‘The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm’

‘The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm’

Artist Jeff Scher painted over photos of Jewish ghetto children in a process called rotoscope animation used for “The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm.”
Artist Jeff Scher painted over photos of Jewish ghetto children in a process called rotoscope animation used for “The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm.”

For the record, it is A17606.

That literally is “The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm,” the title and subject of the moving documentary short that airs on HBO on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

It is a simple conversation between a 90-year-old camp survivor, Srulek Feldman, and his adoring 10-year-old great-grandson, Elliott, about experiences Srulek had before and during the war. It is heartwarming, intelligent, and told in a way that evokes the suffering without frightening its intended family audience.

Feldman was born in Sosnowiec, Poland, in what appears to be a financially comfortable, Shabbos-observant family. His father was a milliner who had his own store, and life was good — until it wasn’t.

He was 14 years old when he and a group of friends were grabbed up and (although it’s not entirely clear) sent to a series of work camps. He never saw his family again. Eventually he ended up in Auschwitz. After a forced march alongside fleeing German troops on a Jewish Trail of Tears, he was liberated by Russian soldiers.

He returned to Sosnowiec after the war, but knew no one there; all friends and acquaintances were gone. He ended up in a German DP camp, where he met his wife; the two ultimately emigrated to the United States, and Feldman, who now called himself Jack, started a successful fish market.

The film has a number of really glorious elements. First, there is the obvious love that young Elliott has for Jack (and vice versa, of course), which is especially noteworthy in a time when older people often are disrespected.

A second is the fascinating way the story is told. It’s not a lecture, but Jack answering Elliott’s intelligent questions. The youngster is a real find, smart, inquisitive, and as much as a 10-year-old can be, a real history buff.

Another important and fortunate takeaway is how willingly Jack responds to Elliott’s questions. Many survivors buried memories and were forever changed by them. Not Jack. He remembers all. He “knows what it means to be hungry,” says an African American man in Feldman’s fish store. “If you’re hungry he will feed [you] whether you’ve got money or not.”

What is particularly unique, though, is the film’s back story. It started with Sheila Nevins, 78, a long-time HBO executive and president of HBO documentaries and family programming since 2004. In that time, the shows and films she has worked on have earned her a record 32 individual Primetime Emmy Awards, 42 Peabodys, and 26 Oscars.

She happened to be at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan — “I was introducing something,” she says — and went into the museum’s deserted library beforehand to prepare when she saw a copy of a book on display. It was called “The Number on My Grandfather’s Arm.”

“I read it, borrowed it, and thought this would make a good film,” she said. “I realized that the book was old, so today, it would have to be a great-grandfather, and I also realized that there were not going to be many survivors who fit that category.”

Still, she went to the cocktail party, made her remarks, and went on a hunt for women between the ages of 35 and 50 who might have a grandfather who survived the war and a son between 9 and 12.

Unbelievably, the first woman she approached, Stacy Saiontz, fit the bill perfectly. Though the filmmakers interviewed others, it was Stacy’s son Elliott who was selected.

Srulek Feldman, 90, engages in intimate conversation with his grandson, Elliott, 10.

Told the project seems bashert, she says, “I was going to say that, but I was afraid I couldn’t pronounce it right.”

Repeated for her, she agrees. “It truly is bashert,” she says. “One minute I’m sitting in a library and my eye catches a book and the next thing I know I’m looking for someone to be in my movie.”

Nevins’ lack of familiarity with Jewish words easily can be explained by her upbringing: “I was raised by communists,” she said. “I didn’t identify strongly as being Jewish, partly because I wasn’t allowed to.”

But that has changed, with a journey that can only be described as, well, bashert. It began when her son David approached age 13 and announced that he wanted to become a bar mitzvah.

When Sheila asked why, he claimed that he wanted a Las Vegas night like his friends. That didn’t seem like sufficient reason for the ceremony, so Nevins and her husband, Sidney Koch, took the boy to U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. David apparently was so moved by what he saw that he wanted to buy a Magen David to wear. While father and son headed off to the gift shop, Sheila continued to tour the exhibits, and came upon a film of Gerda Weissman Klein talking about her six years as a victim of Nazi cruelty. That led to “One Survivor Remembers,” a film that won both best short Oscar and a Primetime Emmy.

It started her on the road to recovering her Jewish identity that culminated with her visits to the Museum of the Jewish Heritage. “I get tearful there,” she said. “There’s something about looking at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island [from the museum] that reminds you how hard it is for so many, and about all those who didn’t survive.

“So for many reasons, I became very Jewish. I feel very proud and I feel committed to telling these stories.”

She solicited filmmaker Amy Schatz, a frequent collaborator and multiple award winner herself (eight Emmys, five Director Guild Awards, and three Peabodys) to bring the concept to fruition.

“When Sheila came to me with the book, I was worried,” Schatz admits. “She always asks for children’s shows that are deep and sophisticated and explore some of our most challenging issues.

“This was a difficult subject and I had to figure out how we could do something gentle and yet be real honest.”

She came up with an ingenious solution. She filmed Elliott and Jack of course, used home movies of the two on vacation, and also looked at archival footage of the Nazis and camps. “But that footage was so horrifying.”

So she hired artist Jeff Scher, who used rotoscope animation — that is, he painted over photos — to provide drawings so beautiful that the Heritage Museum is exhibiting through April.

“Do you know the film is 18 minutes long?” Nevins asks. Yes, I did watch it.

“Do you know the significance of the number 18?” Yes, I do.

It wasn’t planned that way. Nevins continues. “A man in his 60s came over to me [after an early screening and said] ‘Only you would have known to make this film 18 minutes.’ It wasn’t planned that way. It was bashert.”

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