Witness to pre-Holocaust life in Poland

by | May 6, 2016 | Book Reviews

Three Minutes in Poland (Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film)
Glenn Kurtz
Farrar, Strauss and Girioux
415 pages, $33

It began on July 23, 1938, almost a year before the outbreak of WWll in the European theatre, when David and Liza Kurtz from Brooklyn, New York, author Glenn Kurtz’s grandparents, boarded the Niew Amsterdam on a vacation journey with friends to England, France, Holland, Belgium, Germany and Poland. Grandpa David, whom the author never knew, brought along his color 16mm movie camera. Three minutes (book’s title) out of 14 in the film, are from the visit to Nasielsk, Poland, David’s hometown, which he had left for the United States 45 years earlier.

No one could predict when the three minutes were shot on August 5, 1938, that the world they captured would so soon face its demise. They fortunately piqued the author’s curiosity enough to devote four years of his life to painstakingly explore what those three minutes implied for his family’s roots, and a community so cruelly destroyed among many others during the Holocaust.

Glenn Kurtz, who grew up in Roslyn on Long Island, found the damaged film in an aluminum can in his parents’ house in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida in 1999. The restored film is available now for viewing in the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., as well as at Poland’s Auschwitz Museum and Memorial, Jewish Pavilion.

The film is a significant witness of a rare kind to the very life of a small Jewish population of 3,000 out of 7,000 residents. It salvages from the jaws of merciless death, Holocaust deniers and time’s forgetfulness, irreplaceable memories of what once was a lively Jewish community only 35 miles north west of Warsaw, Poland’s capital.

On December 3, 1939, unsuspecting Nasielsk’s Jews were placed on cattle cars without basic provisions, and following days of inhumane travel, ended up in the Lublin district’s (where my father’s family is from) towns of Lukow and Miedzyrzec. All but 80 were murdered upon arrival in Treblinka in the fall of 1942.

The author’s keen and observing eye was intrigued by the film’s brief, yet rich three minutes of images of people of all ages fascinated no doubt by the well-groomed visitors from distant America, and the various buildings in the background. Kurtz probingly asked himself, “Who are these people? What brought them to be on the street, in view of my grandfather’s lens, on that day, in that moment? What relation, if any, do they have to my grandparents? And what became of them, each one, individually?”

Glenn David’s own journey of the film’s reconstruction and discovery by a faithful grandson, who admits to coming from a non-active Jewish family though affiliated, took him to multiple places and personalities in the United States, Canada, England, Poland and Israel, digging into archives and leaving no stone unturned, figuratively as well as literally. By 2012, he found eight living survivors of Nasielsk’s 100 survivors in 1945, and was able to identify 20 of the film’s people.

A key person proved to be 87-year-old Morry Chandler from Boca Raton, Florida, who in the film is 13-year-old Moszik Tuchendler of a prominent family. DNA testing confirmed his relationship to the author’s family. Chandler’s sharp mind and memory, despite his age and elapsing time, critically assisted the detective-like work with a web of unfolding pertinent relations, which the author doggedly pursued. A point of light in much darkness was Morry’s protection by Gentiles near Trebklinka during the war.

The author movingly shares, “My grandfather’s film preserves the few moments of Nasielsk’s life that survive. We must be grateful for this precious record which adds nuance to the broad strokes of history, preserving the identities of individuals and the few slender facts about their lives. For the survivors, Nasielsk is preserved only in mourning, in the immediacy of their grief.”

—Rabbi Dr. Israel Zoberman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Chaverim in Virginia Beach. He is the son of Polish Holocaust survivors.