2016-05-06 / Community News

Novel’s plot becomes plot of author’s life

Pre-Holocaust film depicts a happy Jewish community in Poland
By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

A New York author will appear at Congregation Etz Chaim next week for a public presentation about his experiences piecing history together after discovering a 1938 home video his grandfather had filmed in Nasielsk, Poland, a year before Nazis destroyed its Jewish community.

Glenn Kurtz, author of “Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film,” will show the film and discuss his book at the non-denominational synagogue on Bacon Street in Biddeford at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 12.

Kurtz discovered the film in his parents’ closet in 2009 in their Florida home. Kurtz said he was looking for the old film because he was writing a novel at the time about somebody who discovered an old home movie at a flea market and then became obsessed with the people in the film.

“The plot of the novel turned into the plot of my life,” Kurtz said. “I became obsessed with trying to discover the identity of the people in the film.”

Kurtz never knew his grandfather, David Kurtz, who died before he was born, and his grandmother had never spoken about the travels. David Kurtz was born in Nasielsk, where his mother was from, in 1888, but had emigrated to America and become a U.S. citizen by the time he was 4 years old. Glenn Kurtz said it is unclear whether his grandfather, who was 50 when the video was filmed, was visiting maternal relatives or simply visiting as a tourist.

Kurtz said the film captures a joyful community living normally just a year before the Germans invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. The Nazis occupied Nasielsk by Sept. 4 that year, and on Dec. 3, they began deporting the entire Jewish community from the town.

“Looking at it, you realize that every person in this film is under a death sentence most likely,” Kurtz said. “Looking at it and knowing what they don’t know yet, knowing what their fate is going to be – it’s just heartbreaking, even though the film itself just shows happy people doing normal things.”

Kurtz said by inheriting the film, he felt responsible for the memories of the people recorded.

“He had done something extraordinary. He captured this population of pre-war Polish Jews. The only thing we know about them in the broad cultural consciousness is that they were killed, victims, but here in the film, they’re not: They’re people doing happy things, happy to see a camera.”

Kurtz said it took him a while to figure out that the film was taken in the small town of Nasielsk, 45 miles northwest of Warsaw, but putting together names with faces in an image would have been near impossible.

Kurtz donated the original film to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for preservation and to be publicly available online. Soon after, Kurtz was contacted by a Detroit woman who had seen her grandfather as a 13-year-old boy in the film.

“I would know it like I would know my own face in the mirror, but I had never seen a picture of my grandfather when he was 14 years old,” said Marcy Rosen in a documentary posted on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s YouTube site.

Rosen’s grandfather, Maurice Chandler, had been the sole survivor of his family. Kurtz and Chandler corresponded over the next four years, talking about the film and Chandler’s recollections of the town. Kurtz found eight survivors from the town, including another woman in the film named Figa Tick, who was 95 years old at the time Kurtz met her. Kurtz said the film has provided images to survivors of their family members who did not survive the Holocaust – family members whom they had no pictures of.

Kurtz said as soon as he met Chandler, he abandoned his original novel idea altogether.

“I realized this story and the information was so much more powerful than anything I could have created,” Kurtz said. “It’s the story of how I came in contact with the survivors and allowed them to present their recollections.”

For Robert Pierce of Alfred, the volunteer teacher of the confirmation class at Congregation Etz Chaim, getting Kurtz to visit and deliver a presentation in Biddeford happened as fortuitously as Kurtz’s unraveling of the memories of a pre-war Polish town. Pierce’s wife, Susan Pierce, had graduated from New England Conservatory-Tufts University in the same year as Kurtz.

Robert Pierce came home one day to a Tufts alumni magazine that had been placed on the coffee table and opened to the article for him to see.

In the confirmation class, Pierce teaches young Jews in the area about Jewish studies – focusing on anti-Semitism, Israel, Palestine, Yiddish culture, the Holocaust, and the Middle East. This year, the class had been focusing on the Pale of Settlement, a region of western Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary where Jews were allowed to settle, and which was largely annihilated during World War II.

Pierce decided to invite Kurtz to speak with the class after reading his book, and his students read it as part of their studies. It turned out that Kurtz’s sister-in-law, Cynthia Kurtz, lives in Kennebunk and is a member of Congregation Etz Chaim. Glenn Kurtz was going to be in the area visiting her.

“You hear about the Holocaust, you hear about 60 million Jews who died, you hear about Yiddish culture, but here you have this man who traveled around the world talking to survivors,” Robert Pierce said. “The fact that he’s not just an author, but his sister-in-law is a member of our congregation, makes it that more real.”

Pierce said the goal of the class is to instill a sense of Jewish pride and a connection between Judaism and being an American. Pierce said his students live in surrounding towns, including Arundel, Kennebunk and Biddeford.

“Each kid is especially a minority in their town,” Pierce said. “In the whole state of Maine, Jews make up 1.8 percent of the population.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity to meet a real author, highly educated … To me, it makes what I’ve talked about in the general come to life in particular detail.”

Kurtz said he was fortunate to have been able to have interviewed seven survivors of the Holocaust because some of the subjects have since died.

“The question I started asking is, ‘Was it still possible to learn about life in this town after all this time and after all the violence this town had suffered?’ That was the question I had all along,” Kurtz said. “How much detail was it possible to recover?

“The poignant thing of the story is that this is the last moment when it was going to be possible to speak with people who experienced this first-hand … I talked to them at the last moment in which they could have talked about it.

“I researched to the best of my ability, but the most extraordinary discoveries in this story happened by chance and circumstance.”

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