This past Wednesday, Feb. 17, I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Andrew Rosenstein’s senior film project, Light out of Darkness: Memories of the Holocaust. Running just under two hours, the film documents the stories, memories and testimonials of 18 Holocaust survivors that currently live in the Los Angeles area. Most of the survivors also participate in the Bearing Witness program at Hillel at UCLA. The program gives Bruins the opportunity to listen to survivors’ stories, a privilege that has become more and more rare as time passes on.
The film screening was sponsored by the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish studies and cosponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Andrew Rosenstein, a fifth-year, pre-med film major at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, was inspired to make this film after establishing a relationship with Sophie Hamburger, a Holocaust survivor he met as a freshman in the Bearing Witness program. Rosenstein explained, “Every lunch, we [students] would go and meet with her, and she [Hamburger] would be so happy to share her story with us. Sophie really became a very close friend.”
The following year, Rosenstein assisted with taking photographs for the program and continued to see Sophie, who would continue to share her story with UCLA students. Each week, Rosenstein would take a photo of Hamburger, thereby keeping their connection strong. Unfortunately, in 2013, Hamburger passed away. While she was in the hospital, she told Todd Presner — the Center for Jewish Studies’ director, a professor in the Department of Germanic Languages, as well as the chair of the Digital Humanities Program — “I guess I won’t be able to do UCLA’s [Bearing Witness] program this year.” Despite her death, Hamburger’s memory lives on through her students, including Rosenstein. In fact, Hamburger became the inspiration for Light out of Darkness: Memories of the Holocaust.
Presner has advised Rosenstein since the student’s first year at UCLA, and has played a significant role in the documentation of Holocaust survivors’ stories. Presner maintains that the film is not simply about understanding the overall history of the Holocaust. Rather, the documentary is “foremost a film about the fragility of human relationships, our capacity for love, and the inevitability of the aging process itself. In eighteen spellbinding vignettes, 3 UCLA undergraduates have captured the human condition. It is a truly remarkable achievement.”
Presner is also an invaluable member of the Bearing Witness program as he continues to bring Holocaust survivors to Hillel at UCLA, and encourages survivors to tell their stories and keep the history of the Holocaust alive.
The film begins with a dedication, unlike most seen before. Slowly, black and white photographs appear on the screen in the form of a montage, accompanied by the soft notes of a piano. Some of the photographs are framed and hanging on walls, and some are loose, delicately lying on a table. Each photograph presents a dated image of either a child or an adult. Under each image emerges a name, to whom the film is dedicated. The names are rather unfamiliar, but once the testimonials begin, it becomes clear to whom they belong.
Subsequently, the film breaks off into vignettes displayed in the same order as the dedications of the Holocaust survivors’ stories and testimonials. Introducing each segment was the name of the survivor and a title for their testimonial. The title provided viewers with a word or phrase that was used by the survivor or that complemented their piece. The word or phrase expressed who each survivor was as an individual.
Among the survivors interviewed were Eva Brettler, Kurt and Rosza Bronner, Mina Colton, Stella Esformes, Lya Frank, Natalie Gold, Allen and Dorothy Greenstein, Emil and Erika Jacoby, twin sisters Rita Kahane and Serena Rubin, Eta Moss, Julius Rothschild, Toby Tambor and Miriam Tasini. Each story shared and each memory retold gave viewers a lasting image of the survivors’ world during the Holocaust, and their journeys thereafter.
What I found most interesting was the variation of matters each survivor had to share. Of course, they wanted to give viewers a piece of their history, which can only be shared and told first-hand. However, as the audience listened ardently to the struggles most of the survivors overcame as children, they were also floored by the interests, accomplishments and remarkable life experiences this group of Holocaust survivors underwent throughout their lives.
