There is a growing phenomenon of the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors asking questions about the Shoah that their parents didn’t ask.
All too often, accounts of what took place during the war were left untold, either because survivors found them too painful to recall or because they wished to spare their children the horrific details. In the years after the release of “Schindler’s List,” and with the resources provided by Steven Spielberg through the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, there was an urgency to capture the histories of survivors on film. Spurred by this vast undertaking, and often sharing their stories for the first time, survivors divulged the details of what they had endured and seen, often on the condition that these testimonies would not be shared until after they died. In the course of five years, 52,000 testimonies across 56 countries and in 32 languages were videotaped. At the same time, there are tens of thousands of survivors who have chosen or still choose to keep their personal horrors and nightmares secret.
These last many years, the third generation of Holocaust survivors has begun asking the tough questions, and sometimes they get answers. Some of them, including the author Jonathan Safran Foer, never really had the opportunity to ask them. He was left with a void. In his novel “Everything Is Illuminated,” he created a fictional past to fill in this absent past, and actor/filmmaker Liev Schreiber brilliantly adapted it for the 2005 film of the same name. Now, in the aftermath of his grandmother’s death, the exceptionally talented third generation Israeli documentary filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger enters her apartment and begins looking for answers to questions he too never bothered asking. Once in her flat, he goes on his own personal mission to uncover a past that he believes now lost and he tackles the task with the zealous fervor of a detective seeking to solve a mystery.
Goldfinger’s wonderful 2000 film “The Komediant,” about the life of Yiddish stage performers Pesach and Lillian Lux Burstein, showed his penchant for digging deep. Now, in “The Flat,” he tries to put his grandparents’ past, about which he knew nothing, into some historical context. As Goldfinger, his mother, and his siblings go through an apartment filled with European furniture, drawers of old jewelry, volumes of photo albums, and shelves of porcelain collectables, he realizes how little he knows of his family’s German past and how little anyone, including him, seemed to care. As the filmmaker, caught on camera by his cameraperson, begins his review of letters and documents in the flat, the sleuth within him seizes on every new find as he delves with passion into a past with which he now finally connects, although by now it may be too late. Nobody remains alive to answer his many queries, though an elderly friend of his grandmother does provide some background, so he must find the answers on his own. The artifacts in the apartment are all that remain and he hopes to gain a clearer picture through them.
In the course of his search, he finds newspapers reporting the visit to Palestine his grandparents made during the 1930’s, accompanied by someone who seems to be a top Nazi party member and his wife. As he learns more, it only gets more mysterious. Stranger still are the memorabilia uncovered of his grandparents’ many postwar vacations back to Germany. How could they have been the same people who, stripped of all rights as Jews in Berlin, had emigrated to Palestine before the war began?
Israel’s special relationship with Germany is very complex. In the aftermath of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Germany and the Zionist Organization actually negotiated a treaty that would have allowed reasonably easy emigration of Jews to Palestine with little loss of property. We cannot forget that German reparations money, referred to by many as “blood money,” helped salvage the troubled Israeli economy in the early 1950s. Just what was Goldfinger’s grandparents’ special connection with their country of origin? What were they doing with the German couple, years before they emigrated to Palestine, on that ship headed to Haifa? What kept drawing his “yekke” grandparents back to Germany after the war? While his siblings could care less, this third generation filmmaker, sparked by what he found in the flat, boards a plane to Germany in search of answers and a clearer understanding of the past. We are with him.
“The Flat” opens today in New York City at IFC Cinema and Lincoln Plaza. The filmmaker will be discussing the film at special screenings this weekend. It will begin showing in Montclair at next week.