Forgotten Transports: To Estonia

 

Film Info

Country Czech Republic
Language English and Czech with English subtitles
Year of Release 2008
Running Time 85 minutes

Crew

Director Lukáš Přibyl
Screenplay Lukáš Přibyl
Director of Photography Jakub Šimůnek
Music Petr Ostrouchov
Editor Vladimír Barák
Producer Lukáš Přibyl
Producer Ondřej Trojan
Production Lukáš Přibyl
Production Total HelpArt T.H.A.

Cast

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Synopsis

On September 5, 1942, a transport of a thousand Czech Jews arrives at the tiny village of Raasiku. Nazi officers immediately separate out several dozen young women. As their families board blue buses, the girls are required to help load the luggage onto trucks. When they finally reach the Jägala concentration camp, they are in for a shock. Their families, as the commandant announces to them after a thorough body search, have been sent to a better-equipped, heated camp...

The women sort through the deportees' luggage. From time to time, the commandant picks out a pretty girl, who is rewarded by being sent to join her parents. Yet the bewildered girls soon form an extremely tight-knit group based on mutual aid and bonds stronger than friendship: "We left homes where we were surrounded by large families and lots of love. And suddenly all that was gone... The older girls were our role models - we younger ones were looking for people to take the place of our mothers - so we clung to them. If you are 18 and someone is 23 or 25, that makes a big difference."

As the war progresses, the living conditions of the women - now taken to the Central prison in the Estonian capital of Tallinn - steadily deteriorate. Nonetheless, they refuse to admit this to themselves. They act in unison, almost like a single living organism, and their youthful optimism, humor and naivety enable them to overcome unspeakable hardships on their dramatic journey through concentration camps. They put a positive spin on every situation they encounter: "We went to fetch bricks, at the other end of Estonia... We enjoyed that very much. If we had been free, it would have been beautiful there."

In the port of Tallinn, put to forced labor, the girls meet ordinary Estonians, Russians and Germans. Friendships and relationships develop beyond the bounds of ideology and racial hatred. Swedish sailors even offer to smuggle some of the women out, yet escape is unthinkable - they have been warned that their parents will pay the price if they try to run away . . .

Those attempting to get away disappear, as in the case of an astonishing concentration camp Romeo and Juliet. The commandant of the Ereda camp falls in love with the beautiful Inge Sylten, completely changes his behavior and tries to leave the SS. Their love inevitably ends in tragedy.

On their long journey through concentration camps in Estonia and then Germany, the women are constantly surrounded by death and danger, yet almost miraculously they manage to avoid them: "The fact that we were always together was an enormous source of strength. That really helped save our lives. Nobody ever let any of the others fall..." Focused on their own group, they are almost oblivious to the Holocaust raging around them. Enclosed in a self-created protective bubble, they stubbornly ignore the horror, always believing they will be reunited with their family and friends. Only on September 5, 1945, at a party while they are convalescing in Sweden, does a priest explain the mystery of their families' disappearance...

For seven years, Lukáš Přibyl researched and filmed Forgotten Transports, a series of four unique documentaries based on the recollections of Czech Jewish eyewitnesses deported to virtually unknown concentration camps and ghettos in Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and eastern Poland. The films have none of the grand narratives usually associated with movies about the Holocaust. Rather, they tell gripping stories without any commentary, through a montage of interviews with the handful of survivors - most describing what happened to them for the first time - and previously unseen photographs and film drawn from archives, the garages of former SS troops and a variety of other sources. Every detail is painstakingly documented with authentic visuals from the precise time and place. This approach is highly effective in bringing out the private perspectives and recollections of each individual, since the witnesses describe only about what they experienced themselves. Together, their limited points of view build into a surprising new picture of the Holocaust and different styles of survival. Edited down from 260 hours of raw footage, shot in over twenty countries on three continents, the complete project consists of four films (six hours in all) that can be screened individually or as a series.

Back to the Forgotten Transports: To Estonia movie page

Photos

Awards

Audience Award - ONE WORLD 2009 (Europe's largest International Human Rights Documentary Festival)

Additional info

The process of film production was preceded and accompanied by hundreds of hours of archival research. Before this documentary was being made, one has to remember that there almost no written studies on these camps and ghettos. For the film to raise qualified questions and draw correct conclusions on the historical context beyond knowledge of individual witnesses, tens of thousands of pages of documents in many world archives had to be inspected and scrutinized.

Finding the few remaining eyewitnesses was a most arduous task. Altogether only about 260 Czech Jews emerged alive from the relevant locations. The total number of Jews from other countries who survived similar death transports was even lower (the fact can be attributed largely to Czech Jews' ability to understand both German and Eastern European Slavic languages, an important prerequisite for enduring in the East).

