Although I came from a conservative Jewish family, I never dwelled on my connection to the Holocaust. My family came to America at the turn of the 20th Century and had no relatives who survived who came to live in the US. It was only when I was working on a personal documentary, Dancing with My Father, that my personal connection to the Holocaust became clear. I visited the town where my grandmother grew up in Slovakia. The mayor showed me a memory book from Krize. All our Lauder relatives who stayed were killed. I imagined the Nazis as the machine at a golf range that combs the grass for golf balls and all are swept up. In such a small town, no one could hide.
When Karen shared with me the creative non-fiction book she was writing about her parent’s escape and survival of the Holocaust, I was totally engrossed. I just couldn’t believe these stories and found them both gripping and important. That was the beginning of our journey together, after meeting through New York Women in Film and TV and serving together on its documentary committee. The creative non-fiction book became a memoir. We decided to do one interview and apply for a grant. That became the kernel of this documentary, Family Treasures Lost and Found.
When COVID hit, it seemed the perfect time to continue the interviews and slowly I became immersed in the stories, but also the rich family archive sent in trunks from Berlin by Karen’s great grandparents. I started to see how we could visualize the stories and create a rich experience for the viewer with them. The original and continuing concept was that we would model family history research including using Karen’s iphone videos from her trip to Eastern Europe, shot like any tourist visiting places long imagined. We would start with Oral History and move to archival research, then visiting the towns and cities where relatives lived and then pull it all together into a coherent story.
We also immersed ourselves along with Karen’s husband Ed Volchock, in archival research. I looked at images from the Holocaust and realized I had never carefully studied the photos taken by Nazis of the Lwów pogrom, of rounding up Jews and of course, the trains. Our advisory committee, all Holocaust experts, warned us to avoid the pornography of violence in our choice of images. The naked woman in the street, most likely raped and terrified, did not give us permission to use her image. Was it fair to her and her family to literally broadcast this image all over the world? Yet we wanted to represent the horrific violence these people endured and be sure Holocaust deniers understood this was real. We finally chose images without faces revealed to preserve the dignity of those most certainly lost.
I came to appreciate the rich archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and their support of stories about Holocaust by giving us images and footage for free. Even though I’ve seen some of the material before, because we were visualizing Karen’s family’s story, we found moments to share not often seen. We also discovered that the ship Karen’s father sailed on to Havana and then Vera Cruz, the Flandre, was often mistaken for the another ship, the St Louis. British Pathe had superb footage of the Flandres in Havana as well photos of the Flandre from the French Lines.
In the licensing process, interacted with wonderful archivists at USHMM, JDC and Brandeis as well as help from the archivist and several professors at the University of Vienna who were happy to share stills with us to tell Karen’s father’s story.
When I started this journey with Karen I didn’t realize it would become the intensely archival story it now is, bringing to life a tragic episode in western civilization, but also honoring the rich culture of Polish Jews. Karen’s mother’s family were urban, assimilated, educated Jews who were in the professions. Her family images and stories taught me how precious the freedom Jews found in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was unlike any other moment in Jewish History. Culture, learning, business was all open to them and they embraced it with a deep joy. How could they give this up? How could they see the antisemitism brewing scalding hot. Karen and I often discussed how her mother could see what others could not. How, why? Would I be able to leave everything behind as every refugee today must decide to do? How does fascism take hold and thrive until it pollutes people with uncontrollable hatred of the other. I also learned that no matter how distant you are from this trauma, it follows generation to generation.
A documentary is always a group effort and composer Patricia Lee Stotter and musician Don Rebic helped tell the story with an exceptional score. They were an inspiration to me and helped me see the images with more emotional intent. Michael Lugo added visual information through his motion graphics with an artistic and sensitive eye that gave new life to stories. And Joe Deihl fixed all my sound mistakes and then added his own artistry in the sound design sending me a stream of aural presents during the mix.
Karen tells this story with her mother and I came to see it as a duet. I didn’t realize how strong her mother was at first. As the edit continued, I sought Irena out more and more and listened with heightened attention to what she said. She was an insightful, heroic woman and I’m sorry I never met her.
I thank Karen for taking me on her thoughtful search for answers and for teaching me about the Holocaust in a very accessible and emotionally safe way so that the horror is always contextualized. I hope you will have the same experience too.