Inevitably, researching my film J’Accuse! was painful. The discovery of facts, photographs, reports and testimonies brought new layers of grief, horror and rage. But this week something quite extraordinary happened. I got an email, and a ray of light shone out from the archive like a lighthouse.
Please look closely at the photograph in the poster. These are the children of the Jewish kindergarten in Plunge, Lithuania. All were murdered in conditions of unbelievable cruelty. And behind them is their teacher, Miss Etl Sher.
These children, and Etl Sher, became the voice of my film. I have tried to ask the questions they would ask, to make the demands that they would make. And of course Etl Sher was at the centre of everything.
Please, look again. Etl was evidently a special young woman, selected no doubt from many and entrusted to look after these obviously loved children. She was their teacher, their carer. It was she who every day opened their young eyes to the world, it was her arms and voice that soothed them in the playground tumult, her songs that lulled them to sleep in Yiddish lullabies. Please observe how carefully she has prepared them for this astonishing photograph: the neat haircuts, scrubbed faces and hands, the rocking horse, the polished shoes, the starched tunics and aprons, the meticulous pencils and paints and writing materials. And look at her face: a pretty young woman with pride, intelligence and compassion.
Every day as I made this film I wondered what became of the children and this lovely young woman. I imagined, reasonably, that along with all the Jews of Plunge she woke up one day to discover that she was no longer human and from that moment on faced random robbery, rape, torture, humiliation and murder. And even if she had somehow survived the carnival depravity of the first weeks she would undoubtedly have starved in her synagogue, along with her pupils and all their families, and then be dragged to a pit and mercilessly shot.
And then, this email arrived:
Hello, I live in Israel. My name is Zipi. I was born in Lithuania. My mother was Etl Sher. She was born in Plunge. I am interested how you have this photo…
Yes, Etl Sher survived. She fled Plunge in the last car to leave for Russia hours before the slaughter, returned to Lithuania after the war, then emigrated to Israel in the 60s. Etl Sher had two daughters, two grandchildren and two great grandchildren. She was 97 when she passed away in 2012. Z”l.