Why Do We Want This Self-Inflicted Pain?
“This is what’s left of the Warsaw ghetto, some condemned buildings now being converted into luxury condominiums.” As documentary filmmaker Marian Marzynski speaks, the camera looks up at a five-story building, one that looks very different from those alongside it. It’s old, certainly, and weathered. It also features sepia-tinted, billboard-sized images of former residents, personal memories turned into a public memorial.
Marzynski brings his camera and crew as he walks under this building and into the streets of his former home. As he describes the experience for his film, Never Forget to Lie, premiering as part of PBS’ Frontline this week, he notes that it seems he’s “entering a ghost town.” As his film’s title offers a turn on the usual admonition regarding the Holocaust, he remembers the people he last saw here, when he was a boy, like his grandmother, who was taken to a death camp, and he remembers the “strange wartime hide and seek” he played with his cousin, as they pretended to hide from Germans, then burst free when one of them gave a signal the coast was clear. “I was three,” he says now.
His recollection, now, is at once horrifying and tragic, as so many Holocaust recollections tend to be. It is also one of several assembled here, memories belonging to the “last survivors,” children whose lives were upended, who lost people in ways that were often incomprehensible, who were affected fro life by their experiences during the war. The film’s title is telling in this respect, for as it recalls a directive from an adult to a Jewish child passing as a non-Jewish child, it also sets up an essential structure of survival, for adults and children who saw others killed for being who they were. The experience was unspeakably damaging, the not speaking is built into the lies that granted and delineated life going forward.
Most stories about the Holocaust note lasting effects; that these effects were initiated for children as toddlers and preteens seems another dimension entirely. Even those many survivors who have gone on to live productive lives, to find careers and raise families in Poland and elsewhere, are touched by the experience. The several interviewees here revisit sites in the Warsaw ghetto (some for the first time since they left the place, as children), with Marzynski, in order to cry, to recall and confront the ghosts who haunt them always, though maybe not always as viscerally as here and now.
The scenes of remembering are harrowing. When Marzynski visits the apartment where he and his parents lived, he meets a woman who has her own memoires: the camera focuses on her lined face as she recalls watching the ghetto burn and her father slapping her for watching (“I could have gotten trouble for doing it,” she says, an incredibly complex explanation in just a few words) and then being deported to Germany, where a six-year-old boy spit in her six-year-old face. Marzynski leans toward her, standing over her, his arm on the doorframe that contains and also opens out around her. “Can you imagine it?” she asks, referring to the boy. “They were brought up that way,” she explains, then adds, “I hate them. I know it’s not right. God doesn’t allow it.”
As you might contemplate how she lives with this contradiction, what she knows and what she feels, since she was a little girl, Marzynski speaks with another woman, who remembers how frightening she found the boots worn by German soldiers. “Bang, bang, bang,” she says, as Marzynski thwacks the fine restaurant table where they sit. “Yes,” she says, like that. “For some reason, I was afraid of those boots.” For some reason. If she couldn’t articulate it then, now, some 50 years later, she is “coming out of the closet” as a survivor, she says, because, “In the last couple of years, I have become a little freer of the fear.”
Even without language, and too often without conscious effort, memories continue shape lives. The filmmaker remembers how he learned to do the sign of the cross, so that he might pass, and that soon after, his mother—who, along with her husband, survived the war—sent him to a Catholic orphanage, where he became “a dedicated altar boy,” protected by adults who knew who he was but never told. That the child was upset when his mother came to fetch him when the war was over, and preferred to stay in this safe-seeming space, so immersed in ritual and routine, makes perfect, painful sense. He dreamed of becoming a priest.
Looking back on the lies now, the lies that saved lives, the film presents them in the fragments they must remain, appreciates gaps between them, frames images as they allude to multiple pasts. If the condominiums in Warsaw serve as one means of forgetting, a collective moving on, Never Forget to Lie absorbs that movement and also remembers the truths, the sacrifices and the losses, that made it possible.