They’re the last of the Holocaust survivors — the Jewish boys and girls who survived the genocidal Nazi onslaught and are now in the final years of their long lives.
Maxwell Smart, Rose Lipszyc and Helen Yermus, all Canadian citizens, witnessed the destruction of their respective Jewish communities in Poland and Lithuania. Seventy four years after their liberation, they look back in Rebecca Snow’s gut-wrenching one-and-a-half hour documentary, Cheating Hitler: Surviving the Holocaust. It will be screened at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on November 6, and will be broadcast by the History Channel on November 11.
Smart, whose original name was Oziac Fromm, was born in the town of Buczacz in 1930 when it was still in Poland. Known as Buchach since the end of World War II, it is now in Ukraine.
Only 100 of its Jewish inhabitants survived the Nazi occupation. Smart’s parents and sister were among the victims of the so-called Holocaust by bullets. Lined up on the edge of newly-dug pits, the Jews of Buczacz were slaughtered in mass shootings and buried. The cartridges from the killers’ rifles continue to turn up in the dense woods that cover the site today.
After the death of his family in 1942, Smart escaped into a forest and found refuge in a natural bunker that he covered with branches to protect himself from marauding German police and Ukrainian peasants. The loneliness he experienced seared his soul. “I became a sort of human animal,” he recalls.
It’s a compelling story, but Snow leaves out the granular details of his day-to-day survival.
By chance, Smart met a younger Jewish boy in the forest named Janek, and they both shared Smart’s hiding place. One winter morning, they heard shooting. Venturing outside against Janek’s advice, they found the bloodied corpses of seven Jewish escapees and the body of a Jewish woman near a frozen river. She was dead, but the infant lying next to her was alive. As fate would have it, Smart stumbled upon the baby girl’s aunt and handed her over, never expecting to see her again.
Janek, a frail boy, died shortly afterward, and Smart blamed himself for his death. Decades later, Smart went to the Yad Vashem Holocaust research and education centre in Jerusalem, hoping to learn more about Janek. Having discovered that Janek’s uncle lived in Tel Aviv, he visited him in a tearful meeting.
Astonishingly enough, Smart learned that the infant he rescued from certain death, Tova Barkai, had survived and lived in Haifa. Their reunion, if one can call it that, is intensely powerful, and will doubtless bring tears to the eyes of some viewers.
Lipszyc, born in 1929 in the eastern Polish city of Lublin, is virtually the sole survivor in her family. She believes that her father, a tailor, was taken to the Majdanek concentration camp on the outskirts of Lublin, but researchers in the camp have no record of him. In all probability, he was killed in 1943 on a day when 18,000 Jews were shot by firing squads.
Lipszyc last saw her younger brother and mother when they walked down a narrow road to a waiting train due to transport Jews to the Sobibor extermination camp. Sensing danger, Lipszyc’s mother pushed her off the road, urging her to run away and save herself. Having escaped, she found a safe haven in a Polish farmer’s house.
More than seven decades on, she visits the ruins of Sobibor, where some 200,000 Jews were gassed and incinerated. Her grandchildren accompany Lipszyc, and it’s an emotional visit, to say the least.
Yermus was born in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas (Kovno) in 1932. She and her family lived in the Nazi ghetto until March 1944, when the Germans seized 1,300 children, including her brother Abraham, and summarily shot them.
Having vowed never to return to Lithuania, she sent her grandson, Andrew, to Kaunas to try to piece together Abraham’s last days. Andrew visited the Ninth Fort, just outside Kaunas, where Jews were murdered. It’s possible that Abraham perished here, but it’s only an educated guess.
Yermus and her mother were deported by train to the Stutthof concentration camp. Her father was sent to the Dachau camp.
With Germany’s defeat close at hand, the Nazi administrators of Stutthof ordered the Jewish prisoners to be injected with a poisonous solution. The sympathetic nurse who administered the injection gave Yermus and her mother a smaller dose, enabling them to survive.
Much to Yermus’ grief, her friend, Riva, did not make it. During another poignant moment in Cheating Hitler, Yermus meets Riva’s younger brother, an Israeli named Elchanan Rubin.
These are stories that truly touch the heart. Snow and her crew have made an extraordinarily touching film that rises above the torrent of documentaries in this genre.