Our search for people's memories commenced with wartime deportation lists and post-war Jewish community records. Most Jews left Czechoslovakia after 1945, many adopted new surnames or changed them through matrimony. We inquired with Jewish communities; posted newspaper advertisements; studied marriage, birth and death registers; contacted survivor organizations and community centres; perused police files; looked through phone books of dozens of countries, dialling hundreds of people of a given name. To provide just one example of this almost detective work: Shortly after the war, the man we were looking for changed his German sounding name to a Czech one. In Israel a few years later, he took on a Hebrew form of his Czech surname. We finally traced him to Los Angeles, where he was living under an anglicised Hebrew name.

In the course of this delving we ascertained the post-1945 fate of nearly 250 people and in the end discovered over sixty men and women swept with the deportations of 1941 and 1942 who were still alive. Furthermore, we interviewed another thirty people with deep knowledge about these deportations. It was a true race against time - in case of one man we travelled half around the globe to learn upon our arrival to Colorado that his condition had suddenly, unexpectedly deteriorated and that he was in a coma. Securing the permission of his physicians and family, we went to the hospital. The name of the camp he had survived whispered into his ear, the ninety-year old man abruptly rose from unconsciousness, sat up and insisted on being taped immediately. After "getting this thing off my chest at last", as he phrased it, he chatted with his daughter and wife and died peacefully eight hours after the interview, during which he described his own execution - the bullet didn't kill him and he later managed to disentangle himself from the corpses and climb out of the mass grave.

Dispersed all over the world, traumatized and with experiences exceptionally unusual and rare, most of the people we talked to were never contacted by or chose to evade interviewing programs organized by Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation and various Holocaust museums. Many confessed to a subjective suspicion that since they had not been inmates of Auschwitz, they were not listened to, had no one to share past with and their experience was somehow deemed less worthy, even by fellow survivors. To obtain consent to film these deeply wounded people required in several cases up to two years of gradual building up of trust. Often it was only through our footage that children of men and women with the most uncommon of recollections at last learned of their parent's wartime fate.

Conscious of the inadequacies of human memory, we exerted much effort to "check" each interview using a broad array of sources of information. Overall, we found the testimonies of survivors from the under-researched places exceptionally accurate. For a single person who lived out of a transport of a thousand, there isn't anyone to confabulate reminiscences with - it is salient how pristine and uncorrupted by other accounts they remain. Memory of these men and women simply could not suffer from integration of post-survival knowledge acquired from books, documentaries and people as no such readily accessible materials exist and there are virtually no fellow survivors. They could tell only what they remembered.

As has been stated, instead of dealing with millions of faceless victims the film concentrates on individual human beings representing multitudes. The narrative is pieced together from narrow personal viewpoints, telling the big story "from the bottom up", through the words of the people "on the ground". Throughout the film we see events with their eyes and our camera focuses on what they themselves observed. Thus we find little use of footage of Adolf Hitler and the top Nazi dignitaries, as they played no part in the immediate lives of the people we give voice to. They did not attend mass rallies or military parades and were banished from cinemas with Goebbels' or Goering's speeches on newsreels. The deportees recall their immediate surroundings and people they had firsthand interaction with. The executioners and locals in the East had a similarly parochial view.

With this understanding we set out to collect such material as to be able to depict almost every detail mentioned by the witnesses. We believe there is a visual record of almost everything and we excel in the art of finding it. Little of this evidence is held in public archives, thus we put great emphasis on pursuing images in private possession. Our extremely time exacting effort was rewarded by obtaining snapshots taken by Polish or German supervisors at slave labour works or pictures unearthed in garages of children of the former SS men. Recently we procured a few photos taken by one of the murderers during an execution of Czech Jews in Estonia. We even identified one woman, limned and distraught, on her way to the execution pit. Her daughter was one of the few survivors of this particular transport. From a thousand people transported to Rejowiec, three lived until liberation and two are alive today. A lady now residing in Australia was saved by a Polish worker who fell in love with her and secured her escape. She is depicted on a collection of photos from 1942, digging drainage canals that cost hundreds of Jews their lives. Her rescuer died a few years ago but his family kept treasuring the father's pictures of a Czech girl he had once loved and about whose survival they did not know...

The meticulousness paid to locating photos in private holdings was also applied to images in film and photo archives. Major archives in the West and little visited and researched collections in Eastern Europe, as well as the files of the former KGB recently made accessible have been thoroughly examined. Among the thousands of photos taken by Soviet photographers during a parade in liberated Minsk, we found the one portraying the only living Czech escapee from Maly Trostinec camp. Hundreds of hours of extant footage have been viewed to pick historically exact sequences.

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