Sunday, March 28, 2010

Legacy of Shoah Film Festival: Forgotten Transports—To Estonia

There are literally millions of stories connected to the Holocaust that defy human comprehension. Though many are known well known, some are at risk of going undocumented and therefore forgotten. Preventing such further tragedies was the impetus behind Czech filmmaker Lukáš Přibyl’s four-film documentary project Forgotten Transports, the first installment of which, To Estonia, opened the Legacy of Shoah Film Festival at John Jay College’s Gerald Lynch Theater this weekend.

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 dehumanizing conditions. 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, initially to Stutthof and finally to 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.

Estonian 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. Yet, Přibyl still found a number of survivors who are not just willing to speak on camera, but prove quite eloquent when recounting their experiences.

Like the rest of the informative series, 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. An important documentary undertaking, New Yorkers have a rare opportunity to see the entire Transports cycle this weekend as the Legacy of Shoah Film Festival continues at John Jay.