“Blind Love” is the first film ever made about blind people traveling to Poland with the help of their guide dogs to learn about the Holocaust.
Its footage includes blind participants and their guide dogs taking part in the 2012 and 2013 March of the Living programs. “Blind Love: A Holocaust Journey Through Poland with Man’s Best Friend” will be screened on CBC’s Documentary Channel in late 2015, but next month it will be shown to a live audience during Toronto’s Holocaust Education Week, with the co-sponsorship of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. CBC’s Michael Enright, one of Canadian radio’s best-known voices, narrates the film.
The 28-minute documentary is a moving and profoundly touching account about how blind people interact with their world, about their relationships with their guide dogs, and about the importance of building a society where everyone is cared for and cherished — young and old, strong and weak, abled and disabled. It is about building a world filled with blind love, not blind hate.
The six blind Israelis in the film lead viewers on a very unusual journey.
In the Majdanek concentration camp, Liron Artzi, a 30-year-old blind attorney from Tel Aviv, was overwhelmed with emotion and started to cry. The tour guide’s description of the scene — a large room with rows of exposed water pipes and shower heads on the ceiling, next to the Majdanek gas chambers — had a visceral impact on her. She sobbed uncontrollably, without uttering a sound. Her guide dog, Petel, with keen canine intuition, recognized her need for comfort and responded by licking away her tears. In the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, a blind woman touched an old gravestone. Her hands caressed every crevice, each Hebrew letter, reading the stone with her fingertips as if it were a page of Braille.
“Sometimes one picture can express more than a thousand words,” says Dr. Shmuel Rosenman, chairman of the International March of the Living, now in its 27th year.
The film’s producer, Eli Rubenstein, also heads the March of Living in Canada. The trip was sponsored by the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind, the only such training facility in the Middle East. The nonprofit center has matched more than 500 guide dogs — the service is free — and there is a long waiting list.
A concentration camp is perhaps one of the few places on earth where the ability to see might not be an advantage, one of the participants said. “I admit that not having the ability to see saved me from sights that are not easy.”
It was not lost on the members of the delegation that Jewish people with disabilities had zero chance of survival during the Nazi regime. It also was quite symbolic that the delegation consisted of six blind people. The blind participants felt that the march from Auschwitz to Birkenau was the trip’s high point, because it showed the world that a person with disabilities can be just like a regular person.
It is estimated that the Nazis murdered 200,000 disabled Germans in the “T-4” or “euthanasia” program, which later became the model for the mass murder of Jews and others. The program served as a training ground for SS members who later staffed the concentration camps. It also was not lost on the participants as they made the 3-kilometer journey between Auschwitz and Birkenau that the Nazis used dogs as weapons to intimidate, maim, and kill, and here they were, marching proudly with their guide dogs, who are trained to be gentle and loving to the very people the Nazis set out to destroy.
David Shentow, a Holocaust survivor, was touched by the sight of blind Jews marching with their guide dogs in Poland. In the film, he recounts his arrival in Auschwitz as a 17-year-old in 1942. On the train platform, he was met by SS guards and their German shepherds. The Jews were told to leave their luggage on the train. One man standing beside Shentow politely asked an SS officer if he could retrieve a photo from his luggage. “The SS officer lost his temper and let his dog loose. The dog flew in the air straight to the man’s neck. As the man stopped moving I thought, ‘My God. That man is dead.’ This all happened in the first 10 or 15 minutes, and I knew I was in hell.”
Another Holocaust survivor, Max Glauben, wanted to have his photo taken with the Israeli delegation. “I am touched to see the same animals that were used by the Nazis to kill and maim us are now helping us,” he says in the film.
At the ceremony in Birkenau, Moti Levy, a 59-year-old computer scientist who was blinded in both eyes and lost his left arm during an IDF training exercise in 1976, was chosen to light one of the six torches. His dog, Sammy, accompanied him. Levy’s father had grown up just a few kilometers away, in the town of Oswiecim. “I knew a lot about the Holocaust, but here I could experience with my hand, with my hearing, and with the smells,” he said. “In Auschwitz you can smell the basement and the stale smell of old things in the barracks where all the items are stored. In Majdanek I could feel the fence with the barbed wire. I touched things and I understood. We walked the same paths that they had walked.”
Guiding the blind through Poland for five days proved to be a challenge for Haskel, an experienced tour guide who has worked in Poland for the past 10 years. “I had to describe each place in detail, size, colors, from what material things are made of and to give them every opportunity to feel things with their hands,” he said. “This experience opened my eyes. Since I needed to get into great detail, it made me see things I had never noticed before. There are places in Poland where there is nothing left, that even people with eyesight find it difficult to imagine what took place there.”
One such place is a small clearing in the Lopuchowo woods, just four kilometers from the quaint little town of Tykocin, the prewar home of a 1,500-member Jewish community. On August 25, 1941, the Jews were rounded up by Nazi and local police and brought to the woods. Today, the blind people entered the quiet wood, their dogs led them through low-lying brush and around puddles, the byproduct of the constant rain. The killing field is fenced and draped with Israeli flags. “I could feel like those people who walked from the town to the forest,” Levy said. “You imagine how they walked here with their families, their children in their hands, the elderly trailing behind. I suppose they knew they were walking to their death.”
The group sat in a circle with open umbrellas, listening to Haskel tell the story. Their dogs lay down on the ground beside them. One of the participants read a passage from a text in Braille that Haskel had prepared. “The murdered bodies were thrown into a pit. A cruel fate awaited the children as the Nazi commander sicced his dog at them and they were thrown into the pits while still alive. A small girl didn’t understand what was happening and out of her childish naiveté, while they threw her in the pit, she asked, ‘Why are you throwing dirt in my eyes?’” The fingers of the blind woman pause on the page of Braille, and her voice breaks.
Dr. Wallace Greene of Fair Lawn is an educator who taught Holocaust studies at Upsala College and is a consultant to the International March of the Living.