The first dispatch of 2010 and it’s almost June. Some of you know my year started off a bit hectic with an extended stay in the U.S., a long search for an apartment in Cape Town, and a busy time finishing up the film, which ended with a premiere in Hamburg, Germany in the end of April.
So the new documentary is done. It's called Where Do I Stand? I can’t really believe it, almost 2 years of work finished in one afternoon in a post-production studio with a great guy named Andy over a cheese & tomato sandwich. But that’s how these big things often happen, in small moments.
And then I got on a plane to Germany. I don’t think one can prepare oneself for confronting difficult history, but I was hit particularly hard. I was working more than 12-hour days and then all of a sudden I was on a plane. When I remember the trip now, what stays with me more than the three screenings I had were the challenges of being in Germany, the personal history that I was faced with, the memorials to the Holocaust and the incredible vibrancy of the Jewish community. My grandparents – Mark, Sadie, Betty & Henry – were very present.
So whether to write about the screenings or the history first, I wasn’t sure.
I found Berlin such an interesting and beautiful city, so vibrant, with so much history and sadness. I stayed at with my friend Anja and her parents in former East Berlin and was very aware of their deep and difficult post-war history as well. It was at Wansee Villa, a beautiful house with a lush garden on a lake just outside of Berlin where everything hit me. Wansee Villa is the place where Hitler and his cronies met in 1942 to decide the final solution. The event that took place there is in stark contrast to the beauty around.
It is now a museum with an incredibly detailed, and at times relentless, exhibit. I saw anti-Semitic posters and signs from the early Weimar Republic and read very painful, blunt quotes from Nazi leadership about their steadfast mission, like none I had seen or read before. But it was two other things that challenged my heart most. The first was two pictures of a massacre that took place in Czestochowa, Poland. My grandpa Mark (my mom’s father) was from Czestochowa. We never met -- it’s interesting how through stories and pictures we can become so connected to places and people. But when I saw that pile of people in the photograph, I felt instinctively that someone there was my family. A cousin or a cousin of a cousin maybe, or perhaps just a neighbor. But Family.
In the next room was a quote -- I wish now I had written it down but I know if it were in my journal I would reread it with too much sadness. It was just a blunt statement from an SS high up about getting rid of the Jews – surely not a unique statement then. What struck me was not the feeling of hatred but the sentiment of simply not caring – how disposable we were to him. A reminder not of the death toll or the disappearance of vibrant communities, but of how easy it was for these people to make it happen, to kill. And I stood there, alone in a quiet room, and I cried.
Three days later, I took the train to Hamburg and that night was the premiere of Where Do I Stand? as part of filmfest South Africa. There were about 140 people and watching the film in a dark theatre with quality sound and an audience, felt incredible. A professor from Cape Town who now teaches in Hamburg joined me in the Q&A and said he appreciated how the film told the story with objectivity and no agenda and how it illuminated how young people were really asking lots of questions about their own lives and South Africa. One guy in his twenties started his question by saying he was a real left liberal, but added that even he got goose bumps while watching the film. I just paused and took that one in – probably my favorite comment of the night. People asked what the government is or is not doing about xenophobia, how I developed relationships with the students, and one noted how the young perpetrators seemed confused as they grappled with what they did, what they saw and their thoughts now. One girl just said she cried.
I also got negative feedback -- why did I include three middle class kids who say the same thing (I, of course, don’t think they are or they do), where was the black middle class person and where was background about apartheid and South African history, didn’t I think that the well-off kids just helped foreigners because they wanted to help their parents keep their cheap labor. No to the last one, I don’t think these young people are that aware of those dynamics. I think that the violence and the victims were in front of them and that compelled action.
I had the next day to myself so I went down to the harbor. Hamburg was a major port city and thousands of people, including my Papa Henry, emigrated from here to the U.S. and other countries. Henry, unlike most people, was a stow-away and didn’t pay for a ticket. The captain of the ship caught him captain and when they arrived in New York, his uncle met the ship and had to pay the fare. It’s a story I heard a lot as a kid. At the harbor, I asked a tour operator where to find the boat to the emigration museum. He pointed me in the right direction then I turned away and for some reason turned back and smiled at him and said simply, “My grandfather.” He replied, “I hope you see him, in your memories.”
The final piece of my journey was Friday, a screening of Testing Hope for 400 high school students and an evening screening in Cologne where people made connections between the film and attacks against Turkish immigrants in Germany. My time in Cologne was very special. The screening went well and I stayed at the home of Karl and Krista who ran the Film Initiativ. Karl gave me an incredible tour of Cologne the next day and a very honest expression of what happened to the Jews here. He said in the sixties, it was their fight to get his parents and teachers to acknowledge what happened during the Holocaust. People who say they didn’t see were just lying – there were factories in town and a deportation camp just across the river – now a fair trade centre. We visited memorials around the city, to those who he admired and those who were more complicated to celebrate -- a statue of a famous musician and dancer who also danced for Hitler, a square where Hitler used to make speeches that is right next to Cologne’s beautiful and massive cathedral, the brass squares, which I had seen in Berlin, out into the sidewalk, listing the names of people who lived in the building there, when they were deported and where they died. Cologne was so special in part because I was just able to talk so honestly with my generous and kind hosts about the thoughts and feelings swirling in my head and heart.
Thanks for going on this journey with me. I have a feeling that another journey, of sharing this film, is just beginning. But there is one person who shared this and many journeys with me, who is no longer here to read my dispatches, ask me when I am moving back from “Africa,” or tell me her stories. My grandmother. My sister Liza helped me write the film’s dedication:
To Sadie Ruth Kaminski
who understood young people
and listened carefully to them.
1912 - 2010