Forget Us Not will be premiering at the Rhode Island International Film Festival on August 7th. Please visit our Facebook page for more details and additional screenings/information.
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.
The waitress at the beer garden in Munich where Theresa and I have just had lunch clears her plate with a baffled expression and mutters in German under her breath. Luckily, my brother Ludwig is happy to translate for the etiquette breeching foreigners. Apparently, Theresa has sweet mustard on her plate (which she was dipping her pretzel in) too close to her main course of the salad and goat cheese and the cheese and mustard had mixed together on the plate.
“Mustard and Cheese – THAT’s a first.” The waitress had observed in German before moving away to assist more Bavarian oriented customers.
Theresa and I had been enjoying a few days off from the steady stream of concentration camps and meetings. As of yesterday, we had driven over 2000 kilometers through Poland, Germany a
nd Austria aided by a temperamental GPS who seems incapable of guiding us to any hotel that does not involve obscure one way side streets and construction obstacles. In Dresden, Munich and Vienna, we had taken to simply parking the car and taking a taxi to avoid both the “Recalculating” and the swearing.
Our days as a tourist in Dresden and Munich come to an end with our arrival at Dachau and it is back to business as usual, if one can call spending time immersed in the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust business as usual. More than one friend has sent me an email saying “Have a good day at Auschwitz!” and then immediately realized the contradiction this work brings. We have a good day at Dachau though there are less historical sites intact than I originally thought, so our photography is limited to a few key areas. Since I spent a week here researching just two months ago, we focus entirely on the outdoor barracks and prison areas. At Dachau, the SS manage to combine cruelty and efficiency as evidenced by a sign in the crematorium, which hosts four large brick ovens.
“Hangings were conducted in this room from the beams in front of the ovens.”
That says it all.
Early Wednesday, after saying goodbye to my brother Ludwig and sister in law Anna, who spoiled us for our two days in Munich, Theresa and I set off on the last leg of the journey – Austria. First stop, Vienna. It is a long drive with an emotional evening ahead. I will be interviewing Ceija Stojka, a Roma (Gypsy) Holocaust survivor. To break up the over 4-hour drive, Theresa and I stop in Saltzburg for some Viennese pastries and schnapps. Apparently, my tasting schnapps at 11am in the oldest schnapps shop in the city is all it takes to finally break the local ice and one of the old men in there (and they started WELL before 11am) actually chats Theresa’s ear off, much to her delight. The old guy next to me doesn’t speak, but he gives me approving looks and smiles each time I sip a sample of the local brew.
We hit the road again. Theresa is happy because she got her apple strudel and I am happy because, well, I was drinking schnapps at 11am. Needless to say, Theresa is driving. We arrive in Vienna and congratulate ourselves on having an hour and a half before we are due to meet Ceija. Then our bitchy GPS takes us on a tour through the underside of every crane within 15 kilometers and a few round-abouts blocked with backhoes and horse drawn carriages. I am mindful of our time ticking away as we attempt to find parking. Our hotel is nicely situat
ed in the middle of the cobblestone square and the nearest parking is a couple blocks away. Now we are running, with our luggage, through the square and into the hotel, which boasts a rickety wood elevator operating on what appears to be an old belt system from 1940. Fantastic. We crammed in with our staircases and another man and it creaks its way slowly to the 4th floor. Theresa and I throw everything into the room, rip into our luggage and change as fast as possible. We grab our gear and hustle out the door to grab a cab. I try not to breathe on the way over to Ceija’s because the cab driver smells like HE has been drinking schnapps.
