“In .7 kilometers, enter round about and take 2nd exit to Ulica Stanislawy Lesczynskieji”
It takes 2 GPS units, one Iphone and a lot of swearing, but Theresa and I finally make it out of the hotel parking lot in Krakow on our way to Auschwitz, the 1st concentration camp on our production trip. One GPS informs us we’ve “Left The Path”; the other keeps losing the Satellite reception. My Iphone is pleased to show me the route for $50 a minute and it promptly turns us down a one-way street with 10 other cars, where we come to a dead halt and must all back out into incoming traffic. Good times.
We’re loaded down with camera gear and high expectations. One of the purposes of visiting concentration camps in Poland, Germany and Austria is to not only retrace the footsteps of the survivors whom I am interviewing in my new documentary, but photograph each camp for the film. I also need to decide whether or not the visuals we encounter at the camp warrant bringing my entire film crew here for live footage.
Though I have been to Dachau concentration camp several times, I have never been in Auschwitz. Neither has Theresa and we both have images in our head about what we expect to see and experience. The Auschwitz-Birkenau camp system is arguably the most well known and although none of the survivors in my documentary were processed through this camp, it is still a vital part of this trip. The Birkenau side of the camp housed a large population of Roma/Sinti’s (popularly known as the gypsies). This group, like the Jewish people, was targeted for complete annihilation. I recently discovered in the Dachau archives during my research this summer, Nazi historical documents the spoke of a “Final Solution to the Gypsy problem.”
Today, Roma’s and Sinai’s continue to be marginalized and severely decimated against and what they suffered during the WWII Holocaust remains largely unrecognized and unknown. I am hoping this trip will help educate me on the history of the Roma and Sinti people and allow me to help share their story on film in “Forget Us Not.”
But first things first, we have to actually GET to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Despite the fact more people visit this site than anywhere else in Poland, there are approximately zero helpful signs. The GPS brings us to a stretch of railroad track and an empty boxcar, which is a haunting and powerful image, but we both agree it couldn’t be the entire memorial. At last we find the parking lot and pull in. The sour faced woman at the gate tells us to “Go right!” This rather vague direction brings us down the long drive, which we assume is what she meant. Since there actually IS no place to “Go Right”. In fact, it goes nowhere, we wind up driving in a big circle and having to cut through the bus lot to circle around and try again. She is VERY irritated with us and snaps “TO THE RIGHT!” Confused, we ask her to the right of what. She throws up her hands, marches forward and beckons us to follow her. Apparently, what she wanted us to do was drive up over the curb and park on the grass and sidewalk. Who knew?
We quickly get lost in the swarms of people heading instead. It is beyond crowded and almost impossible to move around inside the initial museum. We discover to our dismay that we are not allowed to walk around on our own. We must have a guide. I knew this would make taking our time to do our photography difficult. The sour faced guy handing out the headphones is not very helpful when we ask where to go. He practically throws the headsets at us and growls “ENGLISH GO THERE!”. We wisely decided to give him space ton continue processing his negative feelings about the upcoming tour.
With a few minutes before our tour starts, we pop into the cafeteria-style café with the intention of getting some coffee, tea and perhaps a quick snack. I order one coffee and Theresa orders a tea in what we think is passable German. The sour faced cafeteria lady barks “NO! RESERVATION ONLY HERE!” and hustles off. We look at each other completely baffled. First of all, it is totally empty in the restaurant. Second, it’s a walk up and order style café. Third, why do you need a reservation for a cup of coffee and tea?
The German man, woman and teenage daughter who were behind us order the exact same thing and sourpuss pours their drinks with no fuss whatsoever. Now we have NO idea what the hell we did wrong. The sweet teenager finally takes pity. “You have to tell them you want it ‘to go’ and you are not planning on sitting down at the reserved tables.”
Call me crazy, but wouldn’t it have been easier and perhaps better service to simply tell us that instead of leaving us there staring at them with befuddled looks on our face for ten minutes?
We order again and stress we would like our coffee and tea to go. My coffee is undrinkable. I mean, I like strong coffee – but I prefer it to not require a spoon and chest hair. Theresa is not fairing better with her tea, which is actually hot chocolate. We decide to quit while we are behind and not bring this to their attention. Besides it is time for our tour.
We are divided into 3 groups of around 40 people and are instructed to turn on our headsets, which picks up the voice of our tour guide. She plods along listlessly giving us history in a monotone voice as she has done hundreds of times before. We are stuffed in long, single file lines through the old barrack brick buildings that now house exhibits. It is difficult to take everything in because they are really moving us through at a clip. And the impact is lost when someone is droning in your ear
“On the right is the hair. One the left is the shoes. Next room please.”
