Nearly 70 years after the Holocaust, is it possible to discover new information about the lives of those who perished? According to Glenn Kurtz's haunting new book, "Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film," the answer is "Yes … but hurry."
What ignites Kurtz's obsession with his family's past is a home movie. His grandfather, David Kurtz — a Polish immigrant who'd prospered in the neckwear business — sailed from New York with his wife and two friends in summer 1938 for a tour of Europe's grand attractions. To document the vacation, David Kurtz toted a brand-new movie camera.
The choppy film he brought home, intended solely for his family, totaled 14 minutes. When, decades later, his grandson retrieved the footage, he discovered that three of those minutes — mostly in color — were taken in his grandfather's hometown in Poland, a small predominantly Jewish town called Nasielsk, north of Warsaw.
"The instant these scenes appeared," Kurtz writes, "everything else faded away."
The camera saw more than his grandfather did. The lens of David Kurtz's 16-millimeter Cine-Kodak captured an old woman laughing; a young girl with a bright red hair ribbon; a crowd descending the steps of a synagogue, jostling children excited to see Americans. The heartbreak is obvious. The viewer knows what's going to happen; the people in the film do not.
Glenn Kurtz understood immediately that he possessed a rare glimpse of an "ordinary" day when Jews in Nasielsk — like everyone else — ate, prayed, studied and gossiped. Out of a population of 3,000, only 100 Jewish Nasielskers lived to see the end of the war. Kurtz, impressively, tracks down and interviews eight survivors who were alive in 2012. After four years of archival research and interviews spanning three continents, he is able uncover in words what the film can only hint at: the larger social networks in which these villagers lived.
When Kurtz retrieved his family movie from his parents' closet in humid Florida, it had deteriorated, suffered from vinegar syndrome, what Kurtz aptly calls, "an Alzheimer's of film." He donated the footage to the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which oversaw its restoration and made it accessible online.
A year later, Marcy Rosen, the descendant of a Nasielsk survivor, clicked the link. Thirty-five seconds into the clip, she identified the grinning 13-year-old who inserted himself in front of David Kurtz's movie camera: "It's my grandfather!" A day later, she and Glenn Kurtz were in contact. The world works in mysterious ways; the Internet makes those mysterious ways work faster.
Rosen's grandfather, Morry Chandler, born Maurice Tuchendler in Nasielsk, was a "shtetle Tom Sawyer," an adorable troublemaker who once sneaked into the cloakroom of the prayer house and, for the fun of it, cut buttons from the overcoats of the worshippers.
The memory of 87-year-old Morry is super-sharp. He recalls stories of numerous slain Nasielskers, including Chezkiat the itinerant storyteller and the talented Fishl Perelmuter, who painted a Leviathan with his tail in his mouth on the ceiling of the synagogue.
"In Jewish lore," Morry explains, "if the Leviathan lets go of his tail, the world goes kaput." Morry survived a world gone kaput by boldly posing as a Polish orphan with false papers procured by a farmer's wife who taught him Catholic prayers and how to cross himself. Morry's harrowing survival story anchors Kurtz's expansive, beautifully rendered micro-history of Nasielsk.
Throughout his chronicle, Kurtz repeatedly asks, "What gets passed down? What is it still possible to know?" The Nasielsk that exists in memory is now the chance artifact of those — like Morry — who survived and lived the longest. The author's own exhaustive search to collect remnants of a lost time are also now intrinsic to what is remembered. At one point, he humorously compares his role to that of "a switchboard operator, connecting long-distance messages from one end of the Nasielsk Diaspora to another."
How could his Jewish American grandparents have been oblivious of the risk hovering over their Polish kin in 1938, three months before Kristallnacht, one year from the outbreak of war? That painful conundrum troubles Kurtz. It's difficult to accept that the moments that David and Liza Kurtz lived "were not yet historical." The irony is that his grandparents, these "proud Americans," will be most remembered for capturing on film a few minutes of one day they spent as tourists in a small town in Poland.
Every act of preservation, Kurtz observes, is only temporary, "a brief swirl in the relentless flow of dissolution." Eventually, everything and everyone gets lost. Jewish Nasielsk is a town that exists only in memory and those memories — of stonecutters and storytellers, mischievous school boys, a little girl with a red ribbon in her hair — are fading.
In the pages of Glenn Kurtz's marvelous book, the ghosts from those three minutes are breathtakingly brought to life.
Steinman is the author, most recently, of "The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation" and curator of the ALOUD series.
Three Minutes in Poland
Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 432 pp., $30