Holocaust survivors tell their stories in new film

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PEABODY >> On Nov. 9, 1938, the murder of a German diplomat by a Polish Jew was the pretext to unleash hell on the blameless Jewish citizens of Germany and Austria. The Gestapo and SS were sent to smash Jewish shops, beat and humiliate random Jewish people, set synagogues ablaze, and arrest tens of thousands of Jewish men.

"They came to our house as they came to everyone's house," remembered Amely Smith, then a schoolgirl. "They ransacked everything."

Luckily, her father was away on business. But the violence, which came to be known as Kristallnacht, or "night of broken glass," was enough to convince the Smith family and others that it was time to quit Germany.

The horrors of World War II, of which this was a harbinger, are now nearly 80 years in the past. The number of those who lived those events is dwindling.

But at Brooksby Village in Peabody, 11 residents, refugees of the European Holocaust, have come together to tell their stories in a documentary called "Out of Darkness." It was directed by Christopher DeThomas and produced by DeThomas and Brooksby chaplain Anna Smulowitz, a Newburyport playwright and theatrical director.

Born in post-war Europe in a displaced persons camp, Smulowitz admits to anger over the Nazi murders of so many millions and so many of her family members.

"When I was born, they were all gone," she said.

It drove her to write a play, "Terezin: Children of the Holocaust," in 1971 and to make this film now.

DeThomas, on the other hand, had to be convinced.

"Another Holocaust documentary," he remembered sighing at first. "We'll see."

DeThomas, who has experience in local cable and at New England Cable News, became a true believer in the project, however, as he realized how many one-time refugees from Hitler were actually living at Brooksby and what invaluable and fascinating stories they had to tell.

With time passing on, he said, "The goal for the video is to get the survivors' stories out ... and to create a film that did the story justice."

"All just spoke from their hearts," Smulowitz said.

The film, including interviews and period photographs, has already been shown to packed houses at Brooksby Village. It drew residents and their families. The reception has been impressive enough that additional venues are being sought.

Amely Smith, Ann Ettlinger and Rita Kaplan are among the 11 who told their stories. Each escaped first to the United Kingdom as part of the "Kindertransport," an effort mainly by Quakers and British Jews to rescue children from the murderous anti-Semitism of the Hitler regime. Their parents would find their own ways out.

"My father was in World War I, a veteran," said Smith, who lived in Koenigsberg, Prussia. "Some of my ancestors went back (in Germany) to the 1600s. You can't understand. That's why it took so long for so many Jews to leave."

After Kristallnacht, schools, restaurants and theaters were closed to Jews. Smith remembered learning the synagogue had been burned down and hearing a friend tell of her father's arrest.

"When I came home, I broke down and started crying," she said.

She left at age 13, with little doubt it was the right thing to do. She remembers the trip to London, being helped along the way by Jewish relatives in Holland who would later learn the fatal lesson that their country was no sanctuary.

Ettlinger, who grew up in cosmopolitan Vienna, was astonished after Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938, to see uniforms appear everywhere, overnight, brownshirts and SS black, as if this malevolent army had been among them the whole time, just waiting. On Kristallnacht, her father was arrested and sent to the Dachau concentration camp. He was later released.

In a recent discussion of "Out of Darkness," Ettlinger listened quietly to a tale of a fellow refugee, a young girl who made the passage to America aboard a "hell ship." That meant three weeks at sea in August, dodging German submarines, hundreds crammed into a hold intended for a fraction of that number. And yet, the puzzling punchline— the woman exclaimed she was lucky to be there.

Ettlinger understood.

"In the ship, they came of their own free will," she said. "They were free."

Kaplan's family lived in Nuremberg, site of historic Nazi rallies. They had decent relations with non-Jewish neighbors, but the world around them grew more and more frightening. The Kaplans moved at one point to avoid getting the landlord in trouble for sheltering them. Her father escaped arrest on Kristallnacht when Nazis, either too lazy or sympathetic to the family, failed to look under a bed.

British rescuers were kindly, but the war followed the children. Survivors lived under the threat of the Blitz, the seemingly endless relay of Nazi bombs and rockets that killed an estimated 43,000 Londoners.

It's an often depressing story, of individuals uprooted, robbed of their culture, language, heritage, livelihoods. And of loved ones murdered.

For all that, there is an absence of bitterness. Theirs is not a story without hope. Their salvation came because others, Jews and non-Jews alike, cared enough to arrange the Kindertransport, to become foster parents, to welcome them finally to America and prosperity.

For the young in America, Ettlinger said, "adjusting was easy."

Even among some Germans, if there was not much help, there was at least humanity. Kaplan tells of her return to her former home in Nuremberg in 1988 and stopping to ask a resident what became of her neighbors, "the family Metz." The woman stopped, stared into her face a moment and then, despite the decades, screamed with joy, "Rita!"

Information from: The Daily News of Newburyport, http://www.newburyportnews.com


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