Ukrainian survivors chronicled in film

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The documentary "Fading Traces" memorializes the thriving Ukrainian Jewish community that was destroyed systematically by the Nazis in World War II.

In this 1998 film, writer-director Walo Deuber blends Holocaust survivors' stories, literary excerpts, music and present-day footage to recall the decimated population from "the cradle of Chassidism."

"Fading Traces" will be shown Wednesday in San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in collaboration with the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Deuber begins "Fading Traces" with a superimposed quote from Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of th e Chassidism who lived and died in 18th-century Ukraine: "To forget is to prolong exile. Memory is the gateway to salvation."

After allowing a long moment for the thought to sink in, Deuber plunges in and brings the story of the lost Ukrainian Jews to life.

He intermingles readings from a dozen historical literary works, including such intellectuals as Martin Buber and Paul Celan; scenes of modern life in the very towns and countryside that are depicted in the writings; testimonials from nine survivors interviewed in their native villages; and music ranging from Russian folk tunes and klezmer to the classic works of Chopin, Strauss and Shostakovich.

The images are clear and evocative, although the juxtaposition is a bit confusing at the beginning, until Deuber's intent and pattern become clear.

We see today's residents strolling down a cobblestoned city street among Rollerbladers and chess players. A girl in a shiny black miniskirt and tall platform sandals walks with her sweetheart. Another young woman sits at an outdoor bistro table drinking her coffee.

Meanwhile, a narrator reads from prewar works that describe a contented Jewish life there.

But soon the tone becomes ominous. The death-camp trains strip the village of its Jewish population. And for the rest of the film, we see burned-out synagogues and plaques that commemorate Holocaust atrocities interspersed with such timeless and everyday images as rolling rivers, flying geese, praying Jews and playing children.

The narration, which is in English, includes a description of the pre-Nazi Austro-Hungarian Empire's tolerant atmosphere toward its vast and viable Jewish community, as well as an account of a day in the life of a dispassionately murderous Gestapo captain, read from his war diary.

Throughout the film, Deuber also presents subtitled interviews with Holocaust survivors in the Ukrainian surroundings they were unwilling or unable to flee.

One woman sits in a garden telling her unspeakable story metaphorically in song. One man opens up to the camera in his dining room, while his wife sits next to him at the table cracking nuts and adding their meats to a spread of nuts, fruits and candies.

Others gather armfuls of wildflowers while they walk and talk, offering them at cemeteries, tombs, mass graves and the very sites where they hid and watched their families board trains or even die.

The survivors are unflinching and poetic. They address the camera calmly, directly and articulately, even as their eyes well up and their voices quaver. Their memories are horrific, their predictions dire; yet they appear clearheaded and reserved. They are the tiny group of people left to represent the dead — surely they have been forced to numb themselves from their unthinkable past, as life around them has moved on.

The end of "Fading Traces" repeats the Ba'al Shem Tov quote from the film's beginning, bringing full circle Deuber's effort to compile what he calls "postscripts from a landscape of memory" into a "legacy of a world which is now lost to the Jewish people — as well as to the world."