The German Doctor
The German Doctor,” a film that Argentinian filmmaker Lucia Puenzo adapted from her novel “Wakolda,” begins with a chance meeting: A mysterious, good-looking doctor and a teenager at a service station. Soon, the doctor is asking for directions, following her family through winding Patagonia roads to a beautiful vacation spot. While the doctor is based on Dr. Mengele, Puenzo, the 37-year-old daughter of Oscar winning Argentinian filmmaker Luis Puenza, said in a recent interview, when she wrote her novel and the script on which her film is based, she was actually more interested in the family and the experiments he performed on them than in the notorious doctor at Auschwitz.
How did you arrive at this subject?
An Argentinian family meets this stranger in the summer of 1960, in the middle of nowhere. When I was a teenager, I started to know about these stories that happened to Argentinian families. I wondered, how many Nazis were operating not only in my country, but in others on the continent. Governments opened their doors, arranged complicated matters for these Nazis to come. So I was more interested in this teenager, this family. The German Doctor was originally a novel, my fifth, Wakolda. I began to write it a year and half before I wrote the script not thinking of Dr. Mengele, but of the family.
So, you were not developing this material from a Jewish perspective.
Not so much. The Jewish community in Buenos Aires embraced this story. It was a huge success everywhere in schools and universities. They were the first to say, this is not just a Jewish story, but one that every community should be concerned about. Complicity. The whole society kept silent.
You refer to the original title, “Wakolda.” What does Wakolda mean?
Wakolda comes from the Mapuche, Indians from Patagonia. In the film the girl has a little doll named Wakolda, her alter ego, an imperfect doll. In the novel, there is a strong subplot of purity and mixed races. We are all people of mixed blood on our continent, but many thought this title was hermetic.
When you imagined this doctor performing growth experiments on the girl, surely you knew that Dr. Mengele was the most well-known of these German doctors?
I have been intrigued by the image of the German doctors during the war. He was at the core of the Nazi idea, to create a perfect race. Now we can look at it as part of history but it is the most omnipotent idea a person can have. For me, Mengele pinpoints the heart of the fanaticism. I found out he was not even a good doctor. Outside the concentration camps he had to hide in the most seductive manner, so you did not see a monster coming. These doctors could be perfect citizens for 40 years.
Many think Dr. Mengele should not be the subject of fiction. Did you have problems publishing your book or getting the film made?
The first reaction is, this material is very sensitive and we don’t want to get involved. Fiction with this subject! I think I will run in the other direction. In Germany, Vagenbach, my usual publishing house said we are going to pass on this one, without even reading it. Then the novel began to do well in other editions, they tested it with readers and historians, so, in the end, they published it with a bibliography, so you can see the sources. The film was very difficult to finance.
Why not make a documentary? Did that ever occur to you?
No. When I begin a novel, my invention starts with something true that I research. In Latin America there are many biographies of Mengele, very good ones. In the year and half that I was writing, I met with all the historians, not only those in Argentina. Whenever I traveled I would meet them. They gave me photographs; I had access to a special archive in the South of my country, to documentaries. I had a lot of interviews about how Mengele experimented with pregnant women, with children, even with Argentine cattle. He was obsessed with the twin phenomenon. He wanted our cows to breed twin calves and he made experiments. I have testimonies from people who knew him, who had taken growth hormones, but the family is fiction of course.
Mengele’s experiments and results are controversial. Should we use any of his medical research?
The growth hormone treatment that Mengele used was the same as used on Lionel Messi. Lots of treatments are aggressive. But Messi is the best player in the world so it was worth it. This is a provocative idea to throw on the table: It has to do with ethical dilemmas of modern medicine.
What do you hope to achieve with this film?
Whatever I hoped for has already happened. From Cannes in 2013, the film has never stopped having a life of its own; it is released in 35 countries. The novel has been published in as many. Hesperus will publish the novel in English titled, “The German Doctor.”
