For the 3rd time in less than a year, I am off to Europe to continue filming “Forget Us Not” a documentary about the lesser known groups targeted by the Nazis during WWII. In addition to hauling an entire suitcase full of Victoria Secret and Ugg boots for my sister in law Anna in Munich, I’m also hauling my cameraman Art and my still photographer Theresa. The check in dude is looking dubiously at the amount of bags we have to check. There are a lot of them and they are all heavy. A fact I know well after having them all topple off the luggage cart one minute after I started pushing it towards the terminal. Too bad there isn’t money in my budget for a Sherpa.
In short order, we are all tromping on the 747 Boeing plane. “This is the exact type of plane that plunged into the ocean during the Air France crash” Art helpfully informs me. Theresa is wistfully looking up towards to 2nd story of the plane where we imagine the 1st class has their own bar and a personal butler named Fritz. The plane is huge and has 56 rows in the lower level. Theresa and I are in the last two seats in row 56 right next to the bathroom, which is great for small bladders but sucks for light sleepers. In order to pass the 11 hours in the air, Theresa and I play the world’s longest game of Scrabble on my Ipad. She gleefully holds the letter Q so she can spell Iraq the whole damn game waiting for a chance to double or triple word it and then discovers on her 2nd to last turn there is no using proper names in Scrabble. She’s duly upset but there is no crying in Scrabble either.
We land in Frankfurt with only 40 minutes to get from C terminal to A terminal and spend 39 of it just getting off the plane from row 56. Thankfully the connecting flight is slightly delayed and we all hustle to try and make the flight. While LAX couldn’t be bothered with any in depth security, the Germans screen you to death. We have to go through both customs and another round of x-ray to get to our gate. Art gets flagged at customs and Theresa then gets pulled from the security line. I guess I just look too sweet and non threatening. Theresa is being quizzed by a security guy as I approach and he rummages in her bag and comes up with a flask. When Theresa and I were in Poland, we kept a little flask of vodka handy for a much needed shot after long weeks in 13 concentration camps. The security guy gives Theresa a look that suggests she is trying to sneak through a little liquid contraband and she assures him it is empty. To prove her point, she uncaps it and tips it over forgetting she has some residual water inside. You know what looks just like water? Vodka.
Thanks to the delay, we make it to our gate with some time to spare. Art uses that time to be helpful again. “That is the exact type of plane that crashed into the Hudson.” announces Mr. Airplane Crash Wikipedia. Can’t wait to hear his stories about the Autobahn.
Finally we arrive in Berlin and quickly discover the sleek Mercedes sedan I rented is not going fit all of our gear. We wind up with the not so sleek Renault Kangaroo which is big, boxy and has absolutely no pickup or side airbags which is a delightful prospect for the Autobahn. Thankfully, Art has no dire stories about death by Kangaroo.
Exhausted from travel, we wearily make our way to our hotel and discover the underground parking is a cross between a rat’s maze and an insane asylum. The corridors are so narrow the Kangaroo barely fits through and Theresa has to make a 20 point turn to maneuver into a parking space. She accomplishes this with a lot of swearing while our uppity GPS Natalia tells us in a haughty British accent she is ‘recalculating.’
We forgo unpacking the gear in favor of fitting in a nap before we are due to meet Klauss Stanjek for dinner. Klauss’s uncle Wilhelm, a successful musician from Berlin was arrested for being gay and spent years in both the Dachau and Mauthassen concentration camps. The restaurant is in Potsdam, about 30 minutes away but we don’t count on the fact that it takes us 45 minutes to find our way out of the parking garage again. Theresa is cussing as she makes another 20 point turn and Art and I puzzle over how to open a random metal gate that is inexplicitly placed 2 levels down and seems to serve no purpose other than to stupefy us. We finally figure out to get out we have to go down another level and then come back up. Three pieces of cheese for the rats in the maze.
Dinner with Klaus is lovely and the three of us do our best not to drool with exhaustion. It about kills me to be in a fabulous little French restaurant and not have a glass of wine, but I figure it would be rude to topple over at the table into my rabbit loin and garlic risotto.
After a much needed night’s sleep, we are ready to tackle our first day of filming. But before we head to Bergen Belsen, we each need a few things to get through the day. Art makes off with all the free cookies in his room, I sally forth to find an ATM and Theresa asks a hotel employee if she can get some vodka for her flask at 8 in the morning. We’re going to need to remember to empty that sucker out before we go back through airport security. I don’t have much luck at the ATM since a homeless guy has taken up residence inside the booth and locked it from the inside while he sleeps. I guess if Art and Theresa get peckish on the road trip, they can eat Art’s cookies and drink Theresa’s vodka. Who says I don’t provide great craft services on my shoots?
It’s raining when we arrive at the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. The gloominess is fitting for our subject matter. Ceija Stojka, my Roma survivor, was liberated from this camp at the end of the war. Although the evidence of the horror that happened here has long given way to nature and memorials, in my mind’s eye I still hear her words describing the long pile of bodies she buried herself in trying to stay warm after being marched to the camp for 2 days through the woods with no shoes in the winter. Our discomfort with walking through those same woods now in the rain seems insignificant in comparison.
We film the area where the gypsy barracks used to stand. Fittingly, the sound of mortars and automatic gun fire from the military training groups nearby can be hear in the background. The day she was liberated, those same sounds exploded through the air as the British Allied Troops broken down the walls and set free a 13 year old gypsy girl standing next to a pile of bodies.
66 years after Ceija walked through these gates to freedom, I stand where her barracks used to be. Growing from this ground of ashes, tears and blood is a patch of purple flowers.
The long rain is over.