Before I Was Anybody, I Was A Child Survivor of the Holocaust

February 4, 2013

In addition to Never Forget to Lie, Marian Marzynski has made a number of films for FRONTLINE, including Shtetl and A Jew Among the Germans.

In Never Forget to Lie, Emmy-award-winning filmmaker and director Marian Marzynski journeys back to Poland to explore the story of his childhood and those of other Jewish child survivors of the Holocaust, teasing out their feelings about Poland, the Catholic Church, and the long-term ramifications of hiding their true identities.

FRONTLINE, which will air the film on May 14, 2013, sat down with Marzynski to discuss why he made the film, the emotional pain it wrought and what viewers can learn from the last remaining witnesses of the Holocaust.

You’ve made a number of films related to the Holocaust and to Jewish identity in the past, including the 1996 FRONTLINE film Shtetl, but this is a different, deeply personal story. What made you want to return to the Warsaw ghetto and make this film now?

Age, first of all. Perspective.

“Before I was anybody, I was a child survivor of the Holocaust.”

… The World [Federation] of Jewish Child Survivors [of the Holocaust], which [has been meeting] for 21 years, each year in a different city, had always resisted the idea of [holding the] conference in Warsaw because they were afraid that the trauma, the psychological effect of being [back] where all of this happened, would be too much for them in their old age.

But then, as this organization was becoming [made up by] the second generation of survivors more than first generation, they went to Warsaw. … [I thought], what if I bring the other children of Warsaw ghetto Holocaust, who are by large older than me and remember more? With their help, we went there.

And as I was filming them, I was not telling my [personal] story. I was thinking about my story, and I was filming them and filming them and filming them. They left Warsaw, and I said, “Now’s my time.” …

I guess that those other survivors, those other kids, gradually convinced me that I must add my story. They made me more comfortable with it because they already did it. It’s like a bunch of kids go swimming and one is afraid, but the others jump. Then you jump.

What made you and these other child survivors willing to take that painful plunge now, at this age, after so long?

As long as we are active in our professional life, coming [back] to the childhood trauma does not suit you well or sometimes even people living around you. … We try to be cool, especially when we have no reason to be miserable. A lot of us simply don’t share things that happened 56 years ago because we have plenty of other things [today].

But for all my characters, when they reach 75, 80, they start to have dreams about it. At that point, it doesn’t matter because you no longer have a public to talk [to]. You’re by yourself. And who do you now tell your story to? You need to tell it to somebody because now it’s not threatening to you. …

In reality, our memory is very little, because our parents are gone, and because we are the last witnesses. In the next five years, the amount of eyewitnesses of the Holocaust will be reduced to almost nothing, especially among the able-bodied people who will be able to talk. …

I needed a way to tell my story. For the [other survivors], it was simple. They had a need to tell their story. …

[Survivors] are usually educated and smart, [and] the world wants to make us the ambassadors and witnesses of the entire Holocaust — not just of our own childhood. That, in my opinion, leads to a certain abuse of us, but people want that. I kept telling them, “I know that you can talk forever about the Holocaust and even about your own family circumstances, but 95 percent of what you’ll be telling me will be either second-hand witness or the books that you read, or other films. I don’t want that. [I want the] 5 percent, or even the 3 percent. …

The film has very intimate scenes in which survivors return to a particular place in the ghetto and recall in detail experiences there that are highly emotionally charged. In one scene, a woman returns to the wall where a soldier held her a gunpoint, and it really seems to take a very painful toll on her. In situations like that, how did you interact with survivors as they relived their pain? Did you help them?

Just by touching them. I did not have any other director who would be able to pull it out, for a very simple reason: Any other director would be continuously trying to help them. Whenever they are emotional, [another director] will try to diffuse the emotion by making them comfortable, like we do normally when somebody started to cry.

I don’t have to do much because they felt secure with me. Because I was one of them,

This film is really about pretending to be what you’re not. As a child, you lived life on the run, first, in the Warsaw ghetto, and later in the Christian community. What was it like to immerse yourself in these communities where you didn’t belong?

I was a child actor. It was acting. It was just taking an assignment, finding the role, and becoming the good of it. And believe me I did my best [pretending to be] an orphan. I was the best at it. The best as an altar boy. The quickest to learn Latin.

The question people ask me is how much is fun and how much and how much was a deep — I would say I was a sad child by doing those things. Because I was still the orphan; I was left by my parents. I was with total strangers, they were overwhelming me with their power.

I knew at five that I was Jewish, that I was not to admit the word. Did I know what Jew means? No. But I knew that they know what Jew means. I know that for admitting that I’m Jewish I would be killed. Period.

Then, immediately, I was plunged into a religion that occupied me and provided me with security because I was with people who were active. See, during the war, when people were dying, the Catholic Church functioned like there was no war. People were dressing up, they were going to church, they were singing the songs. They were connected to their God. So I played this game. It was oppressive, of course, but at the same time it made me busy. …

How painful was it for you to tell that story, to go back into that world?

