Seth Krammer of Jersey City didn’t know exactly what to expect when he was hired by Great Projects Film Company to direct a documentary of the Jewish resistance in World War II. He had grown up learning about Jewish history, and had even heard some talk about resistance, but such tales had largely been left out of lessons on the war.
“Great Projects had a team that did all of the initial research,” Krammer said of the film that is scheduled to show on March 24 as part of the Legacy Film Festival in the 34th Street campus of CUNY. “This isn’t the kind of information that you can get from the library or the phone book. It had to be compiled. It took a lot of legwork to make this film possible.”
For over a half a century, many Eastern European Jews stayed silent about their role during the Nazi-take over. This helped foster the misperception that Jews put up no resistance to the slaughter that swept through country after country, destroying not only individual people, but nearly a whole culture.
“Even we knew very little about it,” said Ken Mandel, one of the producers of the film.
Oddly enough, the first clue to this larger-than-expected movement came as the result of an obituary in the New York Times.
“Our executive director, David Garth, saw it, and he say it was an amazing story and would make a great project for us,” Mandel said. “We thought we knew a lot about the holocaust.”
The New York Times obituary told the story of three Bielski brothers, part of a family of 12 children who grew up in Stankiewicze, which at various times was part of Poland, Byelorussia, the Soviet Union and now Belarus. When they saw the invading Nazis, the Jewish brothers took up guns and hid themselves in a nearby forest. As the Nazi began to slaughter local Jews, these three brothers began to fight back, attacking Nazis and getting revenge on those collaborating with the enemy. Determining that fighting was not enough, the three brothers decided to begin rescuing women, children, the disabled and the ill.
Over time, this group began to resemble the legend of England’s Robin Hood, their bandit community complete with a hospital, workshops, a school and even a bathhouse. When the Russians drove out the Germans, Tuvia Bielski and his two brothers Zus and Asael came out of hiding after having rescued more than 1,200 people.
Asael died a little time later, and the other two brothers eventually came to America. Tuvia died in 1987 and Zus in 1995. Though their tale had been told in a 1993 book called The Bielski partisans (Oxford University Press), a scholarly work by a sociology professor at the University of Connecticut named Nechama Tec, most people remained ignorant of a movement that had taken place there as well as many other parts of Europe, tales of heroism to which most declined to take credit.
“When we saw the obituary and began to talk to people, we found that it was a story we had to tell,” Mandel said.
Mandel and the other members of Great Projects had already covered some Holocaust ground in doing research for the “The Trial of Adolph Eichmann,” a 1997 film done for Public Broadcasting System. “We thought the trial covered every aspect,” Mandel said. “But we didn’t know anything about this. We knew there was some resistance. In fact, there was some talk about it at the trial. But we had no idea that it was so widespread.”
Why they stayed silent
The Jewish partisans had stayed silent for numerous reasons. The choices people made in the war were never easy. While some chose to resist, others felt they could not. The Nazis tended to murder the families of those who resisted.
“The partisans didn’t want to come forward, didn’t want to put themselves above other people because of the choices they made,” Mandel said.
This was not a matter of right and wrong, but rather, people who were forced to choose between bad options.
Fifty years after the war ended, Mandel and others knew the story had to be told finally, and that there was only a limited amount of time left to tell it. The partisans of World War Two were growing old, and if Great Projects Film Company wanted to tell their story, the film company would have to track them down and convince them to talk.
Mandel and other staff members began to search out threads of a movement that had remained largely a mystery since the end of World War II.
Mandel and Krammer were no strangers to creating moving pieces for television. Great Productions had won one Emmy for previous work, had been nominated for others and had several Academy Award nominations. The film and video company – founded by Mandel and Daniel B. Polin – had previously produced television programming that explored subjects of historical, technological, and cultural significance.
Previous work had provided them with contacts such as Miles Lerman, who was then the direct of the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. When the filmmakers called him up for their new project, he revealed that he had been a partisan himself. “He had set up a center at the museum for the study of the resistance,” Mandel said. “It was tailor made for us.”
Through that contact, the film company staff contacted scholars who helped follow the human links that led to the unsung heroes of the Jewish partisans’ movement.
“We would get a detail here and there, always hearing stories about something else,” Krammer said.
While some people did not want to talk about the past, refusing the relive the horrors of that era, many agreed to talk on film. The film company sought to find a representative group of people that showed various aspects of the resistance movement throughout eastern Europe.
“All of them were young, most of them were teenagers,” Mandel said. “A couple of them had military experience. Now all of them are old, and most were willing to tell us what it was like. We wove their stories into a group memoir.”
The stories cover resistance movements in what are now Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, Ukraine and Russia.
Krammer said the film manages to capture the landscape where the Jewish fought and the imagery of countryside, yet he was disturbed by how little the ghettos of today have changed, partly due to the fact that many of these places were subjected to Communist rule after World War II.
“They are like time capsules,” he said. “And they added an emotional level to making the production. I was shocked to see Jewish tombstones used as building materials.”
This film, Mandel said, deals with universal issues and the struggle to make sense out of that time.
“These people are always wondering about what they did and how they acted,” Mandel said. “At a certain point, they had to push that out of their minds. But it is always there, and watching this film, you see that unreel before you. It is still a moving experience, and these stories never lose their power.”
No one knows the true number of partisans, Mandel said, nor how many lived or died, though a large number did not survive the war. Yet the impression the stories convey is that the partisans were glad they fought back.
“All the people we talked to on one hand have led productive lives,” Mandel said. “They have children and grandchildren galore. But all of them know they have paid a price.”
The film will be showed on March 24 at the Graduate Center of CUNY at 8:30 p.m. 365 Fifth Avenue, near 34th Street in Manhattan. For more information call Great Project as (212-581-1700).