Filmmaker hurrying to get stories of Czech survivors

JERUSALEM — A young Czech filmmaker is racing against time to document the near extermination of Czech Jewry.

At only 27, Lukas Pribyl demonstrates a decades-older commitment to the past. Born and raised in Prague, educated in the United States, he is passionately consumed with documenting the wartime experiences of Czech Jews who were sent to rarely mentioned extermination camps or ghettos.

He is currently recording first-time ever interviews with survivors, and just completed a week in Israel, filming in Haifa, Kiryat Gat, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Why is the past so important for him? Although he doesn't like to talk about it, the answer is very close to home: His grandfather was on one of the early Czech transports during World War II

"I had questions about where the men of my family were sent. I set out to look for information and there wasn't any," he said.

Since 1996, Lukas has been conducting research for his documentary, "Forgotten Transports." "Auschwitz is synonymous with death to such a degree," he said, "that other places of Jewish martyrdom during the Holocaust often remain in its shadow, anonymous and forgotten."

In the Czech Republic, the situation is worse as Lukas says Holocaust education is seriously neglected. The public is not aware that Jews, in general, and Czech Jews, in particular, were subject to meticulous extermination."

Nearly 70 percent of Czech Jews, who were trapped in the Protectorate of Boehmen und Maehren, were not killed in well-documented Theresienstadt or Auschwitz. Instead, they were killed in such places as Lodz, Treblinka, Minsk, Branovich, Maly Trostinec, Ujazdow, Tzbica, Piaski, Zamosc, Lublin, Rejowiec, Riga and Warsaw.

Czech Jews were shipped to Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, and Poland. Lukas said that a tiny number of survivors, only 260, saw liberation — from a total of about 26,000, not counting those deported to the better-known camps of Lodz and Treblinka.

That low number was due to several reasons: Many were killed before getting to the crowded camps. Those who made it to the camps could not escape to partisan groups outside or support systems inside. In addition, the German-speaking Czech Jews were met with suspicion by Yiddish-speaking camp inmates of other countries.

Transports to crowded camps meant trainloads of Jews were shot before reaching their destinations. Lukas' work includes comparing lists of survivors to camp records and community records: Who was on the transport list? Where were they sent? Who returned?

"Their stories have not been told," said Lukas, "and only a handful have survived to bear witness.

"After four years of tracing the survivors, we determined the addresses of 40 [of a possible 60 who may still be alive], who are younger than age 90." Lukas has already filmed interviews with 30 of them Most of the survivors, he said, have never been interviewed.

"All the survivors we contacted agreed to share their story and describe their plight," Lukas added. "It is imperative that we capture their memories and experiences so they are not forgotten and can serve as a warning to future generations."

Lukas' documentary asks basic questions that so far, he claims, have not been satisfactorily answered: Who were the victims of these little-known transports? How did they adjust to new conditions when granted a few more weeks or a month of life in such areas as Minsk or Riga?

Who helped the killers? How did some survive?

On camera, Lukas attempts to answer these questions and to track the individual deportations and individual fates of the deported, both the famous and the ordinary. Step by step, he plans to show both the tiny pieces of the mosaic as well as the larger picture of the Nazi extermination scheme.

The documentary relies heavily on interviews with survivors who endured camps that were impossible to live through. While archives can be searched at any time, the survivors — ages 80 to 90 and in bad health — cannot wait.

"The documentary is at a critical stage," Lukas said, "as the remaining survivors have to be interviewed as soon as possible."