We get there with 10 minutes to spare and are met outside by Dr. Reiner Steinweg, a researcher for the Lintz Study Center For Peace. He is a friend of Ceija’s I met during my research and he has graciously agreed to act as translator for our interview. We head upstairs and I am filled with anticipation. The plight of the Roma and Sinti people strikes a personal chord with me and I am looking forward to meeting Ceija and hearing her story. A little dog greets us on the top of the 4th floor stairs and joyfully scampers in front of us showing the way. I enter the cozy apartment first and am greeted by Ceija, a tiny Roma woman in her late 70’s. Her face bears witness to both the sorrows and joys her life has seen. It also bears surprise. She thought I was going to be a guy. We’ve been exchanging emails and Heather is not a name common to the Romania people. She laughs and grasps my hands, chatting in German. We follow her into the main room stuffed with years of living. The walls are adorned with her paintings. Ceija started painting in 1989 with no formal training. But the images of both horror and beauty locked inside her could no longer be contained. She has become an artist of some renown with exhibits both in Europe and the United States. Her powerful images of life in the concentration camps leave one deeply moved. The recognition as an artist has not brought financial security however and Ceija lives a frugal life. I am drawn to one joyful painting of people in celebration dancing. She tells me it is a painting of the joy of the liberation from Bergin Belsen, the last camp she was held at.
She has prepared a traditional Roma meal for us. A spicy stewed beef and dumplings in a thin tomato sauce topped with soft-boiled egg slices and spicy pickles. Preparing food is both a tradition and a comfort for her and we are honored to be her guests. She tells me she is thankful that I want to tell her story and by extension, the stories of what happened to the Roma and Sinti people during the holocaust. But first, it is time to listen. Ceija steels herself with a cigarette and a quick kiss and embrace of her beloved dog. Then she settles in on the sofa and begins her story. For nearly four hours, Theresa and I are transfixed. I cannot possibly do justice to everything she said, but I want to share with you the some of the journey of a young gypsy girl and the strength of her mother as together they survived four concentration camps:
Ceija was 9 years old when the arrests of Roma first began. Her father moved her family to Vienna where a benevolent family helped to hide them. But her father was caught and arrested for being “work shy”, one of the reasons the SS gave for targeting Roma and Sinti. He was sent to Dachau and died there less than a year later. Shortly after his death, Ceija, her mother, her two sisters and her two brothers were all arrested and stuffed into a train bound for Auschwitz.
“The dead were stacked up in the corners and against the doors. For endless days, we stood. No food, no water. All the babies and pregnant women were dying.”
Ceija’s mother had sewn tiny bits of bread into the hem of her skirts in case of emergency. She was wearing 5 skirts on the journey, everything that she owned. They arrived at Auschwitz on a rainy afternoon.
“The door opened and the wall of dead and pregnant women fell out. People were trying to catch the rain drops in their mouth and were shot by the SS for not falling into line.”
Ceija’s mother saw that the younger children, the weak and elderly were being separated and taken away. She had trained Ceija and her younger brother to hide by walking under her skirts. They entered Auschwitz that way and her mother got her entire family to a work barracks rather than a gas chamber. Upon entering the barracks, everyone was tattooed. Ten-year-old Ceija received her Z and her number to mark her as a gypsy across her left forearm. Her mother lied and told the SS she was small for her age and was 16. They family worked the quarry. They grew weak from starvation and daily beatings. Her younger brother died of Typhus. One day, trucks arrived because fresh workers were needed at Ravensbruck concentration camp. Ceija, her mother and one of her sisters were taken and her two brothers and remaining sister were left behind. Another woman in their barracks was chosen to go to Ravensbruck, which was an all women’s camp, but she had a young son Ceija’s age.
“He was very beautiful in the face, so my mama and other woman disguised him as a girl, for years, they kept up this disguise.”
At Ravensbruck, winter set in. The women and girls were all without shoes or coats. The female guards were sadistic. Several had large, vicious dogs. At roll call in the morning, they would have the dogs randomly attack and kill prisoners. One guard in particular stood out for Ceija.
“Her name was Binz. She had a large dog she would have attack and kill. No warning. One day we were hanging sheets frozen in the cold and an old woman tripped. Binz stomped her head as she lay on the ground until her brains came out.”
