Monday, August 24, 2015

Three Minutes in Poland by Glenn Kurtz

Someone lent me this book and I'm so glad they did because it was fascinating and I had not otherwise heard of it.

This is a true story - in 2009 while searching through old movies in his parents' den, Kurtz came across a home movie shot by his grandfather while touring Europe in the summer of 1938.  His grandparents were fairly well off immigrant Jews now living in Brooklyn and they sailed to Europe for a vacation with three friends.  They visited London, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Switzerland, but what really caught Kurtz's eye was three minutes of film from a visit to a town in their native Poland.  Since this was taken just a year before the Nazi invasion of Poland, he realizes this is probably one of the very few surviving records of a lost community.  So he sets out to try and locate where the film was taken and whether any of the many people who wander through the frames can be identified and have survived.  His grandparents have both passed away and his father cannot help so he has little to go on - though his aunt finds several postcards and letters sent to her at summer camp that year which help him build the itinerary.

He first seeks the help of the US Holocaust Museum to restore and then catalogue the film.  He hits many dead ends in identifying the film (in fact, he first believes it's his grandmother's home town then discover it was in fact his grandfather's).  His first big breakthrough is when a woman sees the film on the Holocaust Museum website and recognizes her grandfather, as a boy of 13, jumping in front of the camera.  Now 86 and living in Florida, Maurice Chandler and his family reach out to Kurtz and together they piece together fragments of the lost history.

Maurice recognizes some of the faces, puts Kurtz in touch with a handful of other survivors from the town, or their descendants and shares both memories of his happy childhood and the horrors of surviving the war (and being the sole survivor from his family).  Kurtz travels throughout the US, Canada, Israel, England and Poland to meet with other survivors and build as comprehensive list as possible of the people in the movie and their fates.

Parts of the book can be a bit dry - details on the film is restored; some of the lists he reads and creates.  And at times it can be hard to keep track of all the players (it might have been helpful if he'd appended his lists at the back of the book as a reference).   There are the many people in the movie (some of whom survived and anglicized their names so are referred to in more than one way) as well as their descendants, the Polish and American researchers who assist Kurtz and his many friends and family members.

But overall this is really fascinating and a tremendous tribute to a community that was virtually eliminated.  It's no wonder this three minutes of film now runs in a continuous loop at the Auschwitz museum documenting pre-World War II Jewish life in Poland.

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