Eva Gregory recalls the moment when she realized that her family was in great peril. Then a young girl, she had accidentally dropped and shattered an entire set of expensive china. Horrified at what she had done, she braced for her mother’s explosion, but all her mother said was, “It’s all right. This doesn’t matter anymore.” Gregory, now an elderly woman, says, “That’s when I realized how bad the situation was.”
Hungarian Jews, Gregory and her family were residents of the small city of Kalosca, and her story is one of many recounted in the excellent new documentary film “There Was Once…,” which opens on Sept. 23.
The catalyst for this unusual, quietly understated but deeply affecting film is the research into the history of the city’s Jews undertaken by Gyongyi Mago, a teacher in Kalosca’s Catholic high school. Mago did her dissertation on that history and is eager to pass it along to her students as a counterpoint to the rising tide of neo-Fascist nationalism in Hungary recently. To that end, she contacted Jewish survivors across the globe to ask them to tell their stories.
Among the former residents of Kalosca with whom she became friendly was Gabor Kalman, who is now a documentary filmmaker based in the U.S. Given his background, it was probably inevitable that Kalman would want to make the story of Mago and her quest into a film, and he has done admirably well. Besides bringing a low-key intelligence to his work, Kalman also gives the film a warm presence alongside Mago’s determined energy.
The ostensible purpose of documentary film is the representation of reality. But how can you represent what no longer exists, a people and a culture that have been obliterated by deliberate acts of violence? Of course this is the dilemma that faces filmmakers in documenting the Shoah and its after-effects, and over the past several decades, a number of strategies have evolved for addressing it.
Kalman utilizes most of the usual devices for recreating a lost Jewish world. We see photo albums and their contents, memorial plaques and museums, the testimony of survivors and few remnants that still exist of their past lives. This is not new, although such measures are usually effective.
What separates “There Was Once . . .” from other recent documentaries on the Shoah is its narrow focus. Kalosca even today has only 18,000 inhabitants; its Jewish population never rose much above a thousand even in good times. Everyone seems to have known everyone else, Jew and non-Jew alike, and consequently there is an intimacy to the film’s revelations that has a greater emotional impact.
Equally important is the central figure of Mago. She is a warm but stubborn figure, caring towards her students, polite and ingratiating when necessary with authorities, deeply committed to her work and sincerely concerned about the victims and survivors and to telling their stories as truthfully as possible.
Her commitment is all the more extraordinary when one considers that, while there are no Jews in Kalosca anymore, there is a small knot of anti-Semitic nationalists. Remarkably, Mago seems to have encountered no resistance to her work, with both the Church and the city’s mayor actively participating in her attempt to memorialize the 65th anniversary of the liquidation of the local ghetto. Only at the very end of that day does a single act of anti-Semitic violence occur, and it seems a genuinely isolated event. Still, as both Mago and the film make clear, the dark clouds are hanging over Hungary once again.
So many films have been made on aspects of the Shoah. So many of them wallow in bathos, whether intentional or not. Doing so, they do a disservice to the memories of the victims of the Nazi murders, in both senses of the word “memory.” What raises “There Was Once . . .” above the overwhelming majority of documentaries on this subject — even many of the good ones — is its tone, never hectoring, never milking an audience for tears. Kalman knows full well what he has to show us, knows that it needs no preaching or prodding from him. From the film’s excellent, somewhat abstract score by Mark So to the clips Kalman uses to fill out the final credits with an update on the Mago family’s activities since the anniversary, this is a film whose calm center carries it far.
“There Was Once…,” directed by Gabor Kalman, opens for a one-week engagement at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave.) For information, go to www.ifccenter.com or call (212) 924-7771.