Friday, January 16, 2009

NYJFF: Forgotten Transports—To Estonia

Recently, an Oprah Winfrey hyped memoir of love between two concentration camp prisoners divided by a barb-wire fence was revealed to be a fraud. Both the fabricators and Winfrey should be ashamed of their actions. It was unnecessary and counter-productive, given the number of comparable and thoroughly verified historical incidents which offer the same ethical lessons Winfrey’s fabulists claimed they wish to promulgate when explaining their motivation for their deception. Several such incredible but factual human stories are told in Czech filmmaker Lukáš Přibyl’s documentary Forgotten Transports: To Estonia, which screens Monday at the New York Jewish Film Festival.

About 1,000 Jewish Czechs were transported to concentration camps in Estonia, of whom only 46 women survived. They tell their story in Transports: Estonia. Somehow, these innocent but resilient young women were able to stay together, despite enduring the harsh transit between numerous camps in Estonia and later Germany. As the war turned against the National Socialists, the Czech women in Estonia were sent west to temporarily work in munitions factories, but were eventually relocated to first Stutthof and finally the infamous Bergen-Belsen camp. Against all odds, they worked together to endure horrific conditions, supporting each other physically and emotionally.

Of the prisoners’ desperate tales of survival in the camps, none was more incredible than the story of Inge Sylten. A striking beauty, Sylten caught the eye of Heinz Drosihn, a senior SS officer at the camp in Ereda. Immediately installed in his personal quarters, Sylten secured better treatment not just for herself, but the entire camp, through her humanizing influence on the formerly sadistic Drosihn. As one survivor states: “only Inge made a human being out of him.”

Given the obvious inequality of their respective positions, it is difficult to consider their relationship anything more than exploitation, let alone genuine romance. Yet, at least one survivor claims: “they truly fell in love with each other.” Indeed, when they were denounced to Drosihn’s superiors, they fled together in a doomed attempt to evade the SS.

Estonia is actually part of Přibyl’s four film series, Forgotten Transports, focusing on the Holocaust experience in Belarus, Latvia, eastern Poland, and of course, Estonia, whose death camps are nearly unknown to the general populace, due to their tragically high mortality rate, which left few survivors to give testimony of the crimes that transpired there. At least in the Estonian film, Přibyl found a number of survivors who are not just willing to speak on camera, but prove quite eloquent when recounting their experiences.

Transports: Estonia uses traditional, straight-forward documentary techniques to respectfully address its subject matter. Přibyl’s photo research is particularly impressive, turning up heartbreaking photos of the women’s lives before the Holocaust, as well as some truly eerie photos of their SS tormentors, in which their eyes seem to blaze with demonic evil. It is an informative and often heartbreaking documentary, which screens at the 2009 NYJFF on Monday the 19th and Wednesday the 21st.