Transcript

NEVER FORGET TO LIE

A film by Marian Marzynski

MARIAN MARZYNSKI, Filmmaker: I was 5 when I was smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto to hide among the Christians.

Do you remember me, sister?

I am not alone.

CELINA: Hold your mouth! Don’t say anything! Please, please, I want to live! I’m a child!

LILIAN: Beyond the wall was life. Inside the wall, where I was, on this side, was death.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: The last witnesses of the Holocaust.

ED: I had nothing! I didn’t know the language. I didn’t know anyone!

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: So why do we return to this haunted past? Why do we want this self-inflicted pain? We came here with fragile pieces of our memories, afraid that after us, they may be erased.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE, filmmaker Marian Marzynski’s search for a childhood lost in the Holocaust.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] Our American home. Over 40 years ago, we came to these shores, raised two children, and after they left, this became our empty nest. My wife, Grazyna, grew up in a Polish Catholic family, but already as a teenager, she had left her church.

Here in Boston, we are in touch with our past— the folk art we’ve been collecting for years in Poland. The artists were farmers inspired by the stories they had heard in their Catholic churches. All the characters are Christians, but once in a while, a Jew appears. “That’s me,” I like to joke.

I am a documentary filmmaker. For almost 50 years, I’ve been filming other people’s lives. A few times, I’ve turned the camera on myself. My childhood still seems to be my psyche’s unfinished business.

In 1942, I was 5. My parents handed me over to a woman who put me into a horse carriage. They told me that to stay alive, I must forget who I was. The woman covered my mouth as I screamed, “I want to go back to the ghetto, I want to go back to mommy.”

My mother survived the war. I never saw my father again.

Seventy years later, I am back in Warsaw, the city once populated by a half a million Jews. No more than 28,000 survived. I am one of them.

This is what’s left of the Warsaw ghetto, some condemned buildings now being converted into luxury condominiums.

Under cover of night, I enter this ghost town, hesitantly. In 1940, our family was forced by the Germans to move inside the ghetto walls. Two years later, my grandmother was taken from here by the Germans to the train station. In a state of shock, her mother, my great-grandmother, followed her daughter to the death camp.

I remember my older cousin and me playing a strange war-time hide and seek. On her signal, “Germans!” we both jump into a big wicker laundry basket, pull the cover over us and keep silent. When I say, “They’re gone,” we get out. I was 3.

I remember the security of holding my mother’s cold ear, the touch of my father’s unshaved cheek.

There were 12 of us squeezed into three rooms.

[subtitles]

WOMAN IN APARTMENT: Are you sure you lived here?

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: We were switching places often, running from one place to another. These streets changed hands often from Poles to Jews and back. It was horrible. Every 3-4 months, we would rent a new place.

WOMAN: But why were you doing this?

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: We were running away so the Germans wouldn’t kill us.

WOMAN: But you weren’t Jews, were you?

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: We were. We lived in the ghetto.

WOMAN: So why didn’t you tell me straight?

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: We are in the old ghetto.

WOMAN: I had a Jewish girlfriend. We were very close.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: So now you understand?

WOMAN: I understand everything. I watched the ghetto burning. Father slapped my face for it. I could have gotten into trouble. I was young, inexperienced. Germans would shoot for any reason, for throwing bread over the wall. They would shoot. They didn’t care.

I was deported to Germany. Soldiers carried me through the town. A 6-year old boy came and spit in my face. Can you imagine? They were brought up that way. I can’t even stand their language. I hate them. I know it’s not right. God doesn’t allow it.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] I am not alone in my quest. Other child survivors like me have came to Warsaw for an annual gathering. The Holocaust story has been told by others. This our turn. In our old bodies, we are still children.

WOMAN IN THE HALL: I don’t know how we got out. It was not an escape, I don’t— that I remember. I have no image of that in my mind at all.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Saved by parents who often gave their lives for us, we are left with a few facts and lots of raw emotions.

WOMAN IN THE HALL: My father sat me across from himself, showed me how to make a— the sign of the cross, said, “From now on, your name is Marysia Kowalska. Never admit that you are Jewish. Whoever is with you, say— call her Mama, call him Tata.”

He said one more thing. “After the war, read newspapers. Maybe someone will be looking for you.”

2nd WOMAN: I remember boots, clean, beautiful, awesome, shiny boots. And for some reason, I was afraid of those boots. They were, you know, bang, bang, bang, bang— that’s right, noisy. There was something about those boots. And I was a little girl, so you can imagine, at eye level, that’s what I see first. It’s the boots.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [on camera] So you are two years younger than I. We were in the Warsaw Ghetto. But is it true that for 50 years, you were in the closet about surviving Holocaust?