Walking With The Enemy
“Walking With the Enemy” is based on the real-life deeds of Pinchas Rosenbaum, a Hungarian rabbi’s son who was able to save Jews from the Nazis and their collaborators by disguising himself in enemy garb.
In the movie’s fictionalized retelling, the hero, Elek (Jonas Armstrong), bolts from a bombed labor camp. His family deported, he finds refuge in Budapest, falling in with a resistance based around the city’s Glass House, which prints Swiss papers to aid escape.
“Walking With the Enemy” conveys a palpable sense of how the Nazis were able to rule by fear. Simply dressing up as a German officer and shouting orders, Elek is able to free an imprisoned comrade and redirect death-camp-bound Jews. Via a love interest (Hannah Tointon), the movie shows once again that the imperatives of melodrama — which dictate that preferred characters survive — and the indifferent slaughter of the Holocaust make for an uneasy mix.
Visually, “Walking With the Enemy” resembles a TV mini-series, a sense enhanced by the director Mark Schmidt’s habit of cutting away from bloodshed. Constant title cards introducing historical figures suggest the work of a completist rather than a filmmaker who has focused the material. (The opening credits twice note that the movie was inspired by a true story.)
Indeed, a parallel plotline featuring Ben Kingsley as Miklos Horthy — who led Hungary as regent and attempted to broker a late surrender to the Soviet Union in defiance of an official alliance with the Nazis — would have made a compelling procedural in its own right.
“Walking With the Enemy” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Holocaust- and war-related violence.
Una película polaca que analiza la traición de los polacos católicos a sus conciudadanos judíos
From acclaimed director Pawel Pawlikowski (Last Resort, My Summer of Love) comes Ida, a moving and intimate drama about a young novitiate nun in 1960s Poland who, on the verge of taking her vows, discovers a dark family secret dating from the terrible years of the Nazi occupation.
18-year old Anna (stunning newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska), a sheltered orphan raised in a convent, is preparing to become a nun when the Mother Superior insists she first visit her sole living relative. Naïve, innocent Anna soon finds herself in the presence of her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a worldly and cynical Communist Party insider, who shocks her with the declaration that her real name is Ida and her Jewish parents were murdered during the Nazi occupation. This revelation triggers a heart-wrenching journey into the countryside, to the family house and into the secrets of the repressed past, evoking the haunting legacy of the Holocaust and the realities of postwar Communism.
In this beautifully directed film, Pawlikowski returns to his native Poland for the first time in his career to confront some of the more contentious issues in the history of his birthplace. Powerfully written and eloquently shot, Ida a masterly evocation of a time, a dilemma, and a defining historical moment; Ida is also personal, intimate, and human. The weight of history is everywhere, but the scale falls within the scope of a young woman learning about the secrets of her own past. This intersection of the personal with momentous historic events makes for what is surely one of the most powerful and affecting films of the year.
As Poland touts rescuers, filmmakers address Holocaust-era treachery
By Cnaan Liphshiz
After reburying the bones of her parents in a neglected Jewish cemetery, a soon-to-be Polish nun quietly crosses herself with earth-covered fingers.
A devout and introverted young woman, Ida Lebenstein had learned only days earlier that her parents were Jews who were murdered by Polish Christians. As she knelt in her nun’s habit among headstones inscribed with Hebrew lettering, the gesture of Catholic devotion is the character’s reflexive way of responding to the recent revelation of her true origins.
This surreal scene appears in “Ida,” a new Polish feature film that will premiere next month in the United States.
One of several recent films that have forced Poles to confront their complicity in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust, “Ida” has helped counter the myth long perpetuated by communist leaders that all Poles were victims who suffered equally under the Nazis. Other films on the subject include “In Hiding,” “Pawel” and “Aftermath,” which examines the murder of hundreds of Jews in the village of Jedwabne in 1941.
“In recent years, Polish cinema has taken a leading role in getting Poland to focus some attention on the complexities of the World War II era, and complicity,” said Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Poland’s chief rabbi.