Theresa and I manage a few extra minutes photographing the exhibit of braces, crutches, artificial limbs and other handicap aids that were removed from the murdered disabled people. I point out to Theresa the extreme irony in the fact that the one disabled man in our group has to keep waiting outside in his wheelchair because the exhibit buildings are not handicap accessible. By the time we get to the cremation chamber, I simply rip the headphones off my head. Being in this low slung, dark smoke-stained stone building is all I need to feel the chilling connection to those who lost their lives here. I don’t need to hear “Oven on the Right. Gas Chamber on the left. Move ahead please!” to get the picture.
Our guide instructs us to reconvene over at the Birkenau site location. Theresa and I take this opportunity to hustle to our own car rather than the tour shuttle and ditch the group. Unsurprisingly, the guard lady does not wave goodbye.
The Birkenau site is a vast wasteland of barracks, gas chambers and other somber relics of a camp that housed and was the final resting place for tens of thousands of murdered victims. Here in the empty stillness of the ruins, both of us felt deeply connected to the past. We went our separate ways to capture Berkenau with our cameras and just spend some time alone absorbing what was before us. I am hoping to see the barracks area where the Roma and Sinti’s were isolated but that area has been completely demolished.
We end our last day in Poland the way we celebrated our arrival – with shots of cold vodka. This Polish tradition is one we have taken too at the end of each day. Both to help us unwind and get ready for whatever tomorrow may bring. For us, it means a flight to Berlin and a day spent in the city, which was the seat of Hitler’s power during WWII. Then back to back trips to Ravensbruck and Sachsenhausen concentration camps and an interview with the nephew of a German man who was held for 6 years in one of the worst concentration camps in Austria because he was gay.
We may need more than one shot of vodka.
Theresa is sick of just talking to me and has been trying earnestly each evening to get locals to converse with her. We are in yet another smoky bar where she is trying to chat up the crowd. However, the young, hip Berliners with their slim cigarettes and practiced indifference are not proving to be a willing audience. The longest conversation yet has been with a bartender who was obviously taking his bored indifference frustration out on me:
“I’ll have a Absolute Vodka Martini”
“You cannot. You can have an Absolute. Or a Vodka Martini, not both.”
“I can’t have a vodka martini made with Absolute?”
“Do you want a Vodka Martini?
“Yes, an Absolute Vodka Martini”
“Fine, I will just have a Vodka Martini”
“I can make it with Absolute”
“So I can’t have an Absolute Vodka Martini, but I can have a vodka martini with Absolute?”
He struts away. He better bring a very big drink. (He doesn’t)
Theresa and I spend our last night in Berlin having dinner with documentary filmmaker Klaus Stanjek. Klaus’s uncle Wilhelm Heckman was a Gay German man who was a musician of some renown prior to being arrested and sent to Dachau concentration camp. He helped form a band in the camp and was later sent to Mauthausen labor camp in Austria, considered to be one of the most brutal. The campsite was a huge rock quarry. Mauthausen was also one of only two camps in all of Europe to be labeled as “Grade III” camps – the worst, toughest place to be sent. It was mostly used for extermination through hard labor in the rock quarry. The SS guards would also amuse themselves with cruel tortuous means of killing the prisoners including sending hundreds of weak men carrying large stones racing up the long set of stone stairs called the “Stairs Of Death.” When one would collapse and drop his stone, the others behind would be crushed by the resulting domino effect of people and stones. The guards would also line up prisoners at the edge of a cliff and give them the option of getting shot or pushing the guy in front of them off the top.
Somehow, Wilhelm survived more than five years in this camp. Though his skill as a musician was put to grim use and he and others were forced to play music when others were executed. Wilhelm is in one of the most famous photos of this camp “The Execution Of Hans Bonarewitz”.
Wilhelm has since passed on but his nephew Klaus has graciously agreed to be interviewed for “Forget Us Not” to tell his uncle’s story as a gay man (pink triangle) targeted by the Nazi’s.
The next morning we begin winding our way across German to various camps over the course of the rest of the week. By Friday, we intend to wind up in Dresden, a city that was fire bombed by the Allied troops at the end of the war. Natalia Orloff, my Ukraine survivor was being transported from the labor camp she was held at to a death camp when they stopped in Dresden right before it was bombed. She survived the bombing.