2nd WOMAN: Yes.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Why?

2nd WOMAN: Because the feelings were too painful and I didn’t want to think about it, let alone talk about it.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: And why are you talking now?

2nd WOMAN: The last couple of years, I have become a little freer of the fear.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] So why do we return to this haunted past? Why do we want this self-inflicted pain? To get relief from it?

SOPHIA: [weeping] Sorry! I apologize.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Sophia Schulman, a former hospital administrator, lives in New York. She takes me to her ghetto courtyard. Her father was sent to the death camp. Her mother died of typhus here. Five years older then me, she remembers more.

SOPHIA: This is exactly what it looked like to me. And somebody would put in a handkerchief some pennies, some groszy, of course, and throw it down. But the times then got worse and worse.

But this is what it looked like. Right here is death, except I see people in the windows. I see people, my people, in the windows. Somebody is going to come down. Look at those windows!

COMPANION: [subtitles] Does this look like your courtyard?

SOPHIA: [subtitles] Exactly, hungry people with death in their eyes. “All the Jews out!” I remember people couldn’t go down. No elevators. They laid sick in beds. Germans walked up and shot them! I saw it.

LILIAN: Standing at this wall , I felt very strongly that beyond the wall was life. And inside the wall, where I was, on this side, was death. And I never forgot that. And I knew it was death, feeling incarcerated because of it.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Lilian Boraks-Nemetz, a writer and poet, lives in Vancouver, Canada. Her little sister was shot dead in the ghetto. Her parents survived.

LILIAN: And I’m digging my nails into my mother’s flesh, and I’m asking, “Mamusiu, where are we going?” And she says, “Don’t worry. I won’t leave you alone.”

And we start marching. And we walk and we walk, and I keep on crying and asking my mother, “Where are we going?” And then people are saying things. And I hate the way the people are. They smell.

I see stars of David. I see German soldiers running alongside. And somebody starts shrieking and screaming, and somebody shoots. And my mother and I fall back. I’m still digging into her flesh. And suddenly, there are arms around us. And we are passing by a gate and we are thrown in and we are told to very quietly and not say a word. It was my father. And the line goes to Umschlagsplatz— Umschlagsplatz without us. And we were there— we were maybe a block, two away from it.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [on camera] And that was your father.

LILIAN: That was my father. He always saved us.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Why— how did he do it?

LILIAN: He saw— he told me later he saw the opportunity. He said in this chaos, they wouldn’t notice us. And he just put his arm around me, my mother, who was holding my sister, and threw us into that gate.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Was he a Jewish policeman?

LILIAN: He was working as a guard at shuls first, and then he became— he was guarding. He was asked to help with the deportations. You know, he hated it, but it’s a complicated matter.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Why?

LILIAN: Because he hated doing what he was doing, but he did it because to survive in that insane jungle, he told me, “You had to become an animal yourself.”

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] My earliest memory begins in a horse carriage. In 1942, when the massive deportation of Jewish children from the ghetto to the death camps started, my parents hatched a plan.

My guide is a family friend, a Christian. She covers my mouth as I sob and scream, “I want to go back.” A street blackmailer stops the carriage. He could turn us over to the Germans. He gets my grandfather’s gold watch. For now, I’m free.

My guide places me in different apartments on the Christian side of Warsaw. She has a small sack of gold teeth inherited from my dentist grandfather. One tooth is worth perhaps a few nights of what might be called a bed and breakfast for Jews in hiding.

Playing with other kids in the courtyard, I pretend I am part of the landlord’s family until a neighbor says, “I don’t know anybody in their family looking like him,” and I must disappear.

When the money dried up, my mother escaped the ghetto and joined me on the Christian side. My father stayed behind. We spent days in Warsaw churches, then slept in basements, attics and behind fake walls. My mother had blue eyes and didn’t look Jewish. But I did.

She realized the two of us together could not survive, and she did not want to survive alone. When all doors had shut, we took the elevator to the top floor of an elegant Warsaw apartment building. She decided to jump and take me with her. She opened the window. But she couldn’t do it.

She brought me to this courtyard belonging to a Christian charity. She hung a sign around my neck, “My name is Marys, my parents are dead.” She gave me my favorite sugar sandwich and watched me from across the street, fearing I would run after her. I didn’t. I stood still.

I was supposed to be found by a charity worker my mother knew. But instead, a drunk man approached me and took me to his basement. He was the building’s janitor, living in poverty with five children, and he wanted me as his sixth. The charity worker called my mother and told her that I was nowhere to be found. Her plan was ruined. She lost me.

