Documentary reunites Hungarian Holocaust survivors
Filmmaker Jeff McAllister presents a screening of "The Selection" Sunday at the Illinois Holocaust Museum. The film focuses on the plight of Jewish civilians from Hungary at the hands of the Nazis. | Stacia Timonere~for Sun Times Media
Updated: July 14, 2011 11:34PM
The three women who appeared on stage Sunday have known each other for at least 65 years, a friendship born from shared horrors that no one who didn’t live through them could possibly fully grasp.
But Erzsebet Szemes, Eva Fahidi and Magda Brown understand the importance of sharing their stories and all that they lost. It has become a mission of sorts, just as it has for so many Holocaust survivors, who continue to try to reach new generations so that we collectively will never forget.
It’s also a mission of Wisconsin-born filmmaker Jeff McAllister, a non-Jew who has set out to make a dozen one-hour documentaries on the plight of civilians during World War II.
McAllister, who brought his incomplete first film, “The Selection,” to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center Sunday, wants to educate future generations about the devastating impact of the war on ordinary people.
Skokie was the last stop of a two-week tour, which included New York, Washington D.C. and McAllister’s home town, Cottage Grove, Wis. The filmmaker seeks to raise funds to complete his project while educating about European civilians during the war.
“Because Americans’ involvement in the war was basically militarily and as a supply base for the allies,” he said, “the civilians really didn’t get surrounded by the war and were affected by it in the same way. It was really an awakening for me 17 years ago when I went to live and work in Europe and I noted everybody over the age of 70 had their own stories.”
McAllister set out to tell many of those stories. Having lived in several places in Europe, he continually tried to record testimony, asking people to share their backgrounds.
Many were initially reluctant to oblige, he admitted. But he knew they had untold personal histories that would be revelatory — especially in his native country.
Around 70 million people are estimated to have died in World War II — two of three of them civilians. But only 6,000 American civilians perished.
“So you can see why we focus on the glory of the military but not on the deaths of the civilians,” he said. “I saw a window of opportunity that is closing very quickly because of the age of the people.”
During the last three years, McAllister interviewed 157 people across 13 countries. “The content of the interviews are really what told me what should be episode titles and what should be the subject of them,” he said.
His first piece, “The Selection,” documents the plight of Hungarian Jews who were sent to death camps well into the war.
Packed with historical information and heart-wrenching personal testimony, the film also includes a soundtrack strikingly different from other Holocaust documentaries.
Rather than somber classical music or a chilling quiet that one might expect, “The Selection” uses modern music — songs like The Police’s “Murder By Numbers.” It also re-enacts the personal testimony of survivors.
McAllister’s mission, he said, is to keep younger people interested so they learn and never forget.
Szemes was 17 in 1944 when she and her mother and sister were taken from their home in Kaposvar, Hungary and sent to Auschwitz. After surviving horrific conditions inside a boxcar, “Angel of Death” Dr. Josef Mengele split up the family, sending her mother and sister to the gas chambers.
Fahidi was 18 and loaded onto a cattle-car with 80 others and sent to Auschwitz. She was the only person from more than 50 family members selected for labor by Mengele. The others were killed.
The story of these women, who still live in Hungary, are featured in “The Selection” alongside other Hungarians who faced similar incomprehensible conditions.
Brown, a local resident and a popular long-time speaker associated with the museum, is not yet featured in the film, but her testimony will be with more funding, McAllister said.
On June 11, 1944, her 17th birthday, she and her family were crowded onto a rail car together with 80 other people. They travelled for three days without water, food or any idea where they were being deported.
After her arrival, Brown and her family were split into two groups. She was separated from the others, the last time she ever saw them. They went directly into the gas chambers.
Although these three women were in Auschwitz at the same time, they didn’t meet until they were sent to a munitions factory in Allendorf, Germany. More than six decades later, they are sharing their stories both in person and on film.
For decades, Szemes kept a cloth number she was given by the Nazis to identify prisoners, but she donated the sacred item Sunday to her friend, Brown, for permanent residency at the museum.
Through an interpreter, Szemes said that she has been to many Holocaust museums but once she saw this one, she knew it was the right home.
Those in the attendance Sunday -- many of them Holocaust survivors themselves -- seemed inspired and deeply moved by the women and their courage to make their histories known.
One survivor also from Hungary asked with great emotion how the two visitors could have returned to Hungary to make their home there after the war.
“I would like to know why you went back to that country where they killed everybody and settled there for the rest of your lives?” she asked, her voice breaking. “It bothers me terribly. I don’t want to have anything to do with Hungary. I don’t ever want to step foot in that country.”
But both survivors — young women at the time — said they held out hope that some of their family members would return. They also were eager to marry young and start new lives — to belong to a family again.
“We lost our school where we were so happy,” Fahidi said. “We lost our future because we didn’t know what would happen to us. I was the only one who came back. Everything I had to decide by myself. Slowly, slowly then, I said I have to start something. We were young and we wanted to live.”
When Fahidi returned to Auschwitz years later and saw the green grass and the bucolic setting, she developed urgency to write a book so that people would remember what occurred there. Published in Hungary, “Anima Rerum – A Dolgok Lelke” and is scheduled to be translated into German this month.
The remarkable survivors all made worthwhile new lives for themselves against tremendous obstacles. They married and had family, they said Sunday, describing what allowed them to move on as difficult as it was to do.
Having the chance to tell their stories again on film, which could reach many more people, fulfills a mission that has become some of their life’s work.
McAllister said that raising $750,000 will allow him to complete the entire “Wartime Witness” series. He has been especially protective of it so far, he said, having turned down some interest from public television because he wanted to maintain control.
He expects the series to be available in museums and through an educational distributor and perhaps even over public television as well. But for now, he said, obtaining funding to continue on is the top priority.
For more information on the project or to donate, access www.wartimewitness.com where “The Selection” can be viewed as well.