Encounters with real-life survivors of the Holocaust can be wrenchingly emotional. The stories of suffering and travail, the grim resignation of starvation and sudden, brutal death all around you, the soul-searing realization of the inhumanity of humanity can turn even a stony heart into a puddle of tears.
The first survivor I ever interviewed was in Charlotte, N.C., when I worked for a public radio station there. I’ve been grateful that every such interview I’ve done since was for newspapers, because keeping one’s composure can be a real struggle when listening to such narratives, doubly so when you’re in front of a live mike.
“I Am Here” tells the remarkable story of Ella Blumenthal, a survivor who came to the filmmaker’s attention for writing a compassionate “loving” open letter to a Holocaust denier, insisting there was more “that unites us than divides us.”
Born in Warsaw in 1921, Ella was the youngest in her family and one of only three extended family members to survive the mass deportation, enslavement and murder of Jews by Nazi Germany. She witnessed the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, hid out in a walled-in basement with her father and niece, and survived not one but three Nazi concentration camps — Majdanek, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
Framing the film with Ella’s 98th birthday party, with family gathered around her, South African documentarian Jordy Sank captures a woman of wit, warmth and pathos as she interacts with her family. She shows old photographs and embraces great grandchildren, grandchildren and her children, who remember hearing her night terrors growing up and the “story” she told them about the car accident she used to explain the scar on her arm, the one where the tattoo with “48632” and a triangle, “for Jews,” used to be.
Sank uses newsreel footage and animated recreations of Ella’s experiences as she narrates her story. We see and hear of the idyllic childhood interrupted by invasion, the terrifying upheaval that entered her life, her fleeing, hiding out and her eventual capture and deportation.
With executions and people starving to death all around her, one cannot help but be moved by the many awful tests of Blumenthal’s touching story of endurance. She even chillingly recalls being stripped and “pushed into a gas chamber” with her niece Roma, comforting the child with “We’ll see our loved ones soon,” only to have the officious Germans open the door with a gruff announcement that they’d met their “quota” for the day.
Through it all, “I never lost hope.” To her offspring, she lectures “Who left this biscuit?” Wasting food remained a cardinal sin for someone who nearly starved many times over five hellish years.
And to the great grandkids who might doubt her, “It’s not a STORY. This really happened!”
But this film’s sentimental depiction of Ella Blumenthal’s later years, thriving and raising a family, gives it a problematic, unspoken subtext. There’s a South African elephant in the room that the South African filmmaker didn’t broach. As we see images from Ella and her husband’s thriving Johannesburg retail clothing establishment in the 1960s, of course we don’t see a single Black face among the staff or the customers.
The Blumenthals lived their entire married lives, with Ella surviving her husband, in the most racist country on Earth. Are we to believe this woman who went through so much in her teens and 20s didn’t have reactions, even flashbacks, seeing the violent removal and relocations of millions of Black South Africans in the 1960s, ’70s and 80s, the “separation” and brutally violent repression of the nation’s majority native-born population?
She didn’t have opinions? Even if she didn’t speak out due to past trauma or fear, surely she had something to say about that. Why not ask? And since you didn’t ask, we left wondering what we don’t know
Not even touching on this in the most basic documentarian’s CYA way makes this film problematic in the least, damning if there are stories of exploitation and racism woven into what has to be a more complicated family history than Sank presents here.
I dare say only a South African filmmaker would have so conspicuously avoided that, but only if he was planning on showing it mostly abroad. Hearing Blumenthal’s adult children talk to her and about her in their Afrikaans accents just underscores it.
There’s an urgency to every film capturing the stories of the last of the survivors. There are scores of these documentaries, and every survivor telling her or his story is varying degrees of gripping, moving and “life affirming” in that “we must go on” way. Blumenthal’s stirring story would be an invaluable addition to any anthology of various survivors’ experiences.
But when the ethos of keeping these stories alive is “Never Again,” and “Never again” was happening again right in front of Ella Blumenthal and her entire family for decades upon decades, it isn’t “off message” for your movie to make some effort to address it.
Ignoring that is disingenuous at best, and tone deaf at the very least.
Rating: unrated, discussions of genocidal violence
Cast: Ella Blumenthal, her children and grandchildren
Credits: Directed by Jordy Sank. A Blue Fox release.
Running time: 1:12