seek out ‘the helpers.’ “Was there ever a Nazi soldier undercover who tried to help the Jews?” one young girl asked. Elliott related that his grandfather was helped by a Nazi who knew his father and protected him from selection to the gas chamber. “Individual choices made a huge difference and could save a life,” said Friedberg. But they were also sadly the exception.
“Why were Jewish people blamed for Germany’s problems?” another asked. Friedberg explained how the Nazi regime employed the dynamics of bullying to encourage the persecution of Jews. “People feel powerful by leaving one person on the outside,” she said. The Nazis were “building on an existing hatred and stereotypes about Jews.” The Nazis also targeted and murdered hundreds of thousands of Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay men, political prisoners and persons with mental and physical disabilities.
But by far, it was the Jewish population that was decimated. Before the war, Friedberg continued, there were nine million Jewish people living in Europe; six million were murdered. “Two out of three.” She invited attendees to visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to learn more.
Grace Bennett is publisher and editor in chief of the Inside Press, and the 2017 recipient of the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center’s Bernard Rosenshein ‘Courage to Care’ award.
www.mjhnyc.org/ The Museum of Jewish Heritage
https://www.ushmm.org/ United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
www.hhrecny.org Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center
Release info from HBO:
THE NUMBER ON GREAT-GRANDPA’S ARM was directed and produced by Amy Schatz; executive producer, Sheila Nevins; producer, Lynn Sadofsky; edited by Tom Patterson; animation by Jeff Scher; director of photography, Alex Rappoport; music composed by Keith Kenniff; production executive, Susan Benaroya; supervising producer, Lisa Heller.
It debuts this Saturday, January 27, from 6 p.m. to 6:20 p.m (ET/PT).
The film will also be available on HBO On Demand, HBO NOW, HBO GO and affiliate . THE NUMBER ON GREAT-GRANDPA’S ARM will be included in a signature initiative that is part of a robust education program offered by the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. This effort is designed to use the film with a companion special installation and curriculum to connect stories of the Holocaust across generations.Additionally, companion segments featuring young people in conversation with survivors will be made available on HBO digital platforms.
Director-producer Amy Schatz’s notable HBO projects include the recent “Saving My Tomorrow” series, plus “An Apology to Elephants,” the “Classical Baby” series, “A Child’s Garden of Poetry,” “‘Twas the Night,” “Goodnight Moon and Other Sleepytime Tales” and “Through a Child’s Eyes: September 11, 2001.” Her work has won five DGA Awards, seven Emmy® Awards and three Peabody Awards.
Animator Jeff Scher’s work is found in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Academy Film Archive, Hirshhorn Museum and the Pompidou Centre.