Film teaches Marin teens about survivors of Shoah

Holocaust survivor Sol Liber sat with two grandchildren on his knees, while several of his grown children stood in a row behind him.

"I cheated Hitler and his henchmen, and this is what I got," said Liber, looking defiantly into the camera before smiling at the toddlers on his lap.

Liber is one of more than 6,000 Holocaust survivors whose video testimonies have been collected by the Survivors of the Holocaust Shoah Visual History Foundation, created by director Steven Spielberg. Highlights of these interviews, along with archival footage and drawings by survivors, were assembled for the film "Survivors of the Holocaust," which was screened Wednesday at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

The one-hour documentary pays particular attention to the perspective of the survivors as teenagers, which was the age of most of the more than 400 audience members at last week's special screening. The festival invited students to attend from seven schools, including Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, Marin Academy, Brandeis Hillel Day School and Redwood High School in Marin.

The haunting film disarmed the teenage students, transforming them from a rowdy bunch that stepped off yellow buses for the screening into an eerily quiet audience.

They stopped shifting in their seats as a survivor talked about her sister, a beautiful 13-year-old named Sabine. A guard fell in love with her, and smuggled her tear-stained letters from the prison camp. Only Sabine's letters survived, her sister recalled, crying.

Another survivor, Sigy Hart, described his bar mitzvah, which took place only a week after Kristallnacht, the infamous "Night of Broken Glass." Because Hart's synagogue burned down that night, his bar mitzvah ceremony was held in a private house, and he remembers burned Torah scrolls sitting in the corner. Tears welling in his eyes, Hart described his rabbi telling him "never to forget this."

The German-born Hart is keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive by telling his story to groups. That's why he made an appearance after the film screening and answered questions from students.

They queried him on everything from his belief in God to his opinions on the fighting in Bosnia. One student, Shayne Dubkowski, 16, from Mount Tamalpais School, asked if Hart thought there could be another Holocaust.

"History repeats itself," he said, a spotlight shining on his face as he sat on a stool in front of a microphone. "But, I hope not."

That hope is what drove the film's creators, which included not only Spielberg's foundation but also Turner Original Productions (which creates original programming for TBS). The cable station will air the film Jan. 8, and afterward the documentary will be available on video.

In showing the video to student audiences as well as on television, the filmmakers hope to reach viewers who may be unfamiliar with the Holocaust. They also hope to touch audiences, like most of the teenagers in Mill Valley, who have never met a survivor.

"For a lot of the people here, this is the first time they've ever heard of the Holocaust. It was really powerful," said Jonas Shaeffer, 16, of Marin Academy.

While Shaeffer — who wore a green Israeli army sweatshirt to the screening — is familiar with Jewish history, he believes that few of his classmates understand what happened during the Holocaust.

For director Alan Holzman, who was raised as an observant Jew in Baltimore, the Holocaust was "just a blanket number of awful things."

After working on the documentary series "The Native Americans" for TBS, Holzman applied his filmmaking skills to personalizing the "6 million Jews" he had heard about his whole life.

This film features about 40 survivors from the Los Angeles area. Holzman and the documentary's producers hope to make more films, splicing together the stories that continue to be recorded on video.

In a press release, Spielberg said the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation was formed in response to his film, "Schindler's List." The project evolved, he said, "because everybody involved wanted to tell their stories." Survivors are aging, he added, and "the window for capturing their testimonies is closing fast."

In a race against time, the foundation is collecting video testimonies as fast as it can. Eventually, hundreds of thousands of hours of video archives will be available to the public at several locations around the world. Until then, the film's producers are hoping the new documentary will keep the survivors' stories alive.

At the end of the film, as gruesome snapshots of crematoriums and starved faces are flashed across the screen, a woman's shaky voice is heard, an admonition to the students watching in the dark.

"Don't hate anybody. Look what happens from the hatred."

"Survivors of the Holocaust" will be shown on TBS at 8:05 p.m. Monday, Jan. 8 with an encore presentation at 11:05 p.m. Any survivors of the Holocaust who wish to give their testimonies should contact the Shoah Foundation at (800) 777-7802.