I first heard about Janet R. Kirchheimer and her project to make BE*HOLD, a documentary focusing on poetry dealing with the Holocaust, this last summer. I was immediately interested in the focus of this work and the possibilities that it raised for understanding how people respond to the Holocaust and how they respond to writing and art about the Holocaust. As I've given poetry readings about my parents' experiences as Polish slave laborers, I've often felt that poetry has the ability to communicate the meaning and experience of the terrible things that happened like no other medium.
I asked Janet to write about her project so that I could post it here.
After you read it, please take a look at the progress reel for the documentary. Just click HERE, and when asked for the password, type in the word: perform
Janet R. Kirchheimer
Writing the Holocaust Through Film
My parents are eating dinner in a Jerusalem hotel. Their waiter asks where they live. My mother tells him, “America.” The waiter says, “You should come to live in Israel because it’s home.” My father tells him, “Home is anywhere they let you in.”
Born in a small town in Southern Germany, my father hid, along with his parents, older sister and younger brother, in the basement of their home during Kristallnacht. The next morning, on November 10, 1938, he was ordered to report to town hall. Along with nine other men, he was arrested and sent to Dachau. He was sixteen years old. My mother, also born in Germany, was six years old when she was backed up against a wall at school in 1936. Her classmates threw rocks at her because she refused to say “Heil Hitler.” Her parents got her out to a Jewish girls’ orphanage in Amsterdam, the Israelitisch Meijesweeshuis. She was one of one hundred and four girls. Four survived. My mother came to America with her parents and an older sister. In 1942, my father’s parents, sister and brother were deported to Westerbork, and then to Auschwitz and killed upon arrival.
I consider myself lucky. My parents answered all my questions about the Shoah and what happened to their families. Some of my friends told me their parents refused. I don’t make any judgments. When I was a child, I remember visiting a friend of my father who was from his hometown. They would stand off in a corner speaking about the Shoah in low voices, and would stop when I came by. But I wanted to know. In my teens, I asked what happened. My father and I made lists of the transports of Jews from his town. We talked about Kristallnacht and Dachau; about the watercress his mother planted each spring near the house and used as a border around the Kartoffel salat (potato salad); how his younger brother wrote in one of his last letters, “with God’s help, we will get to America.” My mother sang me “The Song of Lorelei” one night at the kitchen table; she told me she had to come back into Germany from Holland in 1937 to get her visa from the American Consulate and that she only spoke Dutch and could barely communicate with her mother; how her mother threw out her gold and silver jewelry from the window of a train after the Nazi Government ordered Jews to turn it in, saving only her wedding ring; and her father who walked home in the blizzard of ’47, collapsed and died in her mother’s arms.
Holding these stories for years, I took a poetry workshop and began writing. I didn’t stop for over fifteen years. In 2007, my book, How to Spot One of Us, was published. I’ve given many readings and taught using my book at a wide variety of venues. Each time I speak in a school, I am asked by a student why it is important to remember the Holocaust, an event that happened so long ago. I tell them because, “We still keep killing each other.” I use my family stories and poetry as a springboard for a discussion about the Shoah and current genocides.
Writer and child survivor Aharon Appelfeld stated, “After the death of the last witnesses, the remembrance of the Holocaust must not be entrusted to historians alone. Now comes the hour of artistic creation.” I met film director RichardKroehling at a conference. We discussed our mutual love of poetry and, within a few weeks, we decided to make BE•HOLD. The film presents poetry written by survivors, their descendants, and Jews and non-Jews grappling with the Shoah and its aftereffects. Presented by poets, survivors, actors and people from all walks of life, BE•HOLD creates a deep well of voices responding to evil. We want to make BE•HOLD to honor the murdered, the survivors and those who rose up against the Nazis. The team making the film is Richard Kroehling who directed “A. Einstein: How I See the World” for PBS The American Masters Series, and cinematographer Lisa Rinzler, a multi-award winning cinematographer, and I am producer.
Jane Hirschfield wrote, “Poetry’s work is the clarification and magnification of being,” and Robert Altman said, “Filmmaking is a chance to live many lifetimes. BE•HOLD brings the viewer into the lives of the poets and the performers. Richard and I believe that the language of poetry and the language of cinema can be brought together for profound and powerful results. During each filming, we watched poetry and cinema collide and recorded what happened. Each time something unexpected happened, and it was magical to see it unfold. Each poem has its own visual island. Capturing a wide range of experiences, viewers’ lives will resonate with the poet’s, allowing them to engage with history through a vibrant and contemporary lens. In BE•HOLD, language becomes a character. The film is designed as a poetic anthology like Wim Wender’s dance anthology film “Pina.” Viewers will follow each performer into a time when good and evil, life and death walked the razor’s edge. It is our hope that new personal meanings for the audience will emerge out of the juxtaposition of the poems, the unique approach to each piece, the performances, cinematography, music and uses of sound and silence.
Wilfred Owen wrote of his WWI poetry: “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn.” When the survivors are gone, we will need new ways to ensure Holocaust memory for future generations. BE•HOLD will be a living legacy, and an innovative way to remember in a world still rife with genocide. The film imparts the ongoing relevance of the Shoah: that the past is not simply in the past, but rather a vital part of the present and future.
BE•HOLD is being incubated at Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. We are forming an Advisory Board for the film. Advisors are poets Mary Stewart Hammond and Edward Hirsch, as well as Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, Chairman Emeritus of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. Our progress reel features renowned spoken word poet Taylor Mali, Pulitzer Prize nominated poet Cornelius Eady, and me, along with my mother. Please note that it has not been fine edited yet. The password for the video is: perform
We recently received a challenge grant. If we raise $15,000, we will receive another $10,000 which will enable us to go into production. We’ve raised half so far, and are accepting contributions to meet this challenge. Donations can be made by clicking on the link below and filling out the section that says “Special Purpose and Dedication” with BEHOLD. All contributions are tax deductible. Just click HERE.
If you’d like to learn more about the film or become part of the team, please be in contact on the BE•HOLD Facebook page or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.