Mara Reshen, a secular Jew in Vienna, discovers an old reel of film at a flea market. The frames show the city after the Nazi annexation in 1938. Fascinated, she investigates the fate of the people whose faces she sees, among them, two brothers, assimilated Jews who escaped the invaders. “Are they still alive?” Reshen wonders. “Could I return these moments to the people who lost them?”
That was the theme of a novel that Glenn Kurtz, a New York musician-turned-author-and-teacher, was writing in 2008 — before he followed Reshen’s path in an eerie case of life imitating art.
When he discovered his own reel of film, “life improved [on art] dramatically,” he says. “The story I had imagined happened to me.”
While doing research for his novel, Kurtz, a native of Roslyn, L.I., who lives on the Upper West Side, vaguely recalled that his late, Polish-born grandparents, had included scenes of one of their hometowns, a side trip, in a family movie they had shot during a summer vacation vacation in Europe in 1938. No one in his family had looked at the film, or thought about it, for many years. His parents, who in 2008 lived in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., didn’t know where the film was.
It took Kurtz three visits to his parents to find it, decaying in an unmarked cardboard box in a closet, among seven other reels of family movies. “It wasn’t labeled,” he says. “I smelled them all,” recognizing the vinegary odor of disintegrating film. “The one that smelled the worst I figured was the oldest.”
Kurtz figured correctly. But “Our Trip To HOLLAND BELGIUM POLAND SWITZERLAND FRANCE and ENGLAND” was in no shape to be viewed. “It had shrunk, curled on itself, and fused into a single, hockey-puck-like mass,” he writes in “Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which describes his mission to identify the site of his grandparents’ Polish footage, and to determine the fate of the town’s Jews who scurried around and mugged for the camera a year before the Nazis came to Poland. The book is part memoir, part travelogue, part history lesson.
But fortunately Kurtz’s parents had, at some point, transferred the 1938 film to VHS format, and that’s how he looked at the crucial, fleeting moments, some in color, some in black-and-white, interspersed in a 90-minute silent movie of Western European capitals.
It took approximately three minutes for the images to appear. “The exact duration is a little problematic,” Kurtz says, “since the film was in such poor condition, and frames got dropped during restoration.”
When images did finally appear, and he saw the young boys with caps atop their heads and old men with beards and women with simple frocks and other typical small-town-in-Poland street scenes, he was hooked. Who were these people? “I thought this was a great story. The instant I saw it, I got shivers.”
A shtetl came to life, a novel became reality. “The film is evidence of the culture that was wiped out.”
Over the next four years, fiction turned into nonfiction. Kurtz put aside the novel, and decided to write about Nasielsk, the town 25 miles northwest of Warsaw, whose 3,000 Jews — about 100 survived the Shoah — were the majority of the population on the eve of World War II. Kurtz’ grandfather was born there.
As part of his research, Kurtz met Nasielsk natives and their extended families on his travels to Poland and Israel and England for research. He learned about the decomposition of celluloid. He took a leave from his teaching at New York University to work on this fulltime.
Why the intense interest and the investment of time and money and emotions?
He says he can’t offer a clear answer. “I don’t really know why I felt compelled,” he says, sitting in a Greenwich Village café. “But I felt compelled.”
No one could bring back the lost lives, the lost Jewish culture. “The film had fallen to me to preserve. Its history was my inheritance, and I felt responsible for it,” he writes. “
Nasielsk was typical of the hundreds and hundreds of small Jewish communities that were wiped out by the Final Solution. His grandparents’ film is probably the only extant one of the town on the eve of World War II.
“This footage preserves impressions of daily life in a way that memory, photographs and documents cannot,” Kurtz says of his grandparents’ film.
He returned this week from a trip he led to Nasielsk; 50 people, including a native of the town and members of families with roots there, joined him, visiting onetime Jewish sites and meeting with high school students on the 75th anniversary of the Nazis’ deportation of Nasielsk’s Jews.
Kurtz plans to turn last week’s trip into a documentary.
He will speak about his book here in coming months, and says the goal of his work is to demystify what he calls an idolized, “Fiddler on the Roof” image of pre-war shtetl life — to offer, through painstaking details, a realistic picture of the men and women who lived in one town.
“It’s for the sake of history,” he says — “for the sake of preserving their memories.”
“We think of Glenn’s film and several others in our collection as a sort of sub-genre of home movies that show small towns that may exist in the visual record solely because Jewish immigrants to the United States brought movie cameras along on visits to family who remained in Europe,” says Leslie Swift, a film archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“Jewish movies that show Jewish life in pre-war Europe … contain a built-in poignancy because we know from our vantage point in history that the idyllic world they depict … would soon be consumed by displacement at best and annihilation at worst,” Swift says.
Kurtz’s deadline was the clock; natives of Nasielsk with childhood memories of the town were aging; some have died since he started his research; memories had already started to fade.
“I’m not the child of survivors,” Kurtz says. His grandparents had come to the United States as young children, with their parents, in the 1890s. Some distant relatives died in the Holocaust, but no one in his family knows any names. When his grandmother, Lisa Kurtz, was asked about her mishpoche’s fate in the Shoah, she’d answer, “They’re all gone,” closing the conversation.
Kurtz, 52, didn’t grow up hearing family Holocaust stories; his grandfather, David Kurtz, died before he was born. But, as a typical American Jew, “the Holocaust was a constant presence.”
What would his late grandparents think of their grandson’s devotion to their family movie?
His grandfather, Kurtz says, would probably “laugh and shake his head and say ‘I’m proud of him.’” His grandmother “would have said, ‘You did good work.’ She admired hard work.”
Glenn Kurtz will discuss “Three Minutes in Poland” on Nov. 12 at Temple Emanu-El’s Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning, on Jan. 12, 2015 at the JCC of Central New Jersey, and on Jan. 29 at the 92nd Street Y.