Eleven-year-old Celina Jaffe was still in the ghetto. The only one from her family who survived, she lives in Los Angeles.

CELINA: The people were all over. They were running away, and the soldiers were running with guns, and shooting and screaming at them. And they were just running from every side. And I was completely petrified.

I walked into one little side of the house and I hide. And while I was hiding there, the soldier came and grabbed me and he pulled me against the wall. After he put me against the wall, I was petrified. And I was totally in one big fear. He came to me with the gun in his hand, and he just put the hand towards me and he says to me, “Put your hands up in the air!”

I said, “What are you doing to me? What do you want?” He says, “Stop talking. Just listen. Just put your hands up in the air!” And I said, “What are you doing with the gun? What are you trying to do with me? I’m just a little girl. What do you want from me?”

“Hold your mouth. Don’t talk. Shut up! Don’t say anything!” “Please, please, I want to live! I’m a child. I’m a young little girl. Don’t do it to me! Don’t kill me! I want to live. Please, please, please, have mercy on me. If you kill me and I will be dead, you’ll never forget my face. You will always remember that you killed the little girl, an innocent little girl!”

And he said, “Shut up. Just run. Don’t talk, run!” I was petrified. “Run, run, run, run, run, run, run!”

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Celina was taken out of the ghetto to the Christian side by a stranger, a woman who smuggled goods through the wall.

CELINA: “Run, run, run, run!”

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: For weeks, the janitor was asking me about my family. At one point, I revealed the address of a Christian friend of my father.

This film was taken 30 years ago, when Krysia was still alive.

Krysia!

[through interpreter]

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Was I a good kid?

KRYSIA: You were an intelligent child. You had an amazing memory. You were able to find streets, buildings without knowing their names and numbers and always recognized people. And now you are a filmmaker. That’s wonderful. Your father would have been very proud of you.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: What was he like, my father?

KRYSIA: He had a great sense of humor. He loved flowers and candies.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] In this room, my mother and I were baptized by a priest brought in by Krysia’s mother. We were given Christian birth certificates. “Now you are not Jews anymore,” she told us.

KRYSIA: [subtitles] Do you still love Poland, or you forgot her?

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [subtitles] Why is one always under suspicion of not loving Poland? Do you know who you can love? You can love Krysia, Basia, Zosia, Mother. What is Poland? Tell me, who mostly talks about it? Nationalist governments, to impose their power over people. I love people.

KRYSIA: [subtitles] How wonderful your mother is alive.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] The balcony I loved to play on, until a man walking on the street looked up and called me a Jew. I started to sob and scream, “I am a Jew! Come here and take me!” The next day, an anonymous letter arrived. Unless my mother and I leave immediately, the Gestapo will be notified.

Once again, I had to separate from my mother. Krysia brought me here, to the apartment of a Polish priest, Jozef Kaminski. This elegant part of Warsaw was largely occupied by German dignitaries. The priest looked at my Christian birth certificate and agreed to take me in. Eventually, he learned that I was Jewish, but he let me stay.

I would look through these windows and watch the German officers walking by. I imagined myself a holy man. I made the sign of the cross with my hands and blessed the evil-doers down below.

The priest arranged for my stay at a Catholic orphanage 20 miles from Warsaw run by the Italian order of Brothers Orione. There were 45 orphans there. I was the youngest. Only the brother superior knew who I really was.

When German police came to the orphanage looking for Jewish children, he would hide me behind the altar. At 6, I had my holy communion and became the most dedicated altar boy, a favorite of the priests. During the evening mass, I would sometimes fall asleep at the altar. A brother would pick me up and carry me to my bed.

When I filmed here 30 years ago, one sister was still alive.

[through interpreter]

Do you remember me, sister?

SISTER: You look a little different. I don’t remember your name.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: It’s Marys.

SISTER: Oh, Marys! The youngest of all the children, very small boy.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: And I remember you as a sister who always gave me sugar.

[voice-over] I spent two-and-a-half years at the orphanage. When we saw the heavy smoke over the Warsaw ghetto, I overheard the words, “The Jews are burning.” Was my father still there?

In the ghetto, I wanted to be a fireman when I grew up. Here my only dream was to become a priest. I was fascinated by the power of religion. God was the most powerful man that was. I saw him as someone with enormous shoes on the ground and his head high in the clouds.

The priest was second in command. I wanted his power of making miracles. Whenever I touched his robe in the sacristy, smelled the incense or rang the bells, I was closer to my miracle of survival.

