Two TV specials look at Jewish history’s darker days

The mass killing of 6 million Jews ended nearly 69 years ago, but almost every month we discover a new aspect of the Holocaust, its aftermath and its impact on future generations.
March 26, 2014

The mass killing of 6 million Jews ended nearly 69 years ago, but almost every month we discover a new aspect of the Holocaust, its aftermath and its impact on future generations.

Witness, for example, two new television specials scheduled to air in the next few days: “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine” uncovers new scientific evidence on the existence and mechanism of the death camp. “Sosúa: Make a Better World” is an offbeat teen musical recalling a barely remembered footnote to the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing Germany and Austria.

While Auschwitz has become shorthand for the Holocaust, as well as a pilgrimage site for more than a million visitors each year, very few pay homage to the victims at the other death factory, Treblinka.

The reason is simple: The camp was destroyed.

The complex, 65 miles northeast of Warsaw, consisted of Treblinka I, primarily a forced-labor camp, and Treblinka II, the site of the killing machine, closed in 1943 after 24 months of operation.

During that timespan, its 10 gas chambers asphyxiated 900,000 men, women and children. The grisly work done, the Nazis went to extraordinary lengths to erase every trace of the camp’s existence.

SS chief Heinrich Himmler’s men destroyed all structures, filled in and leveled the earth above, and even installed a Ukrainian “farmer” in a newly built farmhouse.

Viewed from the ground and from the air, Treblinka appeared as peaceful farmland and forest, without barracks or gas chambers, and marked later only by a stone monument.

Given the absence of visual evidence, Holocaust deniers around the world focused on Treblinka to claim that it was really a transit camp rather than a killing ground.

Six years ago, Caroline Sturdy Colls, a young British forensic archaeologist from Staffordshire University, arrived at the site, determined to dig underneath the placid surface.

The documentary “Treblinka” (airing March 29 at 8 p.m. on the Smithsonian Channel, Direct TV and various cable channels) follows the painstaking work of Colls and her small team, whose task was to pinpoint the most promising excavation sites. Through sophisticated aerial photography, which created a picture of the landscape without foliage, the team detected faint imprints on the ground that pointed to the original foundation of the camp.

Inch by inch, the team carefully dug two trenches that yielded no evidence. Finally, in a third trench, Colls found human bones and, more importantly, broken tiles imprinted, incongruously, with the Star of David.

What was the significance of this strange discovery? Two of the few living Treblinka survivors testified that the Nazis disguised the front of gas chambers to resemble a mikveh, or ritual bathhouse, complete with tiles bearing the Star of David.

Colls breaks down at times at the horror of her discoveries, but the film’s emphasis is on the scientific approach she brings to the project. Indeed, the Smithsonian Channel is presenting “Treblinka” as part of its monthlong “Women in Science” series.

There is one jarring note in the film’s attempt to hype Colls’ quest as a kind of detective thriller, breathlessly questioning: Will she ever find the evidence?

Jewish refugees en route to Sosúa in a scene from “Sosúa: Make a Better World.”  Photo courtesy of Willow Pond Films

“Sosúa: Make a Better World” (on PBS, airing locally April 1 at 9 p.m. on KLCS) has elements of “West Side Story,” Jewish refugees in a strange land and civics lessons on American diversity, all rolled together into one sweet film.

It’s set in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, a neighborhood whose current population consists mainly of Latino immigrants from the Dominican Republic and their descendants. Back in the early 1940s, however, the area became the destination of so many Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria that it was labeled “Frankfurt-on-the-Hudson.”

The two ethnic groups now live side by side but rarely interact. The self-imposed separation bothered Victoria Neznansky, program director of the local Y (Young Men’s & Young Women’s Hebrew Association) community center, who looked for ways to bring together the teenagers from the two communities.

From this sprang the idea of a full-fledged musical on a theme linking the histories of both communities.

Flash back to 1938, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt convened the international Evian Conference to find countries of refuge for the German and Austrian Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.

After many high-flown declarations by leaders of 32 nations in attendance, 31, including the United States, expressed regrets that they would be unable to absorb any Jewish refugees.

The unlikely exception was the Dominican Republic, whose ruthless dictator, Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo, had murdered 25,000 Haitians during the previous year.

Trujillo offered to admit up to 100,000 Jews to his Caribbean country and to settle these former professors and businessmen in Sosúa, a former banana plantation abandoned by the United Fruit Co.

The dictator’s noble gesture was part of his plan to “whiten” his country’s population through hoped-for intermarriages between the native residents and the “white Jews.”

However, with the outbreak of World War II, only some 500 to 750 Jews made it to Sosúa, where, with the help of kibbutz experts from Palestine, they established thriving meat-, butter- and cheese-processing plants.

Taking the Dominican-Jewish link as the backbone of the musical, Y officials enlisted the talents of Broadway director and composer Liz Swados to put the show together.

With a cast consisting of 20 youths, ages 12 to 17 and evenly divided between Dominican Latinos and Jews, the musical slowly took shape. In the process, the actors on both sides shared stories of racist slurs (mainly against the Latinos), as well as against their home life and religious holidays (mainly Jewish).

In the process, barriers were broken and friendships were made, but, perhaps fortunately, filmmakers Peter Miller and Renee Silverman managed all this without the distraction of budding adolescent romances.

On opening night, we witness proud Latino and Jewish parents applauding enthusiastically as the show brings down the house.

For more information on “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,” go to smithsonianchannel.com

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