In my film J’Accuse! about the Lithuanian holocaust I rely significantly on archive photography to tell the story; black and white prints, often grainy, that somehow escaped the inferno. Many of the photos may be familiar to you, but their primal power remains: two small, fearful brothers, yellow stars on their filthy clothes; an inconsolable grandmother; a naked young woman being escorted to her death; a class of little girls stripping by the pit; the doomed Jewish orchestra in the Kaunas ghetto; Ponary.
I am hugely grateful to the great holocaust libraries, Yad Vashem and USHMM, who provided me with these and other essential photos for my film at very low cost. Without these priceless images my film could not have been made. And they were a pleasure to deal with.
But there has been another more surprising source of rare archive: family and community snaps. Many of the most revealing photos in my film came from Litvak friends I have made while researching this film. (There is a good reason for this bounty: many of Eastern Europe’s pre-war photographers were Jews which is why so many of us have those beautiful photos of our families, dead or alive.)
One of these gorgeous photos has become especially important to me. Indeed, it is the icon, the poster image of J’Accuse! It was sent by my friends Maxine and Victor Boyd of Cape Town and I cannot thank them enough. Thanks too to the Cape Town Holocaust Museum who have kindly allowed me its use.
The photo was owned by Victor’s father Joe Boyd who came to SA in 1929. It shows a Jewish kindergarten class in the northern Lithuanian town of Plunge in 1937. The little boy, number 7 from the left, is Zalman Zive, son of Esther and Matus Zive, Joe’s great nephew. The teacher’s name was Miss Scher. Those are the only names we know. Everyone was murdered.
The photographic detail is astonishing and reveals so much about these children. Look closely. Note the the rocking horse, the shoes, the pressed pinafores and aprons, the creative play materials, the careful haircuts. The faces of obviously loved children.
And then imagine, if you can bear it, the day just four years later when these children would wake up to discover that they were no longer human. And how, after weeks of deranged savagery all about them they would be ripped from what remained of their homes and imprisoned in their once-beautiful synagogue. How they would be held there, without food or a drop of water for three weeks in the summer heat. How their last days would be endured amid the stench of excrement and rotting bodies. And how the survivors would be carted off to pits and shot, bludgeoned or asphyxiated to death.
These children knew their murderer. I expect they even saw him during this torment, because he chose to live right opposite their dying synagogue, in a stolen Jewish house. And certainly they would have heard his name: Jonas Noreika.
Please, look once more at their faces. You are looking at the scriptwriters of my film J’Accuse!
The voice is theirs, and theirs alone.