Documentary on Auschwitz survivor to be shown at The Linda
“Return To Auschwitz” is the story of one man’s survival of the Nazi death camp. The documentary details the experiences of retired SUNY Plattsburgh professor Vladimir Munk as he returned to the concentration camp in early 2020. WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley sat down with the filmmakers and Munk – now 96 years old.
“I have never been in Auschwitz since 1945. I don’t know how I will feel when I be back. Not that I try to forget but I try to suppress the thinking about the Holocaust and of my past. I tried to live a normal life.”
Filmmaker Paul Frederick and documentary co-producer Bruce Carlin had previously recorded an interview with Vladimir Munk but had yet to use it. When offered the chance to document Munk’s return to Auschwitz, he felt it was a story they could not ignore.
“You know I agreed to do the first interview just because we wanted to capture it you know sooner than later. And you can’t help but fall in love with him as soon as you meet him and talk to him. We got as much as we could. And then in November of, that was February, November of that year Julie said oh by the way he just got asked to go back and I’m going with him," Frederick recalls. "I was like wow this will never happen again. We’ll never get this opportunity to do it again. Julie was going to be with Vladimir for the duration of while they were over there. And then I would have to film that but then go to his home town where he grew up which was Pardubice and then go to Prague where he went after the war.”
Carlin Media is a small production company in Plattsburgh. Owner and co-producer Bruce Carlin said it was a daunting prospect to film the documentary, not only logistically but emotionally.
"I have an interest in World War II. My mother was British, is British, and her home town was bombed constantly by the Germans. And so I grew up with that knowledge and my mother telling me about the Holocaust," says Carlin. "Learning about Terezin or Theresienstadt the first concentration camp was really new to me. I did not know that much about that particular camp which was not an extermination camp. It was a transit camp. Learning that this was part of this horrific ordeal and fate for these people. But you know being on the grounds of it you don’t even have the words, you know, to say the evil.
In the film Vladimir Munk and Julie Canepa are walking among the barracks at Auschwitz.
“Does being here after 75 years, is it what you imagined or is it different than what you’ve been thinking about all these years when you’ve sort of pictured it in your mind?”
“It’s not, you know, it’s not so real as it was 75 years ago because there aren’t, it’s empty," Munk replies. "When we came here it was full this barracks on both sides. The feeling is the same as it was the first time. It must be very depressing for you too right? When you look around it, it’s unreal when you look at it.”
“It is unreal," nods Canepa. "It is unreal.”
“Yeah for me I would say it’s a certain closure because, because I can’t do anything more for all the deaths," Munk continues. "They were my relatives but at least I did this. I came back at the end of my own life to see where their life ended. It’s really like going to the cemetery to say goodbye.”
“It still I think stays with me. It changes you for sure going there," says Paul Frederick. "You know there was one part in the film he says a few things and Julie has a hard time and starts choking back some tears. I can tell you all three of us were choking back tears at that moment. It literally hit all three of us and yeah tears were rolling down all our faces at that moment.”
Munk’s biographer Julie Canepa first met him when she sang in a duo at his retirement home. She accompanied him to the concentration camp in Poland as his guardian and narrates the documentary.
“He always said that he never let what had happened to his family define him throughout his life. And I think I really saw that part of his character during that trip. That he could be very strong and compassionate and feel pain for his family and for the loss but also have just this inner ability to persevere that goes beyond what it would seem to me the average person has.”
The documentary follows Vladimir Munk and Canepa on a museum tour during the visit to Auschwitz.
“There was an exhibit Vladimir insisted on seeing which focused on the fate of the Bohemian Jews of which he and his family were a part. The exhibit was in his native Czech and his intimate knowledge of the fate and events which befell the Czech Jews brought out the teacher in him," Canepa explains in the narration. "Soon he was leading the tour and our guide was asking him questions. A map depicts the concentration and extermination camps to which Jews were deported as Czechoslovakia was made systematically Jew-free. Most were sent to Theresienstadt and later to their deaths at Auschwitz.
Vladimir points to the totals. "8,400 and 1,500 survived."
Julie Canepa murmurs, "And you’re one of them."
All Munk says is "Yeah."
Everyone who visits Munk’s apartment at the Lake Forest Senior Center in Plattsburgh is offered a shot of Slivovitz, Czech plum brandy, as soon as they walk in. His apartment is filled with artwork and he’s proud of his cooking skills. But one thing Munk did not talk about for many years was his experience at the Nazi death camps.
“When I came here in 1969 we learned how terrible it was during the war because they couldn’t get this, they couldn’t get that. So I stopped trying to tell them. And then I didn’t want during the 21 years that I was teaching here I just wanted to be evaluated as a teacher not as a Holocaust survivor. And there was reason to it," he says. "Because I was invited at the beginning, once I was invited to the nursing department and they asked me about how I went through the concentration camp. And one question was do you feel guilty that you survived when your parents perished and so many relatives perished? I said why should feel guilty that I survived? So I just didn’t talk about it. When I retired I decided now it’s the time to tell the children not how, what is Holocaust or definition of politics but how I went through it.”
Munk said he had thought for a long time about returning to Auschwitz. He was invited to the 75th Anniversary of the liberation of the camp and accepted the opportunity to visit.
“Most of my relatives including my parents ended in Auschwitz. Not all were gassed as my parents were, I knew about those, but the official ending of their life was Auschwitz. But for me this meant that some 36 or 38 of my close relatives, sisters and brothers of my parents, my parents, their sisters and brothers, and my cousins and my nieces perished or ended in Auschwitz. So when you have a place when you have 36 of your close relatives you plan to visit it once a year or at least once in your lifetime. But it was just my saying goodbye to all my relatives. And this was a good opportunity and the only one I figured out at 95 to do it.”
Munk says throughout his lifetime he has missed the family connections that so many others have.
“You may have two relatives, you may have ten relatives but you meet once a year around Christmas time or Thanksgiving as a big family. Or you visit each other. I don’t have anybody. I was in concentration camp since I was 16, 17. And there was no father, there was no mother, no one to tell me yeah do this or don’t do this. And not often but from time to time I really missed advice or just somebody to talk with." Munk is wistful, "I didn’t have anybody. So I miss these people.”
Frederick says this documentary about Munk is different than many other films about Auschwitz or the Holocaust.
“I feel ours is a bit different in the fact of Julie is kind of telling the story through Vladimir and she’s not a Jewish person and she’s younger generation. It’s sort of geared towards a younger generation who maybe doesn’t know a lot about the Holocaust as a whole. And then we also chose to not be super gruesome with it," says Frederick. "I mean a lot of these films there’s bodies being pushed into graves with bulldozers and we didn’t show that. We didn’t feel that was necessary to get the message across. And to go back on this journey with Vladimir you learn about what happened there and the horrors but we didn’t get so graphic. And part of our goal is to have schools use this as a teaching aid. I do think it’s a unique approach to this topic.”
The documentary “Return to Auschwitz: The Survival of Vladimir Munk” will be shown at The Linda in Albany at 7 p.m. on October 14th. Paul Frederick, Julie Canepa and Bruce Carlin will host a question and answer session following the screening.