Our first stop is 4 hours away in the town of Bergin, the Bergin-Belsen camp system. Poor Theresa is stuck in the car with no one to talk to but me for 4 long hours. Again. She solves this nicely with a few naps and a lot of snacks along the way. And plenty of rest stops -every few miles on the Autobahn there are large signs for rest areas with handicap signs. I’ve never seen handicap bathrooms so well advertised. I may qualify for them after a few more days of driving in my little tin rental car being buffeted on both sides by 18 wheelers and BMW’s going at breakneck speed and zipping through lanes with abandon. I’m so tense; I may not be able to move without assistance soon.
Bergin Belsen is another important camp in my documentary. My Roma survivor Ceija was held both at Auschwitz and at this camp. In fact, a large group of Roma and Sinti were held in their own barracks here. I am half hoping for at least an exhibit because of this, but once again – pretty much no reference to the Roma’s. I point this out one of the curators who has come out to speak with me about filming permits –(I intend to return here with my director of photography). When I mention there seems to be very little homage in terms of remembrance, exposure and education about what happened to the Roma and Sinti, he nods in agreement, shrugs and says, “You are right.” To their credit, his department is trying to change that and is working with a local group to help add an exhibit to their museum.
We move next to the city of Weimar and the Buchenwald camp system. Unfortunately, while they have wonderful museums and educational buildings set up, there is very little left of the original site from a filming needs standpoint. But they do have something that has been a long search in the making: an honest to goodness Roma and Sinti Memorial! Set in the place where their barracks were, it is a simple, haunting collection of stones carved with the names of all the camps they were held at across Europe. We take about 500 photos with various lenses.
Back in the city of Weimar, our GPS is taking us on a merry tour trying to find our hotel. Theresa keeps referring to it as a female. “Where the hell is she taking us?” “What the hell does she want us to do now?” While I suspect the GPS is not a sentient as Theresa is implying, I strongly agree with the emotion, especially after going down a narrow road that dead ends and requires even our little car to do a 50-point turn to get out.
While we are stuck trying to accomplish this maneuver, a cute little elderly German couple raps on our window. Presumably to find out what the hell the stupid foreigners were doing. We show them the name of our hotel and they cluck in a foreboding way and glance at each other. We are not sure what it means. My first though is that we are staying in the worst part of town in a dive. But using their directions (in German) and our temperamental GPS we finally arrive. It is beyond swanky and as it turns out, is a historical spot known for being the favorite hotel of the 3rd Reich. Excellent. That wasn’t mentioned on Hotels.com.
The next morning we are ready to set out for Dresden and are disappointed to have to get on the road so early. The Onion Festival, which has been going on in Weimar for 360 years, was setting up and getting ready to kick in over the weekend. Vendors, music and onions- thousands of them are on every corner. Combined with the crisp fall colors and smell of sausages cooking in the air, we both just kind of wanted to kick back, have a beer and hang out with the locals.
Even if none of them talk to us.
With less than an hour to go before leaving for the airport, I am busy trying to convince myself that the airport personal will not notice I need a chain hoist to lift my suitcase. Theresa has her own problems as her “one carry on and personal item” is actually five different bags. Granted, one is her lunch, which she plans on eating on the way to the airport – if she wasn’t already napping in the back seat of the car. She tells me anytime she is in a car over 45 minutes she falls asleep and that I can blame her parents for driving her around as a colicky baby. I am thinking ahead to the fact that we are spending the next few weeks DRIVING around Poland, Germany and Austria and anticipating my navigator dropping off like a narcoleptic every hour.
My still photographer Theresa and I are en route to Poland for the 2nd production trip for my new documentary “Forget Us Not”- a WWII holocaust piece about the 5 million non Jewish victims of the Nazi regime. After spending two weeks at the Dachau archives earlier this summer, I am now about to embark on a whirlwind tour of 3 countries; 13 cities; 7 concentration camps and 2 Interviews with holocaust survivors. No wonder Theresa is sleeping on the way to the airport.
Within short order we are boarding our Lufthansa flight to Poland via Frankfurt and I am excited by how spacious and comfy the business class seats look. Then I remember I am sitting in economy, which are NOT so spacious. Thank God for Yoga and the recent weight loss. With the plane loaded and ready to go, we back out of the gate and then proceed to lumber along the scenic back alleys of LAX for an hour to reach the runway. I feel like I am on a backlot studio tour. Theresa has brought a Polish phrase book and we are busy amusing ourselves with the “social” section which includes everything you need to know to hook up, have sex and breakup – all in Polish. Handy pet names are also included. We teach ourselves the following conversation:
“You look like someone I would like to know, my little worm”
(apparently little worm is a pet name for a man. Now I am not an expert on the whole dating a guy thing, but if I was a guy, I would NOT want to be called “little worm”)
“Can I take you home? Do you have a condom? Let’s go to bed. Touch me here. Don’t worry; I’ll do it myself. This isn’t working out. I never want to see you again.”
