October 20, 2018

A pre-Holocaust home movie opens a window into a lost world

Fifty-one year old Glenn Kurtz grew up obsessed with becoming a classical guitarist.  His dream fizzled in his mid-twenties when he realized he was good, just not great.  In his thirties, he wrote a beautiful book, “Practicing A Musician’s Return to Music,” that explored his return to playing classical guitar after almost a decade, but this time simply for the joy of it.  Another obsession had already also grabbed Kurtz.  He explores it in his moving new book “Three Minutes in Poland Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).  Kurtz found the film by accident in his father’s closet.  It shows several incredible minutes of 16mm footage Kurtz’s paternal grandfather took of his ancestral village in Nasielsk, Poland.  He shot the film during a trip in 1938, just a year before the Nazi assault.  The film today can be seen on a continuous loop at the new Jewish Pavilion at the Auschwitz Museum in Poland and is available online.  It is both heartbreaking and terrifying in what it reveals.  As Kurtz’s grandfather’s camera pans the crowd, we see precious footage of beautifully vibrant, smiling Jewish faces jumping excitedly before the camera and completely unaware of the fate that soon awaits them.  Of Nasielsk’s 3,000 Jews, only 80 survived the war.  Almost all of the Jewish mothers and fathers and children and elders and babies in strollers seen in this film were just a few years from a most torturous death.

[Related: 'Three Minutes in Poland' offers a view of life lost]

Glenn Kurtz’s grandfather David Kurtz was born in Nasielsk, Poland in 1888, but he was an American citizen by the time he was 4.  He was brought over by his father, Hyman Kurtz, a tailor by trade.  David Kurtz did extremely well in America, prospering in the neckwear business, which Glenn’s father, Milton Kurtz, took over and ran until he sold the business in 1990.  When Glenn’s grandfather, David Kurtz, traveled to Nasielsk in 1938, it was really just an afterthought.  The intention of the trip was to see Paris and Rome and the other great European cities.  His visit to Nasielsk was short, and he went there with his wife Liza and their dear friends.  When he turned on his camera that day, he was unaware he would accidentally capture some of the last moving images of Europe’s pre-Holocaust Jews.

Kurtz grew up in a comfortable home in Roslyn, Long Island.  He admits that before embarking on this project, he had very little hands-on knowledge about his own family history or the history of the Jews.  Now a middle-aged man and without a family of his own, he seems preoccupied with questions of what and who came before him.  He regrets he did not badger his haughty and somewhat distant paternal grandmother, Liza, while she was still alive.  She lived to be 95 and died when he was 20; his grandfather, David Kurtz, died before he was born.  Kurtz hints that his family was not a talkative bunch.  The quiet moments of intimate sharing that might have taken place didn’t.  Instead, this was a music-loving family very focused on business and accomplishment.  He mentions briefly that his connection with his father felt strained for a long time, but was repaired before his father’s death.  About his mother, he says nothing at all.  He seems closest to his sister, Dana, who offers him continual support and did so for this lengthy project.  But even with her, the alliance seems task driven rather than introspective.  Kurtz seems always, although surrounded by friends, very much alone.  He writes with envy about fellow writer Daniel Mendelsohn’s family, which Mendelsohn himself described in his own masterpiece “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million.”  Kurtz writes “How wonderful, I sometimes think, to have had a grandparent so overflowing with family history, this sweeping, run-on sentence of immigrant Jewish life.  I recognize Mendelsohn’s kindred Long Island childhood, the cheek-pinching, card-playing, lacquer-nailed old relatives, the lavish suburban bar mitzvah.  But my family was not like that.  Stories about where they were from and where they had gone were not part of my inheritance.”

But it clearly was Glenn Kurtz’s mission now.  We feel his desperation to know all he can about what happened to the villagers of Nasielsk, the birthplace of his grandfather and his great-grandfather Hyman.  Kurtz feels as if he is looking for something he can’t quite express.  It feels like a religious mission of sorts, but one where God is not present.  This makes it even more difficult for him since there aren’t any ground rules or prayers or rituals to follow, other than the longings of his own heart.  This secular Jew’s journey is filled with a desire to pay homage to what came before him and it feels as authentic as any religious or spiritual quest.  And as holy and sacred.  His intensity to track down what happened to these poor Jews becomes a repository for his grief and mourning, and our own.  He allows us to remember them with him and it feels like a pilgrimage of the highest order.

Some of the most moving conversations take place between Kurtz and Maurice Chandler, born Moszek Tuchendler in Nasielsk in 1924, who became the sole survivor of his family.  Kurtz finds him by accident.  He miraculously appears for a second and a half on his grandfather’s film which is seen online by his granddaughter who recognizes him immediately since he looks the same today; his face hadn’t changed that much.  She contacts Glenn Kurtz and hooks him up with her grandfather who is able to tell him much about Nasielsk and his own amazing survival.  There are times Maurice Chandler seems reticent to remember certain things, but Kurtz encourages him to do so; perhaps sometimes getting too lost in his own need to know.

Nasielsk was overrun by the Germans on September 4, 1939, just three days after the invasion of Poland.  The entire Jewish population was expelled in a single Aktion on December 3, 1939.   They were put in cattle cars and deported to the towns of Lukow and Miedzyrek and placed in ghettos.  The ghettos in both towns were deported to Treblinka and murdered on arrival as part of Operation Reinhard. 

Kurtz travels back to Nasielsk to see what he can uncover.  He interviews an elderly woman named Mrs. Suwinski and is stunned by her recall of certain events, but horrified by the toxic anti-Semitic tone of her reportage.  She tells him she is able to remember Maurice Chandler’s grandfather’s fabric store.  She describes it as very fancy and classy and different from the other Jewish stores.  When asked to clarify, she explains that their store “was very organized and decent.  When something cost something, that’s what it cost.  No one haggled or tried to change the prices.  They were honest.  They were decent Jews.  They were cultured.  They were pretty Polish.”  Mrs. Suwinski also tells Kurtz about the town photographer who ran a beautifully kept store.  His name was Fishl Perelmuter, whom Kurtz knew about from other research he was doing.  Perelmuter was the artist whom had painted the magnificent frescoes in the town synagogue that once stood in Nasielsk.  When the Jews were rounded up and kept for a few days in the synagogue, they were forced to scrape with their fingernails Perelmuter’s artwork off the walls.  He did not survive the war. 

There reaches a point when Kurtz’s narrative starts to blur and almost seems to collapse upon itself with despair.  Kurtz seems, at times, rendered almost mute by his findings, and even more distraught by all that can never be known. But one of the elderly survivors of Nasielsk he finds and interviews feels her ferocity only increasing with age.  Faiga Milchberg Tick, born in 1917, and now a resident of Toronto, tells him unrestrainedly “Why didn’t eveyone run away?  My mother told me to go.  ‘What will they do with me?’ she said.  And that was the last I saw her.  I had such a beautiful two brothers.  They cannot be nicer.  And perfect, perfect people.  And nothing – nothing is left of them.  I used to cry nights. And almost-be mad, why I live?  I shouldn’t live, too.  AndI live so long!  Nobody lives that long.”

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.