NANA is a feature-length documentary about Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivor Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant. Dyamant, a promising young opera singer, was twenty years old when the Nazis invaded her town of Bedzin, Poland in 1939, the start of World War II. Soon after that, she began her nightmarish sojourn of imprisonment in a ghetto and hellish incarceration for years in the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, and also Ravensbruck and Malchow.
Filmmaker Serena Dykman was in her early twenties when she produced and directed this film. In fact, she was the same age as her grandmother, Nana Maryla, when she was suffering in the camps. Yes, NANA is a granddaughter’s attempt to document the experiences of her grandmother – and, in doing so, obtain a better understanding of who her nana really was, and what bitter misery the Holocaust caused for many millions of Jews, as well as other groups preyed upon by Hitler’s Germany.
What makes Dykman’s film powerful is the forceful personality and intelligence of Nana. As the granddaughter researched her project, she discovered more than 100 hours of footage of Maryla. You see, after surviving the camps, Maryla spent the remainder of her fairly long life as a spokesperson, a witness, to the Holocaust. She was taped addressing school groups and Holocaust archives and led tour groups that visited Auschwitz over the decades.
Any specifics that I relate to you will seem less potent than hearing them directly from Maryla. Still, for those who may never see this visual record, I will pass along a few of the details.
Maryla is asked if she has forgiven the Germans. She says no. She has not forgiven the Germans of that generation. She cannot forgive for the sake of the dead. She reports to audiences of children and others who know little about this Holocaust that 7000 to 8000 human beings were sent to their deaths in the gas chambers of Auschwitz per day.
She was witness to a group of Hungarian Jewish children who were burned alive because supplies of deadly gases were low. Their corpses were thrown into a ditch and then set on fire.
When people wonder if she survived due to bravery, brilliance, or collaboration with the Germans, she is quick to respond that she survived due to a series of lucky events. On the infamous Death March at the end of the War, she found a box of sugar on the road. A couple times when she expected nothing more than hatred from local Polish folks, she received small kindnesses that kept her going.
Finally, it should be noted that this documentary was made shortly after the Charlie Hebdo events in France, and during the contentious U.S. Presidential election where people were feeling free to discuss particular populations with a racist bent. Asked about Hitler and anti-Semitism, Maryla says she believes he was a manic depressive, mentally ill. But she adds that the people of Germany voted for him, and they were NOT mentally ill.
The documentary NANA, which is playing in New York this month, is testament to the terrifying cruelty of the Germans during World War II. Intolerance continues across the world and in our own front and back yards. Nana is no longer here to be an activist for a better world. It is as important now, as ever, to understand that narrow-mindedness can lead to intolerance and racism, and such hatred can lead to the torture and genocide of innocent people.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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