I would sweat while taking the communion, afraid of biting it. Does God know who I am? Am I entitled to his body?

Then the war was over. I was sitting in the dining room at the table. A woman came from the entrance. An old woman with sunken cheeks was looking at me. “Marys!” she said. “We can’t speak,” I told her. “We have meditations now.” “I am your mother,” she said. “I don’t know you, ma’am.” “I am your mother. Don’t you remember your aunt and uncles?” “No, I don’t remember you.” “I would like to take you to Warsaw.” “Do you have enough money to take care of me? I am OK here,” I said. She cried.

Back in Warsaw, I asked her to take me to a big church so I could serve the mass. The altar was high above my head. While serving the priest wine and water, I dropped one of the sacraments. At that moment, I understood. I had been discovered. God didn’t want me anymore.

Most of the survivors left Poland just after the war. Mother decided we should stay where our family graves were, and for 24 years, we did.

When I lived in Poland, “Jew” was a stigma, a dirty word. A scene like this would have been unthinkable. In today’s Polish democracy, young Poles dance to Jewish tunes on the streets of the former Krakow ghetto.

From here, thousands of Jews were rounded up and loaded onto cattle cars for Auschwitz as their Polish neighbors watched on. The annual Krakow Jewish Festival is a way of ritualizing a troubled history, perhaps a form of atonement.

In Krakow, I meet Ed Herman, an economist, and his wife, Halina, a psychologist. Both are Holocaust child survivors. Neither of them has been back since the war ended.

As a 6-year-old boy, Ed lived in Katowice, an industrial city in southern Poland.

ED: You see? There was a courtyard. And the car would sometimes be right here. That’s my mother. That’s my dad. That’s the picture you have. That’s my dad. And we had a driver. And that’s in Katowice somewhere, walking in a park.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: So that’s prince Edward.

ED: Prince Edward, that’s right.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: And the king and the mother.

ED: And men were swarming around her like flies. And my father was just constantly— he was extremely jealous. And he threatened if she doesn’t marry him that he will commit suicide. I will tell you, she was the real hero during the World War II.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] When the war started, Katowice was inundated with Germans, forcing Ed and his family to flee. His father went to hide in eastern Poland. His mother brought Ed to Krakow.

ED: We lived in Krakow. And my mother expected the police to come. And she didn’t want me in the house, so she gave me a salami and some money and said, “Be away for the whole day and don’t come home until the evening.”

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: He rode the trams all day, every day.

ED: One thing which was against me is my circumcision. The other thing that was against me is that most of the Polish kids were fair. They were blond. They had blue eyes. I was dark. So I went to the barber and asked him to cut my hair. And unfortunately, I looked more Jewish without hair than with hair.

From time to time, I would be thinking about my mother and very concerned, what happens if I come home and she’s not there? What would I do with myself?

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: Desperate to save her son, Ed’s mother made a decision as difficult as the one my mother made. She brought him to this Polish-Slovak border and arranged for the 10-year old boy to cross the mountains.

ED: When we parted, I wasn’t sure whether I would ever see her again. For her, it must have been a very difficult moment. It’s like Moses’ mother letting him go to save his life. I had to get out from Poland. It was just too dangerous. And the only thing I had was— was— [weeps] I had nothing! I didn’t know the language. I didn’t know anyone!

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: He ended up as a homeless child in Budapest, Hungary, before finally being taken in by an orphanage.

Halina Kramarz’s memory is even more fragile than mine. She was born the year the war broke out in the family of a Jewish doctor in the small town of Starachowice in western Poland. She knows she was born on Pilsudski Street, number 27.

When the local ghetto was created, Halina and her mother fled to Krakow to hide with the Christians. Her father stayed behind and became a physician at the local steel factory turned into a German labor camp.

The owner invited us in. She lived next door to Halina’s family.

HALINA: This could have been— this could have been the waiting room.

OWNER: [subtitles] So tell me, what is this film about?

[subtitles] He was handsome and gifted, had lots of patients. Didn’t have many enemies. They lived quietly. And you were so cute, a little dark-haired girl. I remember you. My niece would play with you. She was also born in 1939.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] She says she has a book with the records of all past tenants.

OWNER: Kramarz— Jakub!

HALINA: Pasalaja. Pasalaja, my mama.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [on camera] Jakub Kramarz, medical doctor, born 1906, religion Jewish. He was taken out of this apartment by the German authorities, and it’s stamped April 1941.

OWNER: [subtitles] Here is the German stamp.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] Halina’s father died in an overcrowded cattle car on its way to the death camp.