The process has not been free of controversy. “Ida” premiered in Poland amid an ongoing government campaign to venerate non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews — a campaign that critics charge has glossed over the sort of frank reckoning with the past in which Polish filmmakers have been engaged.
“The multitude of commemorations does not contribute to serious reflection on the attitudes of Poles during Nazi occupation,” the Polish historian Jan Grabowski wrote in an article last week on the website of Krytyka Polityczna, a left-leaning journal. “That complacency has replaced substantive national debate over one of the most painful aspects of Polish history.”
Among the commemorations of the righteous in Poland was the establishment of 2014 as the Year of Jan Karski, the man who alerted the allies to the Holocaust, as well as the planned erection of no fewer than three monuments honoring non-Jewish Poles. One of the monuments, opposite the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, spurred a protest last month from Jewish historian Bozena Uminska-Keff and Helena Datner, a former president of the Jewish community of the Polish city.
The monument would “chase away the ghost of the Jewish narrative, which is inconvenient for the majority, in favor of a narrative consistent with historical policy and ideas of the majority,” they wrote in an open letter published in Krytyka Polityczna.
Some critics connect the emphasis on victimhood with Poland’s slowness in advancing restitution of privately owned Jewish property. Poland has drawn intense criticism as the only European country occupied by the Nazis to not enact substantial private property restitution laws.
“Poland sees itself as a victim of war, which is true, but the same can be said of other countries, such as Belgium, which regulated the issue of restitution,” Baroness Ruth Deech, a British lawmaker, said last month during a debate in the House of Lords in which Poland was singled out for lagging on restitution.
Piotr Kadlcik, president of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland, notes the development of two competing narratives about the Holocaust in Poland today — one emphasizing collaboration with the Nazis and the other celebrating rescuers of Jews.
To Kadlcik, films such as “Aftermath” reflect a willingness to portray the darker chapters of Polish history. But the multitude of commemorations are an effort “to push the image of the righteous as a way of countering the discussion about immoral actions,” he said.
Unlike “Aftermath,” which focused entirely on the actions of non-Jews, “Ida” has a strong Jewish character: Ida’s aunt and last living relative, Wanda Gruz, is an alcoholic judge who survived the war as a communist resistance fighter.
The cynical Gruz, who is struggling not to drown in her own grief over the loss of her only child during the Holocaust and her regrets over her actions as a communist judge, takes Ida on a journey to find the bodies of their relatives. For both women, the trip profoundly shakes their belief systems.
In one scene, Gruz grills a villager on what he knows about the Lebensteins’ fate. When he asks if they were Jews, she snorts and says, “No, they were Eskimos.”
“She drives the whole movie forward and is the character the viewer is likeliest to identify with,” Pawel Pawlikowski, the film’s director, said of Gruz.
Pawlikowski is frustrated by what he sees as attempts to hijack a character-driven film to score political points. Polish nationalists, he said, have criticized him for portraying the murder of a Jewish family by a Pole rather than by the Germans.
“I hope the film goes beyond generalizations about Poles or Jews or nuns and just look at some stories that connect to our faith in utopias, religions, our tribes, the people around us — all the things we believe to make sense of the world,” Pawlikowski said.
“Corre Hijo Corre”, basado en la historia real de un niño que tuvo que sobrevivir a los alemanes y a los polacos
The boy who ran, the man who lived
by Tom Tugend
Every survivor of the Holocaust has a distinct story, and among the most remarkable is the one told in the movie “Run Boy Run.”
It’s the tale of an 8-year-old boy who escapes the Warsaw Ghetto and survives on his own for three years in Nazi-occupied Poland; the story could easily defy belief if the survivor were not still alive and ready to detail his experiences.
At the center of “Run Boy Run” — to be screened May 4 as part of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival — is the lad born as Israel Fridman but nicknamed Srulik, the son of a baker in the Polish village of Blonie.
In 1942, the 8-year-old Srulik is smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto and hunkers down — wet, cold and hungry — in a vast Polish forest.
