A new Czech TV documentary shows that old age does not have to be a time of loneliness. The Charles Jordan senior citizens' home in Prague helps residents to regain a sense of community and self. What's even more remarkable is the fact that the home's residents share a common heritage and most of them share a tragic past: they all lost someone in the Holocaust and themselves survived the horrors of the camps.
Some shunned their Jewish heritage after returning from the camps more than half a century ago, only to re-find their roots today; members of the Jewish community settling down in the Charles Jordan pensioners' home: no longer forgotten, no longer alone. This year marks five years since the home opened its doors, becoming the subject for a new Czech TV documentary that wanted to explore how the home's residents had grown closer together. The film's director Ales Kisil:
"These days we see conditions in which the traditional family no longer really works, and far and above is something we could label the "State". We wanted to show the possibilities in-between: the community - in this case the Jewish community - that has an important role to play. Within the community there are far greater opportunities for people to reach out, to understand each other, to care: much more so than just two strangers who met accidentally in the street."
Mr Kisil's film (a cooperative effort with the project's initiator Zuzana Brikcius) is particularly strong in two areas: mapping life in the home today - and recalling the terrifying experience of the Nazi death camps. Through a careful use of archive footage showing the rise of anti-Semitism of the 30s, the transports, the suffering, but also intricate scenes from religious life and images of pre-war Prague, Vienna, and London, the film builds a mosaic of past events that enveloped the speakers' lives.
In all, three are profiled: two who survived the camps, and a third, 81-year-old Susanne Medas, who was saved as a 16-year-old girl, and escaped to Britain as part of Nicholas Winton's famous "Kindertransports". In the early 1980s Mrs Medas returned to Prague for the first time to try and gain more information about the death of her parents, captured by the Nazis in Norway.
"I came to Prague first in 1984, having left it in 1939, because I found out that a cousin had survived three concentration camps and was living in Prague. And, I wanted to become a part of the Jewish community because I hoped that possibly some survivor might have known my parents. My cousin did not warm to me, we knew each other before - we went to the same school. She couldn't handle the fact that I was the 'lucky one' who had got out and it became increasingly difficult while she was alive to even be in Prague. I wanted her to speak Czech with me and her answer was 'Your Czech is horrible, and I can't even bear to hear it! What do you need it for, you have a home in Britain, you have your sons there, your phone there, why do you need it? And, the great contrast between my cousin then and these people here is that they seem to have come to terms with their situation: they also had terrible experiences."
So, even while Susanne Medas is herself not a resident in the Charles Jordan home, she says she has found bonds there that are unbreakable. She spends much of her time there, and even teaches English to her friends living in the home.
"Maybe I'm naïve, but I seem to see they have found exactly what they want in their old age. They might have children, they might not, but the friendships that have formed are stronger than anything."
The residents' lives as reflected in the film The Drowned and the Saved are shown in a delicate balance between dark personal testimonies from the past, and moments of happiness in old age. As one of the film's producers expressed, one patient had arrived at the home having more or less given up on this world, sick and bedridden: only to "return and face life" within a year.
Note: Readers may be interested to know that Ales Kisil & Zuzana Brikcius's film takes its title from a book by Italian author Primo Levi, which looks at the hell that was Auschwitz which Mr Levi himself survived.
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