Mina Colton, a participant in the Bearing Witness program and feature in the film, declared her life during the war to be a nightmare. She was nearly incapable of believing the horrors she saw. Following her recollections of secretly meeting with neighbors to read poetry in the ghettos, and later, her stories of fleeing death, she inspires viewers with her memories of living in newfound Israel. Colton vividly describes where she was in Tel Aviv when she heard David Ben-Gurion’s voice over loudspeakers, projected throughout the city, proclaiming the establishment of the State of Israel. Colton’s words brought tears to my eyes and sent chills down my spine. After living in Nazi-occupied Łódź, Poland, and living through such suffering simply for being a Jew, she witnessed the creation of a land where Jews could live free and proud.
I was pleased to see some of the survivors I met with when I was part of the Bearing Witness program, especially Eta Moss, the Holocaust survivor with whom I spent my winter quarter of 2015. Moss, who is from Hungry, shared the beautiful and romantic story of how she met her husband, Sam, while in a concentration camp in Germany. Sam, who lived on the men’s side of the camp and played the accordion, entertained the ladies who lived in the women’s quarters on the other side of the fence. One day, Sam asked the ladies to give him a song to play, and Eta responded, “La Paloma,” her favorite Spanish song, which she had not heard since before the war. Sam, who was from Salonika, Greece, surprisingly knew how to play “La Paloma” and charmed Eta from the other side of the fence. Soon, Eta and Sam were instructed to entertain both the officers and inmates at the camp. Sam played the accordion and Eta accompanied his music with her singing. When the war ended, Eta and Sam married and continued their loving partnership.
Following the film, the Center for Jewish Studies provided viewers with refreshments. Viewers had the opportunity to grab a tasty vegetarian snack and chat with members of the team who made Light out of Darkness. Rosenstein, Presner and Fawad Assadullah, a UCLA School of Film graduate who contributed to the sound aspects of the documentary, were all in attendance, sharing thoughts and comments about the film’s production. Still, the main guest of honor was Toby Tambor, one of the Holocaust survivors featured in the film.
In her vignette, which is the first of the testimonials of the film, Tambor explained that during the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe, she spent one year in the ghettos and the following two years hiding in the frozen forests of Belarus. Titled, “Time is like Water,” Tambor’s segment exposed the fleeting reality of life and stressed that people must appreciate and love what they have because, like water, time spent with loved ones is evanescent. Although Tambor’s story is one of great hardship and tribulation, like most stories of the Holocaust, it arises from its ashes, optimistically.
Exuding positivity, like in her segment, Tambor was incredibly pleasant, charming guests with stories of her journey to Israel, Brooklyn and Los Angeles, where she has been participating in the Bearing Witness program. As I sat down with Tambor, I learned that for many years, she simply did not want to share her Holocaust experiences with anyone. “Most people do not want to hear such unpleasant stories,” she explained. Thus, Tambor kept the painful recollections to herself. It was not until Eleanor, president of Jewish Family Services of Los Angeles’ Café Europa, approached her that Tambor began sharing her stories with others and eventually with students at UCLA.
The light Tambor shared, both in person and via her documented recollections, allowed viewers to connect with her will to be a happy, cheerful and caring woman, who looked beyond the adversity she faced and towards the beauty that is life. Rosenstein explained that the essence of Light out of Darkness was shown through Tambor’s vignette because “[the film is] foremost about life. It is about the relationships that we all share, and is about the love between, sisters, brothers, parents and children, families, and the love we have for each other and humanity.”
Viewers had the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the survivors on a more personal level since the survivors were filmed in their own homes that are filled with pictures and other memorabilia. Audiences saw that these individuals were not just survivors, but people with unimaginable experiences which we must bear witness to if we want to keep the history of the Holocaust alive. As Rosenstein expressed in his prequel to the screening, “[In this film] viewers are looking for the emotional truth of what happened in the Holocaust. And what this film provides, is a way of looking at the past, for a better future.”
Rosenstein, who continues to maintain strong relationships with all of the survivors, does not fail to lend a helping hand or celebrate happy occasions with them. He especially cannot wait to attend survivor Stella Esformes’ 90th birthday party, which is coming up soon.