He first falls in with a band of orphaned Jewish youth who raid Polish farms for food and wood, but when that falls apart, Srulik again strikes out on his own.
Knocking at the doors of Polish farmers to ask for shelter in return for work, Srulik encounters rejections and even beatings until finally he is taken in by Magda (Elisabeth Duda, in a stellar performance), the wife and mother of Polish partisans.
Magda is warm-hearted and brave, but above all, practical. Knowing that Srulik will have a better chance of survival as a Catholic boy than as a Jew, she renames him Jurek, teaches him the Hail Mary prayer, gives him a crucifix and, most important, warns him never to take down his pants or relieve himself in front of a Pole.
Despite all precautions, word spreads in the village that Magda is hiding a Jew. The SS raids and torches her home, and after some heart-stopping escapes, the boy is again on the run.
In one of the film’s few light episodes, Jurek earns extra food from sympathetic adults by spinning wild stories about how he lost his arm, first blaming a German tank and finally assuring his listeners that Hitler personally cut off his arm.
In 1948, he is tracked down by a Jewish search agency and, despite the boy’s initial denials of being Jewish, he eventually returns to his ancestral roots.
The film essentially ends there, but in a phone call to his home in Shoham, a Tel Aviv bedroom community, Yoram Israel Fridman — formerly Srulik and Jurek — told the rest of the story.
With his daughter, Michal, translating from Hebrew and filling in for her 79-year-old father, Fridman continued his life story from his aliyah in 1948 to the present.
After arriving in Israel as a functional illiterate, Fridman took an intensive six-month ulpan course in Hebrew, then started his formal education and eventually earned a master’s degree in mathematics.
In 1963, he married Sonia, who was born in Russia during World War II, and the couple now has two children and six grandchildren.
Fridman retired from his position as a math teacher 11 years ago and now enjoys life as family patriarch, an ardent basketball fan and helping his grandson with math homework.
Some years ago, he told his wartime story to Israeli author Uri Orlev, who wrote the book on which the film is based — in the form of a thriller for young readers, in the same way Fridman has recounted his experiences for his children and grandchildren, Michal said.
Fridman’s children attribute his survival to considerable luck, and even more so to his inherent resourcefulness — a trait he also displays in diapering and tying the shoelaces of his youngest grandchildren with one hand, after rejecting a prosthesis following a short test-run.
In January, the family attended the premiere of “Run Boy Run” at the Jewish Museum in Warsaw, liked the film and deemed it 90 percent factually correct.
Veteran German director Pepe Danquart was attracted to the film’s theme because it viewed the Holocaust through the eyes of an innocent yet adventurous child.
“The Holocaust is still topical, still relevant,” Danquart said in a phone call from Germany. “But 6 million dead Jews is an abstract figure, especially to kids. Yet, they can be reached through a well-told adventure story.”
Danquart, who won an Oscar in 1993 for his short film “Black Rider,” had considerable difficulty finding the right actor for the central role of Srulik/Jurek.
“Two weeks before we were to start photography, I had interviewed 700 youngsters without finding the right one,” he said. Just then, he discovered not only the one actor he was looking for, but two, in identical twins Kamil and Andrzej Tkacs.
With the huge physical and psychological effort the role demanded, the twins could spell one another in front of the cameras.
North Germany’s fields and forests largely stood in for the Polish landscape, impressively rendered by cinematographer David Gottschalk.
One notable aspect of the movie is the depiction of Poles and Germans. There are Poles who risk everything to help Jurek, and others, like a Polish doctor, who refuse to treat a Jew whose arm was ripped off in a farm accident.
In contrast, there is not a single good German in the German director’s movie. Danquart explained that he didn’t want to diffuse the film’s central theme by including an Oskar Schindler or a music-loving Nazi officer as in Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist.”
