The question caught me off guard.
“How do you feel about the Germans today? Do you hate them?”
It came up in discussions with the audience after both screenings of my film at the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival in Greece last month.
As questions often reveal quite a bit about the questioners, I really shouldn’t have been surprised, considering that the Greeks, non-Jews as well as Jews, had suffered bitterly at the hands of the Nazis. That bitterness still seems to be more in the air there than even in Israel, in part, because the subject is not frequently vented publicly in Greece, and in part, because of the resentment many Greeks feel today towards the Germans for the current economic crisis.
But my film doesn’t really deal with the Germans, though it does touch on the Ukrainian collaboration. Called The Kalusz I Thought I Knew and featured in a section of the festival dealing with the topic of memory, the documentary tells the story of my search for my father’s house, and how the images that filled my childhood from my father’s stories contrast with the humdrum events of life in a small present-day Ukrainian town.
In Israel, at discussions following screenings at the Haifa Film Festival and elsewhere, the topic of personal animosity hadn’t come up. My simple answer to the Greek questioners was that I don’t. But there’s more to it than that. My main conclusion is that it’s not really a matter of hating or not hating. It’s a matter of telling the story — and letting the chips fall where they may.
It’s only now that I realize how important it was for my father to keep on telling his story, back in the 1950’s and 60’s when public discussion about the ‘war’ as it was called in those days was taboo. Long before the terms ‘shoah’ and ‘holocaust’ were coined, a decade or two before the American TV series Holocaust, Elie Wiesel’s bestsellers, the movie Schindler’s List and Holocaust memorials and everything else that put the subject on the map, my father kept on telling his stories to anyone that would listen, even if most people didn’t want to hear it and many didn’t believe him.
And it was only in making my film, and thereby retelling his stories, that I came to realize that no matter how devastating the actual tragedy was, events are always finite and limited in time. Stories, on the other hand, can have a kind of immeasurable impact, and aren’t limited in time.
So there I was in Greece, about 70 years after the event, telling through a film subtitled into Greek, a language my father didn’t speak, the story of how my father was put on a train with two of his younger brothers. The plan was for him to jump first and the others to follow immediately afterwards. He jumped out but he never saw his brothers again.
That story is a story I will keep on telling. And it doesn’t really matter if they are the descendants of survivors, and find something that resonates with their family story, or if they find something that makes them uncomfortable, as a Ukrainian member of the audience did.
My father and most of his generation are no longer with us. The war is over. But the stories remain.