Too small to be noticed - the forgotten victims of the Holocaust

06-10-2005

It would be hard to find a person who is not familiar with at least one tragic story of the Nazi concentration camps. This tragic episode in history has been a source of inspiration for numerous writers and film directors, museums have put up many exhibitions, Holocaust anniversaries are marked worldwide, and television stations often repeat documentaries about the better known camps and their survivors. But while the names of the larger camps - like Auschwitz or Belsen - are etched into our memories, the smaller camps in the Nazi occupied Baltic States of Latvia and Estonia or in Poland are quite forgotten. That's until you meet Lukas Pribyl who is now - after years of collecting, recording and editing material - just finishing four movies about those camps which were too small to be mentioned in the history books. In today's Panorama he recalls the harrowing experiences of survivors and tells us how he managed to track them down.

Secrets of telephone books

"It was the most difficult part, finding those people. They are dispersed all over the world. Most of them emigrated after the war in 1948 or 1968. A great source is the internet. Telephone books are my favourite reading. If there is a name that is not too common I just call all the names in the phone book. Usually you find your person. When you tell them what your request is they either ask: 'What?' or 'Why do you ask?' You work with deportation lists, survivors' lists, marriage records."

An information trade

"You just talk with them and sometimes they find out that you know as much as they do because you have all the research behind you. They become also interested in finding some answers to their questions because not always they know the background of what really happened there. A trade of is a bad word for it but it is similar. They become interested in what you are doing and why you are doing it as well as you are interested in what they went through."

The right person with the right pictures

"It happened to me several times that I wrote a few hundred letters to families in Germany which I thought had the name of an SS man I was looking for. I wrote: 'I am not sure I am addressing this letter to the right person but if by some sort of chance it is you, please would you share it with me. I am not interested in you personally I am not interested in the background I am not interested in the person of the SS man but I just need the pictures.' And I have just got one letter. There is no return address but the picture I was looking for is in the envelope."

Living your death

SobiborSobibor "People do know about Auschwitz and people do know about Theresienstadt [Terezin] because there are people who can tell you about it. You can learn about it from media. There are more documentaries; there are books and so on. But I am interested the places that there is absolutely nothing about. Now we are editing material about Poland and camps like Osova, Krichu these were really small camps that were used as reservoirs of labour and "human material" for the gas chambers of Sobibor. There were transports coming to Sobibor from elsewhere, and at these times the prisoners were made to work in countryside. But as soon as there were no transports coming to Sobibor people were selected for the gas chambers from these camps. In the end all the camps and all these people were liquidated. What I find fascinating is that people lived in the shadow of Sobibor. It was just a couple of kilometres away. So you are living with your death, you are alive but you know that Sobibor is just there."

Survivors' community

"Most of the Jewish survivors have never spoken to anyone, they were never found. They are so isolated that they don't get along with other survivors very well either. They don't understand each other because their experiences are so radically different from experiences of survivors from Auschwitz. If you are the only one out of a thousand of a certain transport to survive you don't really have anyone to exchange your experiences with, you can't relate to anyone else. There were more people who survived Auschwitz and they can form some sort of a survivor community. But some "obscure" ghetto or a death camp in the East where things worked differently? They for example did not wear uniforms. It seemed like normal life and then a killing game. If you see pictures from some of the camps, people are actually smiling on them and yet you know that they were killed two weeks later."

Looking at history from the bottom up

"Most of these camps were run by Ukrainians, Latvians and only the top command was German. Those Nazis were mostly over thirty back then so finding one alive is almost impossible. But that is not what I am interested in because I am trying to weave together the stories of the victims. I am trying to look at things from the bottom up. I am not doing a classic documentary where you have a bird's eye view of the Holocaust. In the documentary you won't find footage of Nazis marching or of Hitler. Those played almost no role in immediate lives of the people that tell their stories. They were deported somewhere to Belarus. The only place they could see Hitler would be in a cinema and they were banned from cinemas. There were no cinemas in the East anyway."

From vodka to pictures of an SS man

"We are only looking at things that people themselves could see. So there is no narrator. The stories are told by the people themselves. So whenever they talk about something or someone I am trying to find a picture of that person or that place from that time, or footage. I believe there is a visual record of pretty much everything. So you go to Poland, spend a month there drinking vodka with villagers, and they bring you pictures. A woman brings you a picture of a Ukrainian SS guy who was her boyfriend at that time and was a guard at the camp. Or a woman brings out an album that an SS man left in her house when Russians were approaching."

My issues

"I think it does change your view of things in some sense that you don't consider certain things as important. Getting a puncture on your tyre is annoying but it is not a big problem. My threshold is somehow lifted."

06-10-2005