“Run Boy Run” will be presented by the L.A. Jewish Film Festival at 7 p.m., May 4 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills. The screening is sponsored by the L.A. Museum of the Holocaust, Goldrich Family Foundation and Anti-Defamation League. For information and tickets, visit www.lajfilmfest.org, or phone Brown Paper Tickets at (800) 838-3006.
The Jewish Cardinal
איך געדענק ווי אין די פֿופֿציקער יאָרן האָט זיך געקאָכט ווי אין אַ קעסל מיטן אַמאָליקן „ייִדישן גלח‟ אהרן לוסטיגער. מיר האָבן זיך נישט געריכט, אַז נאָך אַזא חורבן, נאָך אַזאַ קאַטאַסטראָפֿע, זאָל אַ ייִד זיך נעמען און שמדן, און דערהויבן ווערן צום ראַנג פֿון אַ גלח בײַ די קאַטאָליקן אין פֿראַנקרײַך.
דערגייט מען ערשט דעם סוד אינעם פֿילם The Jewish Cardinal („דער ייִדישער קאַרדינאַל‟) אַז אין דער צײַט פֿון דער מלחמה, ווי אַ פֿערצן־יעריק ייִנגל איז אהרן לוסטיגער געראַטעוועט געוואָרן אין זכות פֿון אַ פֿרומער נאָנע, וועלכע האָט אים אָפּגעשמדט.
לוסטיגערס מאַמע איז אומגעקומען אין אוישוויץ, דער טאַטע מיט דער שוועסטער זײַנען ניצול געוואָרן. פֿאַרשטייט זיך, אַז דער טאַטע האָט שטאַרק געליטן פֿון זײַן זונס שריט, און אים געבעטן, אַז נאָך זײַן טויט זאָל ער כאָטש זאָגן קדיש נאָך אים.
דער פֿילם איז אָנגעפּיקעוועט מיט מאָמענטן, וואָס שטעלן פֿעסט אונדזער איבערצײַגונג וועגן די פּאָליאַקן, זייער פֿאַרביסענעם און אײַנגעבוירענעם האַס צו ייִדן, מיט אַזאַ שׂינאה, אַז ווען עס איז געקומען צו די סצענעס וואָס זײַנען פֿילמירט געוואָרן אין אוישוויץ גופֿא, ווו די קאַרמעליטן־נאָנעס האָבן אויפֿגעשטעלט אַ קאַטויליש געבעט־הויז, און אײַנגעבויערט אַ ריזיקן קרײַץ בײַם טויער פֿון דער קרעמאַטאָריע, האָט זיך אויפֿגעהויבן אַ ויצעקו און אַ מהומה מצד די אַמעריקאַנער ייִדן.
נאָך מער, בעת מען האָט זיך אָנגעשטויסן אין אַ פּאָליאַק בײַם מאָלן די ווענט אויף ווײַס פֿון אוישוויץ, און ס׳האָט אים אָפּגעשטעלט דער ייִדישער קאַרדינאַל בײַ דער אַרבעט, מיט דער טענה אַז ער טוט מטומא זײַן אַ ייִדישן בית־עולם, האָט יענער געשיפּעט ווי אַ שלאַנג, אַז די פּראָפּאַגאַנדע־מאַשין קומט פֿון די אַמעריקאַנער ייִדעלעך מיט געלט, וואָס ווילן צעראַבעווען די פּוילישע גיטער און אָנטאָן שאָדן די פּוילישע רעפּוטאַציע.
דער ייִדישער קאַרדינאַל לוסטיגער, וועלכער איז אַן איבערגעגעבענער קריסט און אַ בוזים־פֿרײַנד מיטן פּוילישן פּויפּסט, האַלט אין איין טענהן, אַז ער איז אַ ייִד און אַז מען דאַרף אויסראָטן דעם פּוילישן אַנטיסעמיטיזם, און דער עיקר — אויסרוימען אוישוויץ פֿון די קאַרמעליטן־נאָנעס און פּטור ווערן פֿון דעם ריזיקן קרײץ, וואָס שטעכט אין די אויגן פֿון יעדן ייִד.