Binz found out Ceija’s mother had been lying about Ceija’s age and planned to torture her by submerging her in icy water and leaving her outside. Another prisoner came running to the barracks to warn them. A truck from Bergin Belsen had arrived to transfer new workers. Ceija, her mother and sister raced for the trucks in a desperate attempt to escape Binz. Her sister reached the 1st truck and was taken away. They did not know where. Ceija and her mother got on the 2nd truck and were brought to the woods outside Bergin Belsen. Ceija was in despair at the separation from the last of her siblings. The SS guards forced them to walk 2 days through the woods to the Bergin Belsen camp. Ceija took a deep breath.
“It was here that the real misery began…”
“We finally arrived at the camp. There were two huge piles of dead bodies still warm. They had not been dead long. I touched them and felt their warmth. I asked their forgiveness and buried myself in the bodies to try and stay warm.”
11-year-old Ceija and the boy disguised as the girl spent the night buried together in the warmth of the newly deceased corpses. At Bergin, the prisoners were worked to death every day. Ceija’s mother kept them alive by having them eat dirt, little shoots of grass and leather belts from dead bodies. Other prisoners ate the dead, but little Ceija begged her mother to not ever make her eat the dead. They were her friends and those she did not know, she named with the names of her lost relatives. She would sneak to the dead body pile to close people’s eyes and mouths out of respect.
One day, an Allied plane flew overhead and dropped flyers. No one dared pick them up but a Russian woman who was forced to service the SS snuck one out of their headquarters hidden in her mouth. It said:
“We are coming. Try to survive.”
Ceija took a deep breath.
“Then, Binz arrived transferred from Ravensbruck…”
Ceija and her mother were sure they were dead with the arrival of this evil woman. One day, Ceija went to the pile of dead people to shut the eyes of a friend who had died.
“As I stood there, there was a loud BANG! The wall nearby me blew down. There were tanks. A young man stood there in an unfamiliar uniform. He came to me and said: I am your liberator!” The Austrian and British troops had arrived.
Ceija stopped to draw her hand across her neck.
“Binz was hung after the Nuremburg trials. It would have been better to leave her alive and forced to watch forever films that showed what she did to us.”
Freed from Bergin Belsen, Ceija’s mother rustled up a wheelbarrow, some blankets and food and wheeled Ceija 700 miles from Bergin to Linz, hoping to find any surviving children who might make their way there. For the Roma, Linz was a place once a year that extended family would come from all over. If there was a chance to find them, this was the best. And a miracle – nearly a year after being released, all five siblings found their way back and were reunited together with her mother. But they were Roma and poor and had no place to go but the streets once again. Ceija made little trinkets to sell. Nine years later, she had saved up enough to buy a small place to live. In 1989, a young Asian student asked her for something to remember her by after she had spoken to his class and she decided to paint a picture.
Today her art is a reflection of her past and present. Her hope and her despair. Her love for her mother and family and the nightmares she cannot shake.
I sit in my hotel with the painting of her mother, her sister and her two brothers dancing. She has put it in my hands with many kisses and a blessing.
Our Polish taxi driver rushes in a half an hour late to get us to the airport, apologizing profusely. His battery had died and he managed to get the car running again, but he didn’t dare shut it off so it was idling in the street. He’s a HUGE man and before we can say, “those are really heavy” he scoops up our bags and hustles out the door. We protest, but he simply shrugs and says “No problem, I have wife.”
He gets us to the airport in record time with the added bonus of a fascinating free running commentary on the history of the city. We pass a huge park where people are biking, flying kites and picnicking. Our guide tells us their favorite queen made it a law that this piece of land could never be developed – it must always be a park and a place for the people. It is a law that is literally written in stone. This queen ruled in the 15th century.
We are ready for the second leg of our trip, which takes us into the city of Berlin. From there we have several day trips planned to the concentration camps Ravensbruck and Sachenhaussen, as well as an informal interview with a German documentary film maker who is making a film about the life of his uncle, a gay German musician who was held both at Dachau and Mauthaussen, considered one of the most brutal camps there was. Klaus, the nephew, will be speaking about his uncle in my documentary “Forget Us Not.”
