PBS documentary explores holocaust memories

In ‘Never Forget to Lie,’ documentary filmmaker Marian Marzynski, who survived the Holocaust as a child, returns to Warsaw to meet with and interview other child survivors.

By Eric Mink

Documentary filmmaker Marian Marzynski scattered crumbs of his personal story within “Shtetl,” his award-winning three-hour film that aired 19 years ago as a special presentation of PBS’ “Frontline” series.

From those crumbs, we learned that Marzynski was born in Warsaw in 1937 to Jewish parents, that he survived the Holocaust as a child but lost most of his family and that he stayed in Poland after the war until 1969, then immigrated to the United States.

“Shtetl” wasn’t really about him, though. The heart of the film was two older American Jews and one younger Polish Christian whose stories intersected in the small Polish town of Bransk. In “Shtetl,” the scant details of Marzynski’s wartime experiences served mainly to establish his legitimacy as the documentary’s catalyst and chronicler.

In contrast, Marzynski’s personal story is central to “Never Forget to Lie,” a new documentary that premieres on “Frontline” Tuesday, May 14. His Holocaust memories, his feelings and his intellectual struggles form the very heart and the connective tissue of his latest one-hour film.

It opens in one of the last extant courtyards of some of the last standing buildings of the Warsaw Ghetto, with Marzynski sketching the outlines what happened there to him and what happened to Warsaw’s other half a million Jews after the Nazis occupied Poland.

Marzynski is in Warsaw, it turns out, for the annual conference of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Descendants. It is August 2011, and it is the first of the organization’s 23 gatherings to be held meetings to be held in Warsaw. Marzynski connects with other aged children of the Holocaust attending the conference, talks to them, walks with them and gently, carefully, encourages them to tell their stories. Their accounts and his own weaves in and out of one another throughout “Never Forget to Lie.”

Each person’s story is different in its details, of course, yet common threads run through them: a child’s fear, confusion and resourcefulness; parental desperation and self-sacrifice; and courageous non-Jews who saved many lives, even as craven betrayals by others ended in many murders.

Not surprisingly, common threads also run through Marzynski’s three principal Holocaust-based “Frontline” documentaries: 1996’s “Shtetl”; 2005’s “A Jew Among the Germans”; and the new “Never Forget to Lie.” 

None of these threads is more significant than memory. In “Shtetl,” Jack Rubin of Baltimore returned to Bransk and found aging residents he knew before war forced him to flee, barely more than a teenager. Nathan Kaplan of Chicago, who was born in the U.S., traveled separately to Bransk, hoping to gain a concrete sense of time and place in which to anchor the stories of his family history. And Zbyszek Romaniuk, a sincere young Christian of Bransk, developed a curiosity about the history of his town, including, to the annoyance of some residents, its substantial Jewish dimensions.

Much of “Shtetl” revolved around disparities between what Romaniuk found in local records and heard from older residents and the degree to which some Polish residents of Bransk must have turned against their Jewish neighbors and aided their Nazi occupiers in order to reduce the Jewish population from about 2,500 before the war — 50-60 percent of the total — to zero after the war. Even after Romaniuk met with Holocaust Museum curators in Washington and Jewish survivors in Chicago and Baltimore, he struggled to accommodate information so at odds with his sense of his town and its people.

(“Shtetl” can be watched online at the “Frontline” website:www.pbs.org/frontline/shtetl/ )

Marzynski pursued memory even more vigorously in “A Jew Among the Germans,” a documentary structured around a complicated competition to choose a design for a Holocaust memorial in Berlin. Younger Germans rejected the idea that they should feel responsible for outrages against humanity committed or condoned by Germans at least two generations prior. By the end of film, Marzynski had concluded that a memorial built as a work of art would inevitably lack the

directness and educational capacity to properly convey the essence of the Holocaust.

(“A Jew Among the Germans” is accessible online at: www.pbs.org/frontline/shows/germans/view )

But it is in “Never Forget to Lie” that memory becomes most personal for Marzynski, which may well have something to do with his perspective, now, as a 76-year-old. “My childhood,” he admits at the film’s beginning, “still seems to be my psyche’s unfinished business.”

The film addresses one important piece of unfinished business through Marzynski’s clear and unambiguous acknowledgement of the non-Jewish Poles — friends, neighbors, priests and nuns — who took enormous risks to find safe havens for him and, separately, for his mother, who also survived. “Shtetl” mentioned, but glossed over, their heroic efforts.

Still, Marzynski’s larger concerns remain, as they must, unfinished at the film’s end: “The last eyewitnesses of the Holocaust,” he says, describing himself and other child survivors, “we were drawn to this non-existent world in search of its physical remnants. We brought with us pieces of our fragile memories, sometime out of focus, afraid that after us, they will be erased.”

Imponderables of timing and geography spared me, thank God, from Marzynski’s fate and worse, so I understand his fears of erasure only conceptually. Yet Marzynski has taken great care to protect his memories and those of others, using his skills as a storyteller and craftsman to commit them to film and electronic form. 

And while it’s true that anything can be destroyed (and much has been), it’s also true that thousands of people work at libraries, museums, memorials, historic sites and documentary and artistic archives all over the world to preserve Holocaust records and representations — cold facts and hard memories alike — in every existing medium.

Marzynski may demean the power of art in this realm, but I would direct him to, among many other examples, something he might reflexively dismiss as pedestrian: the mass killing sequences of ABC’s 1988 miniseries “War and Remembrance,” based on Herman Wouk’s novel. Creating those scenes was primarily the responsibility of an associate producer, Branko Lustig. An Auschwitz survivor, Lustig reproduced on film the methodical killing process of Nazi death camps in more graphic and horrific detail than I’ve ever seen in any other production, documentary or fiction, including “Schindler’s List.”

Lustig, some may recall, went on to serve as one of the producers of “Schindler’s List,” and when the film won the Academy Award for best picture on March 21, 1994, he began his portion of the acceptance speech by reciting the number tattooed on his arm: 83317.