HBO unearth Holocaust rescue documentary – cinema
Boris Maftsir:; I did everything I could
Israeli film director Boris Maftsir has completed work on a series of documentaries about the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. The cycle consists of 9 films.
Eight of them, with a total duration of 11 and a half hours, document about one hundred actions of mass extermination of Jews in vast areas from the Baltic to the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains. According to historians, the victims of these actions were about 2 million 700 thousand people, i.e. about half of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis and their accomplices.
Boris Maftsir adheres to certain rules that characterize his creative method as a documentary filmmaker. All facts are voiced on camera by direct witnesses of the events from a specific place where they took place. Filming took place around the same dates as the events themselves.
The first film in the series “Keepers of Memory” deals with the period from autumn 1941 to winter 1942, when the mass extermination of Jews took place in Belarus. The shooting of Jews in 1941 in the city of Pushkin, not far from Leningrad, where the famous Catherine Palace is located, is described in the film “Holocaust: The Second Front”. It further deals with actions to exterminate Jews in Lyubavichi (Smolensk region), in Rostov-on-Don, in the region of Kislovodsk and Nalchik in the North Caucasus. “The Road to Babi Yar” tells about the first hundred days of the occupation of Ukraine by the Nazis, when, with the active participation of accomplices from the local population, there were massacres of Jews, including women, children, old people.
; Road to Babi Yar. Courtesy photo
In other films of the series, Boris Maftsir documents the atrocities of the Nazis and their accomplices in Latvia, Belarus, Odessa, Transnistria, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed. The film “Gotenland” talks about the extermination of Jews in Crimea.
The ninth film in the cycle, The Riddle of the Black Book, stands somewhat apart. Stalin banned the publication of the Black Book – the chronicle of the Holocaust on the territory of the USSR, which signaled a radical change in his attitude towards Jews. After the war, many Soviet Jews began to feel the growth of anti-Semitism, which was secretly encouraged by the authorities and peaked when Solomon Mikhoels was viciously killed and the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was destroyed..
Boris Maftsir was born in Riga. In 1970 he was arrested by the KGB and sentenced to one year in prison for “Zionist activities.” Emigrated to Israel in 1971. Graduated from Tel Aviv University in the first graduation of the Faculty of Film and Television. He worked as a producer of the Israel Film Service, and from 1994 to 1999 – its director. He held senior positions in the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Ministry of Absorption, headed the delegation of the Jewish Agency (Sokhnut) in Russia, Belarus and the Baltic countries. In 2009 he founded and until 2014 headed the Department of Documentary Films at the WIZO College of Art in Haifa. From 2006 to 2012, he was the director of the Yad Vashem Museum’s project to restore the names of Holocaust victims killed in the Soviet Union. Producer of over 200 documentaries and TV programs. In recent years, he has focused on the film project “The Holocaust in the Territory of the Soviet Union”.
Almost three years ago, Boris Maftsir took part in the Film Festival of the Russian-speaking Jewish Diaspora in New York, where his film “The Holocaust: Eastern Front” was shown.
The correspondent of the Russian service “Voice of America” spoke on Skype with Boris Maftsir, who is in the Israeli city of Nes Ziona.
Oleg Sulkin: Boris, in our conversation in 2017, you called the Holocaust in the Nazi-occupied Soviet territories “hidden, stolen, unknown”, comparing the situation with Poland and other European countries, where almost everything is documented in detail. You have done a truly gigantic job. How did you get information and find eyewitnesses to those already very distant events?
Boris Maftsir: My actions were subject to strict logic. It was important to have time to remove witnesses who are already very many years old. The starting point is the event. I go there and find eyewitnesses, at least one. The problem is that there are no archival film materials about the Holocaust in the territories of the Soviet Union occupied by the Nazis. There are several minutes of archival chronicle, hackneyed, used many times. There are several equally frequently reproduced and well-known photographs. And that’s all. Any Holocaust denier will say: you claim that 2 million 700 thousand Jews were killed, but you show the same footage from Latvia, from Balti, from Gomel and from Babi Yar.
Now, looking at what I have done, I can say: I did everything that I could.
O.S.: What was the most difficult?
B.M .: Each event must be documented. We need witnesses. If I go to Dubossary, then the shooting in Dubossary must be documented and a person who can be trusted should tell about it. I could not film the story of the execution in Slonim, Belarus, because I did not find any witnesses. For the same reason, I did not shoot a story about the shootings in Mogilev and Gomel, and the Holocaust in Belarus is represented by a village called Sukhari. My family is from Daugavpils. But even my local patriotism did not help. Daugavpils is not in the films, although there was a ghetto, the inhabitants of which were shot. I didn’t find a storyteller there. That is, he found it, but he lived in Israel, was very ill and could not come to Latvia.