… Usually [when] a survivor or anybody that has any tragic past is filmed by another person, [that other person is also] his or her angel or guide or soothing him. Who will help me emotionally? Nobody. Because I’m a director at the same time and I have a story. But who is the one who will say: “Rest now. Tell me this. Tell me that.” [I had] nobody. …

I’m still doing the same as [I was] during shooting. I’ll probably never be free from it. Editing it, showing it. It’s the same thing. I actually preferred to film it because I was distracted by work, logistics. My way of balancing hard emotions was to get to work. Now that the film is done and I have to watch it, which I have done, and people react to it, all of the things come back in a bigger way than I thought ever would because people try to provoke me. I sometimes have a hard time.

I understand the interest and I understand the education tool, but sometimes my dilemma is this: I made a film and that’s it. But then I am showing up at this film and they see in the flesh that I am me. And of course they know that there many, many situations or interpretations, or whatever, that are not in the film, and they ask me those questions and that is tiring. Very much.

I try to go to [digress into] filmmaking, saying, “Listen, this only a film.” Because if I would let the audience lead me into their emotion after the film and add my emotion, we all would start to cry. But I know about how to handle. It’s like any other stories we are telling: there are emotional parts and there are less emotional parts. So you try to keep sanity.

You have a long history as a journalist and a filmmaker, both in Poland and in the United States. What drew you to filmmaking?

Before I was anybody, I was a child survivor of the Holocaust. I was made aware by my mother very well that I should not be around. … I soon realized that I have a story suppressed that’s not told. I was a lifelong student of the story of the Jews and how did they survive, [but] I knew that that’s not the story that I can make living of or that the censorship [in Poland] would allow. [So I thought] because I cannot tell this story, perhaps I should tell a story. Therefore I became a storyteller before I even became a journalist. I had to tell others’ stories.

I studied journalism, which was very politicized at Warsaw University and does not have really big value. …  [But] I would read the newspaper and see the realities. I taught myself in a sense. But then someone discovered my voice, and I became a radio reporter. When you are a radio reporter you are less dependent on censorship because it’s not written. It’s sometimes spontaneous. You interview people on the street. …

I was at the age of 19 a radio and news talk show host and at the age of 23 I had my own television show. I became the host, a personality, somebody that was considered 100 percent Polish because I have an audience of millions of people. So my hideout as a Jew continued [publicly], although in the house we were talking the whole time about [it]. …

I went from medium to medium to filmmaking and started to make documentaries, a lot of them. …

You stayed in Poland for 32 years, remaining even after the country virtually became a cemetery for Jews. But in 1969, you decided to leave as a political refugee. What happened?

In 1969, the communist system started to collapse because the economy was horrible. And then the question was who [was] to blame for the failure? Because minorities are very often the scapegoats, and because some of the Jews before the war were actively left-wing, were communists, they were instrumental in bringing the new political regime. And the country still had anti-Semitism. …

When Israel won the 7-day war in 1967 and the Soviet tanks were found in the desert, the young people in Poland — and all of them young Jews — celebrated. And that infuriated the party, because of course Poland was with the Soviet Union. And Israel defeated not only Egypt but also the Soviet bloc.

And so then the Jews started to feel proud and for the first time were going out and saying: “Yes, we are Jews. We just won against those Soviets’ tanks.” … The party took it as a completely invented theory that there is in Poland an emergence of the conspiracy, of Zionist conspiracy, against the Socialists. …

And at that point people inside television media and the secret police start to whisper [about me], “That’s him, he’s Jewish.” And of course it was out of question for me to make any declaration of a loyalty. … I never joined the party. I always was known for being very critical and somewhat kept in television, and so I made the decision that this is the end of my hiding, that my war is over. … I ended up in Denmark and I became a television producer. I got a contract to start a filmmaking department with the Rhode Island School of Design and came in 1972 here.

How do you identify yourself today?

If I were not a childhood survivor I would probably have a hard time maintaining my Jewishness. But my Jewishness has always been strong because I am a “Holocaust Jew,” and a Holocaust Jew is a kind of religious or mystical experience. Because this is the idea of understanding that a Jew is the one that is supposed to be killed, and I was not killed. That’s enough to have identity. Of course I identify from those and, by the way, most of the Holocaust survivors ended up not being religious, had they ever been, because of huge doubt. The very religious Jews during the Holocaust are gone. Jews of [Warsaw], about 20,000 survived. I am one of them. What a ridiculous percentage.

What do you want viewers who watch this film to take away from it?

I want the viewer, first of all, who has behind him or her a childhood trauma, to get relief from it. That you can make peace with yourself. … Not only to Jewish viewers. Trauma is very universal because of mistreatment, because of anger, because of other wars than this one, or disintegrated family. You leave with it, you take it with you.

To give you an example, I met a woman who was Vietnamese, 53-years-old, who owns several Vietnamese restaurants. At the age of three in Saigon, her house was bombarded and she lost instantly her entire family. She was a wandering child at the age of three, and at the age of five she was on the boat and came here. This is a film for her. Nothing to do with Jews, nothing to do with World War II.

I also would like to enforce the understanding of the specific drama, which is the Holocaust. That it’s also a tragedy of one kind of people being killed by others, which has a kind of this sociological dimension and political dimension.

But also, I would like to bring people the idea that survival should teach you a lesson about humanity. The power of survival should be contagious. I would like to spread the power of surviving and empower other people.

You should not give up. [Not because] religion is telling you that you should [or] because God is watching you. I am saying you are your own God and you can own power. You can empower yourself on your own terms and still be a winner.

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