A Polish spy named Magda
“I don’t know how I did it, but I did it,” declares 93-year old Magda Kasprzycki, a West Hollywood resident, in the eponymous documentary “Magda.”
The “it” unwinds gradually in the 60-minute film, starting with a sheltered childhood in an affluent, scholarly family in the Polish city of Lwow, through the Nazi conquest of her hometown, her recruitment as a spy for the Polish underground, and marriage to an American soldier.
Both Magda’s father and paternal grandfather were university professors and members of the distinguished Catholic Krzemuski family.
Her mother was a beautiful Jewish woman, but since Polish law required a child of a mixed marriage to follow the father’s religion, Magdalena (her birth name), was raised as a Catholic.
The girl inherited her mother’s good looks and grew into an attractive teenager, with blue eyes and reddish-blonde hair, attributes which provided the key to her later role as a “German” woman, while working for the Polish underground.
On Sept. 1, 1939, the German army invaded Poland, setting off World War II.
Within 10 days, Nazi troops conquered Lwow, but Magda’s family had already taken off for Krakow, and, from there, for Warsaw.
Magda’s father was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, while her older brother, Adam, joined the resistance movement against the occupiers and was later sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. One of the family’s main concerns was to hide the mother’s Jewish identity from the Nazis.
In early 1944, Adam recruited his sister to serve as courier and liaison between resistance forces in major Polish cities, and with sympathizers in Vienna and even Berlin.
Magda was perfectly qualified for this assignment. In addition to her “Aryan” looks, she spoke German, Polish and Russian fluently, and under the nom de guerre Magda Heiss, she moved fairly easily through Nazi-dominated Europe.
According to the film, she had a couple of close scrapes with the Gestapo, such as one instance in which an alert agent became suspicious of her Polish-made boots. She bluffed her way through these encounters, once even daring her interrogators to arrest her.
The war’s end found Magda in Berlin, which was quickly divided among the Russian, American, French and British occupation sectors. Magda was fortunate enough to live in the American sector.
Her luck continued when she met Capt. Matthew Kasprzycki, a U.S. Army combat officer of Polish descent. They married, and the happy couple moved to Los Angeles, and the captain managed to bring his wife’s parents and brother, who had survived the Nazi regime, to America.
The Warsaw Uprising on May 12, 1943. Photo courtesy USHMM/Steven Spielberg Archives
The greatest asset of “Magda” is the title character herself, who, during three days of intense interviews, shows considerable charm, wit and recall. Since the film evolved over a four-year period, Magda was a mere 89 during the interviews.
Her life since moving to Los Angeles has not been easy. Her husband, whom she described as “the kindest man in the world,” developed a war-related post-traumatic stress disorder and died some years ago. Magda herself survived breast cancer.
The couple had no children, and Magda’s only living relative is her grandnephew Paul Krzemuski, who is also her caretaker.
Jason Rem, 47, the writer, director and executive producer of “Magda,” is a man of varied interests who has made documentaries on electronic music, the International Medical Corps, Rett Syndrome neurological disorders, the Duke and North Carolina Universities basketball rivalry, and other topics.
He met Magda four years ago through a mutual friend and, he said, was instantly inspired by her story. Nevertheless, it took him three years to complete the project, partially to raise funds while continuing his day job as head of TV productions for the World Surf League.
Rem, who is Jewish, brought in “Magda” for a very modest $24,000, with the volunteer labor of relatives and Hollywood friends. For the film, he mixed various cinematic techniques, generally to good effect. The interviews with Magda are the backbone of the story, but they are augmented by historical newsreel footage (with Hitler regularly popping up giving the Nazi salute), re-creation of certain scenes by young actors, and even cartoon drawings..
The extensive footage of war and concentration camp scenes was obtained from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum through Michael Berenbaum of the American Jewish University, who also served as the film’s historical consultant.
Fortunately, Rem said, Magda herself managed to save most of the documents tracing her life’s stages, including swastika-stamped papers, which allowed her to pass as a German during her underground days.
It would have strengthened the film if it had included more concrete details about Magda’s activities as a courier for the Polish resistance.
But on balance, “Magda” adds one more astonishing chapter to the unending saga of horror and heroism during the Holocaust. In the future, Rem hopes to turn “Magda” into a full-length feature movie.
“Magda” will have its world premiere during the Hollywood Film Festival at the Arclight Cinemas on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood.
The initial screening will be on Thursday, Sept. 24 at 3 p.m., and repeated Saturday, Sept. 26 at 3:45 p.m. For tickets and additional information visit www.facebook.com/MAGDAthedocumentary or www.hollywoodfilmfestival.com.
Magdalena Kasprzycki herself is slated to attend the Saturday screening, during which the producers will also celebrate her 93rd birthday, which fell on Sept. 18.
Regina Cameron and Linda Collins served as the film’s co-executive producers, and composer Gavin Keese as musical director.