But first-Berlin, the city once divided by The Wall. There is a lot to take in from a historical perspective. Berlin was the seat of Nazi power so we are going to visit different historical sites and do some information gathering. But my primary purpose in the city is to find the Roma and Sinta Memorial. I have become more and more frustrated with the fact that the Roma and Sinti people, also brutally targeted for complete annihilation, appear to have been largely ignored. At every concentration camp we have been too thus far, there are memorials to pretty much every group and nationality that was held, but the Roma and Sinti are conspicuously absent. No exhibits, no memorials and just passing mention in many of the guide maps. Roughly 500,000 Roma and Sinti were murdered during the WWII Holocaust, which was a huge portion of their population in German and the occupied territories. Even today, they continue to suffer in Europe from discrimination and hatred.
A couple of guide books make mention of the rough location of a memorial that had been planned, but apparently, a lack of support and money has stalled the project for a number of years. Nobody can pony up the money to just put a damn plaque somewhere? Theresa and I tromp around the city. We orient ourselves at the Gardens of Stone – a memorial to the murdered Jewish people. We have heard the Roma memorial possibly exists behind the Wall Of Crosses, a memorial to the people who died trying to cross the Berlin Wall. As we wander about, we pretty much stumble across a memorial to the gay men who died during the Nazi Holocaust.
Now on one hand, I am pleased to see a substantial memorial to the gay men who suffered and died in the camps. Even after the war, liberated gay men could not reveal why they had been in the camps for fear of being arrested again and thrown in prison. The Nazi SS guards were notorious for coming up with inhumane ways to kill and torture gay men in their camps.
So it is with some dismay (and I feel I can speak with a bit of authority to the whole gay thing) that I discover the memorial to the gay men is a large grey block with a little viewing window cut into the side. When you peer into this little window, it shows a short black and white film of two young men kissing. That’s it. I may be overly sensitive here –but a memorial that vaguely resembles a peep show does not lend itself to the respect and remembrance due to these men who suffered and died or who survived, but had to keep silent.
The Gays are still doing better than the Roma’s however. We cannot find the Roma memorial at all. Our search for the Wall Of Crosses brings us to the Berlin Wall and the historical museum at Checkpoint Charlie, the American military gate at the Berlin Wall. We wander along the Wall and displays. Bosnian beggars approach every few minutes with notes in their hands. “Do you speak English?” and then they would hold out a note explaining they were refuges and looking for money. Unfortunately, we have to stop saying we speak English. There are too many people begging and we can’t give money to everyone.
We discover the Wall Of Crosses is clear across the city from where we are. It is in fact, back where we started. We tromp our way back to our original starting point and then move off in the opposite direction hoping to get lucky. Finally, success – the Wall Of Crosses. According to one guidebook, in 2007 the Roma Memorial was started somewhere in the park behind this display. Theresa and I eagerly head into the park.
Finally, we find the memorial. Or what was once going to be the memorial. In an overgrown patch of the park, walled off by both a
chain fence and a wooden barrier, is a large dirty tent. There is garbage strewn everywhere and it is clear it has been abandoned for some time. I am half hoping this is not actually the site, but we find a sign, almost completely hidden behind the wooden partition that reads in part “Roma and Sinti Memorial”.
When we forget the suffering of any people, when we don’t remember the mistakes of the past, we are in danger of repeating history. I think of recent news that notes that various European countries repatriated some 10,000 Roma last year or pursued policies to allow similar action. In Slovakia, the government recently built a large wall around their Roma community to keep them “separate” from other people. A young Roma girl was recently set on fire in a hate crime because of who she was. In other parts of Europe, Roma children are not allowed into school.
This all sounds very familiar: In German circa 1930’s and 1940’s, Roma and Sinti had to register with the government. They were not allowed into public places – signs in parks said “No Roma Here”. They were considered ‘sub human’ and ‘impure’. They were not given jobs or allowed in schools but then called vagrants and beggars and labeled ‘Asocial’ a crime for which they were then arrested and sent to the concentration camps where they perished in great numbers. Many of those who survived continue to struggle today with extreme poverty and discrimination.
And all that stands as a testament to their past suffering is a dirty white tent abandoned in the park. Unseen. Unknown.