Atlantic Videos & Film

Holocaust witnesses connect with new generation

A unique, powerful documentary illustrates 'the astonishing lack of information the youth have been taught about the Holocaust, the War and the struggle against fascism'

Shunpiking, February / March 1998, Volume 3, Number 18

IT HAPPENED 50 years ago, and fewer and fewer witnesses are still alive to tell about it, but the story of the Holocaust still lives.

The Auschwitz Connection, a documentary by award-winning producer John Versteege, is a moving look at today's effort to remember the senseless mass slaughter of innocent people by the Nazis during World War II through events that took place in 1994 and 1995.

What makes the 1996 documentary unique is its firsthand information. Unlike many war documentaries, where historians state facts or a host reads a script, The Auschwitz Connection features clips and interviews with people who witnessed to different degrees the horrors of the concentration camps, either as visitors to the sites, soldiers, or in one case, a prisoner.

The documentary's uniqueness also has something to do with Versteege's willing-to-take-a-chance attitude.

"The ultimate judgment doesn't come from someone giving you an award, it comes from the public," he says. He adds that it took a rather tremendous effort to get anything published about the documentary.

Versteege, whose company Global Video Inc. is based in Dartmouth, says the project came to mind when he began seeing more and more stories about the Holocaust in the news.

"This is weird," he thought then. "I've just seen one a few days ago, then another one. It's an ongoing story, even though it's 50 years later." He decided to look into it at schools, libraries and video stores, and says he found very little information on the subject.

Then he met Philip Riteman, a survivor of Auschwitz. "Literally two minutes after I met him, we were crying in each other's arms," says Versteege.

He worked on the documentary for two years.

The Auschwitz Connection follows Riteman to several places, mostly schools, as the survivor tells about his experiences. The camera also accompanies three young Nova Scotians to Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Poland, for the March of the Living. Interviews with war veterans, reactions to the movie Schindler's List and a candlelight remembrance of Crystal Nacht (Night of the Broken Glass), one of Hitler's vicious attacks on Jewish shop owners in Germany, round out the documentary.

Riteman is the documentary's highlight. He easily captures a viewer's heart and attention. His presentations to junior and high school students are very personal and emotional. He was only 14 when he arrived at Auschwitz. He tells of the atrocities of the camp, and never fails to get a reaction from the crowd. The camera often pans to the audience, where all eyes are fixed on Riteman and sometimes show expressions of sadness, shock, or revulsion when he tells his anecdotes. He often cries.

One story he tells is about how he worked in a garden in the camp, and one day saw Nazis take little children, hang them up in trees and shoot them for target practice.

"You should hear the screams of the children. You should see the blood on the fence," says Riteman, barely able to keep his composure. " I can see it right now."

Throughout the documentary are scattered clips of footage before, during and after the war. Among many others are pictures of soldiers, prisoners, concentration camps, bodies. The clips are well placed to illustrate what the speakers say.

One gripping clip is of small Jewish children showing the camera the identification numbers tattooed on their arms, as Riteman shows the camera his own scarred arm, telling the audience he was once number 98, 706.

The documentary begins with three young Jewish students before they participate in The March of the Living. The camera then follows them and their peers to Poland, and later films them giving a presentation about their experience to a class of students.

A powerful scene is the large group's entrance to the camp. Only 50 years ago, such a group could never have walked there in freedom. The participants are filmed and interviewed while they look at buildings, pictures of prisoners and their belongings, including their clothes, glasses and hair. An easy-to-overlook but meaningful clip is when the camera pans to a window in the "extermination" building, where someone has traced two Stars of David in the condensation.

"It is the affirmation that they are alive," says Versteege. " It shows their whole state of mind."

The participants seem eager to share their experiences with others. In the documentary, Ann Raskin summarizes her experience by saying she doesn't use the word 'unbelievable' to describe the Holocaust anymore.

"It happened then, it's happening now and it could possibly happen again in the future," she says to a class of students.

An interview with students from Halifax West High School after a showing of Schindler's List is eye-opening. Comments like "I didn't think it would be that serious" and "I had no idea what it was like until I saw it" and "It's surprising that we haven't learned more about it" illustrate the astonishing lack of information the youth have been taught about the Holocaust, the War and the struggle against fascism.

Versteege says the Department of Education bought the distribution rights for Nova Scotia, and some teachers are now using the documentary in classrooms.

War veterans who witnessed the Holocaust also tell their stories on the tape. Canadian artist Alex Colville makes an unexpected but welcome appearance to talk about his experience as a war artist. At one point he reads from his journal:

"On the first day I made a drawing of some women dead from starvation and typhus, lying outside one of the huts," says Colville. "While I drew, the group of bodies was added to, as more people died and were feebly dragged out of the hut by the inhabitants, who were themselves more dead than alive."

Overall, The Auschwitz Connection provides a rare and excellent glimpse into history.

*Line Goguen is in the one-year journalism program at King's College. She recently interned with shunpiking magazine.

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