Movie review: ‘There Was Once...’

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Several years ago filmmaker Gabor Kalman received an email from Gyongyi Mago, a Catholic high school teacher in Kalocsa, Hungary, Kalman’s birthplace. At the time Mago was working on a dissertation about the virtually forgotten Jews of her picture-book town of 18,000 — and also educating her students about the city’s Jewish citizens, the last of whom died in 1975, and their fates in the Holocaust.

Kalman in turned was inspired to make a documentary about Mago and her steadfast determination to see to it that Kalocsa’s Jews, and by extension, the Holocaust itself, never be forgotten. The timing of Mago’s efforts and Kalman’s decision to film her quest — which resulted in the new feature “There Was Once…" couldn’t have been better, for Hungary in recent years has experienced a rise in the neo-Nazi movement.

Mago attempts to contact all of Kalocsa’s surviving former Jewish residents, now scattered around the world, focusing in particular on finding the known survivors from a specific first-grade class. Mago tracks them down, listens to their harrowing stories — including that of Kalman himself — of being forced into a ghetto established in Kalocsa and then deported, primarily to Auschwitz.

Much in this wholly absorbing and poignant documentary is familiar from numerous previous Holocaust accounts, but Mago and her quiet sense of moral obligation provides a fresh perspective. Inevitably, Mago is inspired to bring back Kalocsa’s Holocaust survivors for a memorial tribute and reunion. This, too, has been done before, and it is a surefire emotional experience, but in this case an unexpected incident gives a stunning relevance to Mago’s work — and to this fine, illuminating film.


“There Was Once…" No MPAA rating. In Magyar and English. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, West Hollywood.