O.S.: Why was it important for you to shoot day after day with an event?
B.M .: For authenticity. I went to the filming locations at the same time of the year, in the same month, and preferably on the same day when the shooting took place. I could not afford the luxury of doing study trips and then returning for filming. Everything had to be filmed in one short visit. That is, a lot depended on my counterparties, local keepers of memory, ethnographers, historians. In eight films, I shot about a hundred places, and on the real map of the Holocaust, in addition to death camps, concentration camps and ghettos in Central and Western Europe, more than a thousand Soviet cities and villages where Jews were killed. If there was more money and time, I would of course take something else..
O.S.: The film about the extermination of the Jewish population of Crimea by the Nazis leaves a strong impression. Maybe because I knew practically nothing about this episode of the Holocaust. Why is the film called “Gotenland”?
B.M .: In October-November 1941, the Germans captured most of the Crimea. The Nazis considered the peninsula an integral part of the “Third Reich”, which they called “the country of the Goths” – Gotenland. They planned to equip there a recreation area for the Aryans, a kind of Germanic Riviera. And the German settlers-farmers were to receive large plots of land. The local residents were going to be partially expelled, partially made slaves. The plans of the occupiers did not come true – with the exception of the clause on the extermination of the Jews. Residents of Jewish collective farms, including representatives of the Krymchak people, were shot.
; Gotenland. Courtesy photo
O.S.: Who are they, Krymchaks?
B.M .: Jews, immigrants from Italy and other countries. Living in Crimea, they adopted the Tatar language and Tatar customs, but retained the Jewish faith. Local historian Boris Kazachenko shows in the film a table of the surname extermination of the Krymchaks and cannot hide his emotions. In fact, all of these people were destroyed during the Holocaust. Today there are several hundred Krymchaks left.
O.S.: Did the Nazis act according to plan? Were there any local features of these operations?
B.M .: As the writer Arkady Shulman from Vitebsk said, the end was the same for all Jews, but the road to it was different. It should be borne in mind that when the war began on the eastern front, the Germans did not yet have a plan for the total extermination of the Jews. But there was a general instruction, according to which the inhabitants of the occupied territories should have understood that there was a struggle against the Judeo-Bolshevik regime. The detailed program “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was adopted by the Nazis in January 1942. And by the end of 1941, in the territory of the former Soviet Union, about a million Jews had been shot. Without the active cooperation of the local population with the invaders, the Holocaust on the territory of the USSR would hardly have been possible. On average, there were up to seven collaborators per German. Among them were inveterate anti-Semites, were intimidated by harsh punishments for harboring Jews, there were simply envious people who coveted their neighbors’ property and housing. The historian and professor at Yale University Timothy Snyder speaks about this on camera, who noticed that many Jews did not see the Germans in their eyes, but remembered their neighbors well..
O.S.: Why did you decide to supplement the cycle with the film “The Riddle of the Black Book”?
B.M .: I am looking for answers to important questions. Why was information about the Holocaust on the territory of the Soviet Union hidden by Stalin? Why was there an outbreak of state anti-Semitism after the war? It can be assumed that the Holocaust pushed Stalin to an anti-Jewish purge of the party, state apparatus, scientific and industrial circles, to the destruction of Jewish culture and its most prominent carriers, starting with Solomon Mikhoels. This period, from 1948 to 1953, can be called the Stalinist anti-Jewish five-year plan..
O.S.: You are interested in this cycle?
B.M .: I do not want to entertain myself with illusions. Very few people are interested in the topic of the Holocaust. I did this project until the memory was completely erased. It is important for me that these documents remain so that historians can work with them in the future. Our project is supported by donations and grants. It is absolutely non-commercial, we put all materials on the Internet, for open access on the Holocaust in USSR website.
On the set. Courtesy photo
O.S.: Are there any new ideas?
B.M .: Yes, there is, the conventional name of the film project is “The Fifth Point”. When the “Riddle of the Black Book” was shown in Israel and Moscow, the audience came up to me and asked me to explain the reasons for state anti-Semitism in the USSR after the end of the war. After all, then, in the late 40s – early 50s, Jews, active participants in revolutionary events, who were part of the government and the highest governing bodies, lost everything because of the evil “fifth point”. And after Stalin’s death, anti-Semitism continued to be fueled by the authorities, which is well described in the works of the historian Gennady Kostyrchenko. The “fifth point”, as a filter, determined where you can study and where you cannot, where you can work and where you cannot. I decided to figure out why this was happening. These will be three films, their action takes place in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. In these three largest cities of the USSR, Jews were methodically cleaned out; they, of course, remained in some positions, but not in the same proportion as before. The new project is still under development. Obviously, it will require a lot of manpower and resources..
Journalist, film critic, correspondent for the Russian Voice of America Service in New York.