As Yom HaShoah approaches, Jews all over the world wrestle with how best to remember, retrieve and relay. Gyongji Mago, the catalyst for Gabor Kalman’s documentary “There was Once” has much to teach us. A high school teacher fascinated by local history, she came to realize that many of her students had no idea that Jews had ever lived in Kolocsa, a small town in southern Hungary. A Catholic, she too had had limited exposure to Jews.
In her attempt to retrieve the history of Kolocsa’s Jews, Mago interviewed local elders who might have known Jews and her quest led her to survivors in Israel, Canada and the U.S., among them Gabor Kalman. The result is Kalman directing a compelling documentary of Mago seeking to tell his history.
Interviews touch on the idyllic early life of Kalman and his peers before the war; then ghettoization, the transports to the camps and losses in every family. Following liberation, some survivors returned to Kolocsa and were forced into a second exile.
Mago’s personal story is a triumph: she certainly succeeds in educating her students; she also enlists the support of the local mayor and clergy in creating a memorial to Kolocsa’s Jews and manages to bring the survivors back to Kolocsa where they are reunited and accept the apologies of the town.
There are no easy answers here. Władysław Pasikowski’s “Aftermath” squarely confronts the role that Poles played in colluding with the Germans. Kalman touches on the issue more gently in Mago’s interviews with survivors. The rise of right-wing ideology in Hungary today recurs through the film culminating in a survivor being injured at a memorial gathering.
Mago’s moral clarity regarding the persecution of innocents is unwavering. Kalman’s direction is objective amidst this most painful and personal of stories.
“There Was Once,” released in 2011, was screened at the Center for Jewish History on April 23rd, followed by a discussion with Gabor Kalman.
Sharon Anstey is a writer and business consultant in New York.