Confident we can now handle ourselves in Krakow we settle in for our 11-hour flight. Well, the guy in front of me settles in by leaning his seat all the way back. Which makes it impossible to put down the tray and use my computer or have any circulation in my legs. I’d complain to Theresa but she is asleep again.
When we finally stagger off the plane in Frankfurt (well, I stagger – Theresa is refreshed and hungry) we are ready to find somewhere comfortable to untangle our bodies. A perk to my life of travel is my executive status and we beeline for the business lounge. There are nice big comfy chairs. Unfortunately, there are only about 40 of them and 200 people fighting over them. Theresa and I stalk around the room waiting for our opportunity. It is a grown up version of musical chairs to the tune of the ‘Grumpy Traveler Blues’. One chair opens up and we both pile onto it. We take turns loading up on the impressive spread of free cheese, breads, sausage and beer (got to LOVE the Germans). Theresa heads off in search of a bathroom and I jealously guard our little corner of paradise from fellow marauding travelers. Then – a miracle. The woman in the seat next to me starts packing up her stuff. A group of Italian guys has spotted her movement and gathers speed to intercept. I grab the nearest carry on bag and shot put it into the chair as the woman vacates it. The Italian guys are totally grouchy but Theresa and I have just been crammed into two tiny seats for 11 hours and we are not keen to keep sharing this one chair during our 5-hour layover. I mean, we like each other – just not THAT much.
Theresa celebrates having her own chair by promptly falling asleep in it. This sight it becoming a recurring theme in my life…..
Krakow, Poland. We’ve finally arrived. I’ve been up for over 30 hours and have been taken for a ride by our Krakow taxi driver who takes a circular scenic route through the city to our hotel which was only 13 kilometers away yet somehow cost 100 złoty and took 30 minutes with no traffic. Theresa and I collapse onto our very tiny twin beds in our hotel room. I crack both my elbow and my kneecap trying to get in and out of the bathroom. The hotel architects must have worked for an airline.
We have a long day at Auschwitz and Birkenau tomorrow. Tonight we find the closest bar and order a round of Polish vodka. The guidebook says vodka must not be sipped but tossed back in one quick drink. (The results of doing too many of these is probably why they have a phrase book section on hooking up in the guidebook). The waitress brings our shots. We toast to the beginning of the trip and the beginning of another documentary journey and toss them back.
Another film, another story has begun.
Time for another round.
Ten years ago I visited Dachau concentration camp in Germany and became aware of the Classification Table the Nazi’s used to sort their victims into categories and realized I had no idea who these other people were. 5 million dead seemed like a lot of people not to know about and I mentally filed it away as a possible documentary subject.
After spending the last five years making Small Voices, I had intended to do a piece on poverty in America but found myself suffering from a severe case of poverty fatigue. I decided to do a project completely opposite of Small Voices and found myself remembering about that long ago idea and a new documentary project “Forget Us Not” was born.
Last Saturday, as I reclined a comfortable 3 inches in my whimsically named “Economy Plus” seat on United, I thought back to a few weeks earlier when I had my first interview with Vera Young, an 86-year-old Polish Catholic survivor. Vera, frail of body but still sharp and witty, had related to me her life in the Saarbrucken Concentration Camp where “The dead were replaced everyday”. She spent four years before being forced to walk from Saarbrucken to Leipzig on a 900-mile death march. Somehow she survived and was liberated by American troops. She vividly recalls seeing the troops and not realizing they were there to rescue everyone, she held up her wasted, boil covered arms and begged “Take me, take me! I can do the work of 5 people!”
Vera had told me she had never returned to Germany after coming to the United States as a war bride in 1947 because she feared dying there. As I flew towards Germany, I couldn’t help but feel I was returning for her – ready to dive deeply back into the past to uncover some of those forgotten voices of the Nazi Holocaust.
I arrived in Munich, jetlagged and starving after United’s failed attempt at culinary acceptability. While I admit I indulged in Champagne, smoked salmon and caviar during my layover at Heathrow, that isn’t exactly the kind of meal that sticks to your ribs. Luckily, coming to Munich for me is not just for research and work. My oldest brother Ludwig lives in Berg outside Munich with his wife Anna. Ludwig, in true big brother form, snaps up all my bags and fusses over my arrival. In short order we are back at his house where Anna has already set the table with an excellent meal and a bottle of wine. Now THAT is service. (Take note, United).