HALINA: I’m sure they’d be proud, but proud of me and of my family and my dear husband and—

ED: I think your parents are with you right here.

HALINA: I hope so. I am really excited to be here and— I don’t know, I kind of felt like an orphan up to now, I guess. But I do have roots, so these are my roots. It’s really nice to see this, that something like that really exists, number 27 on Ulica Pilsudskiego.

[pointing to photograph] I’m here. I’m right here. I’m always the smallest, probably because I was undernourished. You know, my big dream was after the war, I would have a roll and butter someday.

So my mother sat me down and said, “You’re not going to church today.” I said, “What? I am not going to church?’ It’s— as you know, it’s a sin. It’s a sacrilege.” She says, “Well, the reason you’re not going is because you’re actually Jewish. Plus, we’re going away tomorrow. We’re leaving the country.”

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: So now I am Halinka, and I say, “Mamusiu, co to znaczy Jewish? What does Jewish mean?” Did you ask this?

HALINA: Well, I knew what Jewish was because when I was in Czernichow and I was very young, I used to tell my mother stories about the old Jews that had peyot and they were rocking and saying, “Oy, veh.” My mother had to listen to all this. And I said, “Oh”— you know, it’s all the little gossip stories about them that I’ve heard in the village. So I knew what Jewish was. I knew it wasn’t good. I know one thing.

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: So it was bad news?

HALINA: It was bad news, absolutely. I said, “No! Me Jewish? I can’t be because you’re not Jewish.” She said, “Actually, I’m Jewish, too.” I said, “Impossible.” I said, “Well, maybe your mother wasn’t Jewish?” She says, “She was, too.”

Well, this was really stunning, stunning, absolutely stunning. I said to my mother, you know, “I have nothing personally against Jews, but I don’t want to be one.”

MARIAN MARZYNSKI: [voice-over] Ed is my distant cousin. I learned about him only 40 years after the war. But in this car, we are becoming a close family. Ed’s grandfather lived in the Warsaw Ghetto and was brought here, to the gas chambers of Treblinka.

My father was also sent to Treblinka. Only after the war, my mother told me what happened to him. He was able to take some tools with him from the ghetto and managed to cut a hole in the train’s floor. When the train slowed down, he and other men jumped out and disappeared into the forest.

This could be the spot he jumped. I have always known the location of this forest but I never had the strength to enter it.

He contacted a railroad switchman, who sent a postcard to my mother. Mother came and found him. During her visit, my father gave her his watch and asked her to keep it for me, if I survived.

As her train was leaving, she heard gunshots. She came a week later and found out that he and his companions had all been killed. He is somewhere here.

[on camera] That’s the father who saved my life because he decided not to circumcise me because in 1937, he some way knew there would be a Holocaust. And it was totally unheard among Jews that the young boy would not be circumcised, but he didn’t circumcise me because he didn’t want me to have a sign and prove that I am Jewish. And so this is just as simple as this. This is how I am alive, because of his ideas and my mother’s care.

And I have the watch. He wanted me to wear this watch. I didn’t wear this watch ever. It is the first time in my life that I’m even showing it to anybody because I don’t— I didn’t want to remember.

[voice-over] Dear father, I want you to know what happened to me after you died. In Poland, I became a filmmaker and a television personality. Millions of Poles watched me. But when I was 32, I learned that I wasn’t Polish enough.

November 1969. We are packing our belongings. My wife is making a last phone call to a friend. The first secretary of the Communist Party said that the 25,000 Jews remaining in Poland must now condemn a Zionist conspiracy. At first, we laughed. But then we saw the purge coming. Television was staging antisemitic media events. Thousands of innocent people were losing their jobs.

Using the first secretary’s words, we declared ourselves “bad Polish citizens.” My mother, my stepfather, my Catholic wife, me and our 2-year old boy leave the country to became “agents of Western imperialism” and to spy against Poland.

Mother lived with us in America until she died at 82. Grazyna and I have been married for 50 years. Dear father, you have two grandchildren. Bartek is now 45, Anya 38.

People often ask me if I am religious. A son of secular Jews, I was raised Catholic but abandoned God after the war. My mother used to say that during the Holocaust, God was taking a long nap, and I agreed. So I call my religion survival.

Escapes and travels are my life’s refrains. I am leaving the ghetto again, but this time I am going home.

The last eyewitnesses of the Holocaust, we were drawn to this nonexistent world in search of its physical remnants. We brought with us pieces of our fragile memories, sometimes out of focus, afraid that after us, they will be erased.

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