Thirty-one percent of Americans, including 41% of millennials, believe that 2 million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66% of millennials, don’t know what Auschwitz was.
Those are some of the jarring findings from a survey published in April by Schoen Consulting.
As we brace for a future generation without living Holocaust survivors and their firsthand testimony, not to mention our grappling with the current generation’s fading recollection, how do we make sure that Holocaust memory endures?
As a filmmaker whose maternal grandparents survived the Holocaust, I’ve had the unique opportunity to tackle the Holocaust memory dilemma from both personal and professional perspectives. The result is “The Podkamieners,” my newly released short film series that reimagines the Holocaust documentary genre through the use of animation juxtaposed with accounts from survivors and their descendants. The series follows my family’s experiences in the war as they’re forced to flee their small town of Podkamien, Poland and hide in the woods at the peak of WWII.
Growing up, I always knew that my grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Even as a child, I heard my mother’s stories of how my grandparents survived by hiding in the forest, living on nothing but potato skins. My grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Poland after WWII and worked as sweatshop workers to provide my mother and uncle with the simple life that they could afford.
But in my eyes, my grandparents did not represent the stereotypical image of “Holocaust survivors.” From what I heard in the classroom and saw in media, survivors had numbers tattooed across their arms and told outstanding stories of their depravity in concentration camps and their even more outstanding survival. However, from what I knew, my grandparents were none of those things. They had never spoken to me about their experiences during the Holocaust and had barely a picture to show of their lives before the war. And now, both of my grandparents have been gone for over 20 years.
When I started this project, which features first and secondhand accounts by family members, both related and chosen—I could never have imagined that by capturing these stories, I would discover a different side of Holocaust survival—from a family of 30 finding refuge in the basement of a monastery, to a mother and son hiding in a coffin-sized bale of hay for more than 16 months. While the five films in “The Podkamieners” never reach a concentration, these stories are equally important in understanding the events of the Holocaust and are often overlooked.
With such compelling narratives, I knew I had the onus to bring equally compelling visuals. I didn’t want this project to be like anything else. I wanted to create something new from something old, something bold, something that could bring a new generation into a world they could have never imagined. Something that they could understand and pass along through generations to come.
I wanted to animate the past.
My gut feeling was that there was no better way to accomplish this than through the process of animation, drawing out key scenes from the films. The decision to animate parts of these films presented a handful of new and exciting possibilities, namely the opportunity to visualize certain experiences that could otherwise only be told through words.
But with that opportunity also came a host of challenges, the biggest one being the responsibility to portray my family’s experiences in the most effective yet sensitive way possible, ensuring that animation was used to enhance their experiences rather than demean them.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that using animation to visualize these scenes would actually help make these experiences more palpable for viewers who may be deterred from stock footage or recreations that are too physically and emotionally graphic to bear, whether it be the close calls and close quarters of the ghetto or the brutal and often tragic conditions of hiding in the forest. Ultimately, it presented a better and fuller understanding of what my family and the Jews of Podkamien endured.
It’s my hope that “The Podkamieners,” through its unique blend of animation and testimony, will speak to both a current generation that is increasingly losing its awareness of the Holocaust and a future generation who will never get the chance to meet a survivor.
Learn more about the project at www.thepodkamieners.com.
Sarah Kamaras is an independent filmmaker living in New York City and the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. She is the director of “The Podkamieners.”