My first full day in Germany the archives are closed so I take advantage and spend the day in Munich, a city I love. I knew the remaining days submerged deeply in the historical records of the Nazi holocaust would be grim at best, so I thought to take advantage of my one day reprieve which I did in true European fashion: long breakfast, long lunch, afternoon nap and long dinner. And of course, good German beer. Which I need even more by the end of Tuesday after spending 9 hours viewing historical reels taken by Allied forces when they first liberated the Concentration Camps. I have seen footage of concentration camps before but this footage is raw, unedited in its complete horror. As bad as I already knew the Nazi holocaust was, I am getting a harsh reminder it was even worse than one can truly imagine. By the end of the day, my face is set in hard lines and my disposition grim.
I pour myself a very large Weiss bier.
My brother arrives home from work and we talk about lighter subjects over dinner. In the middle of our conversion, he stops in the middle of his sentence and gives me a look I know well. Roughly translated it means: stupid foreigner. In the most loving way, of course.
“What” he asks dramatically pointing at my Weiss bier, “is THAT?” I think he really ought to recognize it, being Bavarian and all.
“It’s a Weiss bier.” I innocently explain. He signs deeply and I know I am about to get a lecture in Bavarian etiquette.
“Not the beer, little sister. What are on earth are you drinking it out of?”
Apparently, the fact I have poured my good German Weiss bier into a water glass has given him acid indigestion. After declaring how relieved he is we are dining in where no one can see such a breech of good manners, he pours me another Weiss bier in a proper tall pilsner glass. It is a win-win for me. I learn a lesson and get another beer without having to move.
The archive adventure the next morning gets off to a not so auspicious start when I go to pick up my rental car and they blithely inform me that they do not have the automatic I made the reservation for. Yes, yes, I know. I can’t drive a standard. However, the place to learn is NOT the Audubon. Ludwig gets all grouchy Bavarian on them and he and the counter girl snarl back and forth at each other in German while I wisely move far far away. Ludwig wins the stern Bavarian contest and before I know it, I have been upgraded to a nice BMW SUV. I am totally going to try “grouchy Bavarian” the next time I want an upgrade.
I amble over to my spiffy ride and think how cool I am. Then I open the door and promptly conk myself hard enough on the forehead to see spaetzle. Nothing says professional like a lumpy, bruised forehead. But the Bavarian car showdown has already put me behind schedule for my appointment with Dr. Albert Knoll at the Dachau archives so I ignore the urge to check my pupils for a concussion and get behind the wheel. I fire up my brand new Garmin International and it helpful tells me NOT how to get to Dachau because “No Satellite Signal”. After 20 minutes of vain waiting, I fire up my Phone navigation at $20 per minute with data roaming and am soon on my way trying to watch the helpful Iphone moving blue dot and direction while simultaneously attempting to drive through a foreign country. Thanks to my new budding headache, focus isn’t exactly working for me and I promptly miss my first two off-ramps. 30 minutes into the ride, the GPS finally chirps at me in a British accent that it is “recalculating” because I’ve just missed another turn off. Good times.
I finally arrive at Dachau and walk through through the black, cold iron gate with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” : Work Brings Freedom. It certainly does, usually through death. I make my way across the pebbled prison yard toward the far end of the complex near the old guard tower. I pass a group and their tour guide who for some reason is wearing a bright, multi colored, tall “Cat In The Hat” style hat. It looks out of place here and I am completely distracted by it. Did he think the tour needed a touch of Dr. Seuss?
I arrived at the Archives and am greeted by Dr. Albert Knoll. He escorts me to the research room where I set up shop for the week. Before long the long table is buried in mountains of historical documents, books and photographic archives. Though Albert is offering some assistance, he has a variety of other projects on his plate so armed with my fairly limited German and my Iphone, I begin translating various documents from WWII and the Nazi KZ camp system. Over the course of the week, I accrue a large file of historical material: arrest decrees that went out for Roma’s and Gays; Statements Jehovah’s Witnesses were given to sign renouncing their faith in exchange for freedom – a powerful thing when you consider most of them choose to stay in the camps rather than renounce their faith; Nazi propaganda photos of Roma prisoners smiling and holding up large baskets of fresh food. These photos are almost as bad as the non-staged photos, because I am aware looking at these men- they are smiling under duress and holding up food they will never eat. The pile of documents and photos I am requesting duplication from the archive grows every hour, as does my knowledge of a time in history that I thought I was familiar with – but now realize I had only scratched the surface of.
The week finally ends and I leave the archives to begin the walk back across the graveled prison yard. It is still raining and I remember that ten years ago, it was also raining when I first arrived and walked through that gate. I think it is God’s way of reminding me of all the sorrow and tears that were shed by the men and women who suffered and are asking us to never forget.