Lukáš Přibyl’s ‘Forgotten Transport’ films – illuminating ‘places left in obscurity’

Lukáš Přibyl’s series of documentaries, ‘Forgotten Transports’, depicts a lesser-known side of the Holocaust, played out in locations a lot less notorious than Belsen or Auschwitz. The films have been subject to an overwhelming amount of critical acclaim ever since the final installment, ‘Forgotten Transports to Poland’ was premiered in March this year. Just before Lukáš Přibyl set off to Paris to promote the cycle there, I asked him to tell me a bit about the project:

“The ‘Forgotten Transports’ series are four films which are all individual and can be screened separately, but if you watch them consecutively they are supposed to present a picture of the Holocaust as we, quote unquote, ‘don’t know it’. Because I am interested in places where Czech Jews and Central and Western European Jews were deported during the early stages of the Holocaust, mostly 1941-1942. And because most of these people perished, to an extent even greater than people who were deported to Auschwitz and so on, these places have been left completely in obscurity, I would say. Nothing has been written about them, there are no documentaries, and when I was researching them, in the early stages, I realized that the fates of these people, and the stories that they have are so radically different from what we got used to, from what we sort of acknowledge as the general survival story, that they should be recorded.”

Lukáš Přibyl spent years crossing the globe, several times over, to interview survivors for the films. His research took him to Israel, the United States, Germany and time and again, the Baltic countries in which these transports ended up:

“The four films are focused on four different locations to which Jews were deported. So Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and Eastern Poland. And each of the films are focused on a different survival story or a different mode of survival, rather. Latvia is focused on how people, how families tried to adapt to completely extreme conditions whilst keeping a semblance of normalcy. So you had children going to improvised schools, but they had to pass by the gallows on the way to school. Teenagers danced under the penalty of death, and the next day, the boys were shot. Belarus is really about fighting and escapes from death camps and joining the partisans. Estonia is really about a group of women who survived thanks to the fact that they, to an extent, managed to block and ignore what was going on around them. Thanks to constant mutual help, they really created a bubble around themselves. You can call it naivety, you can call it stupidity, which is what they call it themselves, but it really allowed them to survive.

“And Poland is really about people on the run, constantly changing their identities, living with false papers, hiding and so on. So each of the films also focuses on a different group of people in a way.”

There you have outlined the main differences between the people in each of these films, but in your research, did you find some similar stories coming up time and again?

“Actually, I think that there are more things that separate them than are common. I think the only thing you can say is common for all of them that allowed them to survive is luck. That is the only common denominator. Everything else is, I mean, these people – we filmed in over 20 countries, the materials contained in these films come from over 30 countries. There were so few of these people who survived, so basically if you were the only person who survived from a particular transport to a particular place, then you don’t really have anyone to exchange your experiences with.

“So first of all these people very often actually fell through the cracks with all of the big interview schemes, with Spielberg and so on. These people never talked, to anybody, including their children. Very often, the children of these people found out about their parents’ experience through me. These people don’t really know about other survivors from the places they were in, and their experience was, as I mentioned, so different from the experience of Auschwitz survivors. Quite a few of them actually sort-of confided in me and said ‘well, I can’t get along with these people, because since there is absolutely nothing about the camp that I was in, other people say “oh yes, you were in this or that camp, that was nothing, I was in Auschwitz”’. So that added to the detachment that they already felt to begin with. And so that is why these people never spoke.”

Did you find that some people were actually quite reticent to speak to you about these experiences at first?

“Absolutely. I mean, of course, it is very individual, there were some people who spoke to me relatively quickly, but there were people who took, in some cases, up to two years to be persuaded to talk. I kept calling them and basically persuading them, and until they gained enough trust in me to speak, it was quite an arduous process.”

In his research, Lukáš Přibyl spoke to former Nazi prison guards. I asked him how he felt about these interviews, and whether the stories they told him were a lot less black and white than you would expect:

“Absolutely, I don’t believe in a black and white view of the world, because the world is not black and white. So, sure, sometimes it is difficult to approach someone who, you know, has blood on their hands. But, on the other hand, sometimes you meet people – at a recent screening was the Estonian ambassador who told me that he really liked the film and said that he knew one of the people I interviewed for the film. He was actually the son of a former Estonian minister. And this was one of the people who participated in the shooting of these Czech Jews when they were deported to Estonia.

“And when I met this guy, I couldn’t detect any anti-Semitism, he just got an order and he did what he was told. And I really can’t say what I would do at the age of 17 if I received an order. I mean, these moral and philosophical questions – and they are philosophical questions, do I rebel, do I say no to an order – these are more than a 17-year-old can probably handle.

“So, he did participate, he was captured by the Soviets in 1948, he was sentenced to 25 years in a gulag. He served around 7 years and was then released in 1955 together with the German POWs. So, it is not a black and white story as well. There were many people who did it voluntarily, because they were psychopaths – I don’t know, I don’t have an explanation for why you would want to kill. And there were many of them. But there were also people who have this more complicated story.”

What has the reaction been like so far to the films?

“Well, the series has basically just been completed, so only now are we starting to send the films to film festivals. But I have to say that the first time we screened it was at the Palm Springs International Film Festival where we were short-listed for an audience award, which was great. We were short-listed for a quote unquote ‘Holocaust documentary’, in this tremendous competition. We sold out the Lincoln Center in New York and got a standing ovation there. So that was incredible, and also two of the women who speak in the film came and were in the audience, so that was quite an experience.

“We sort of have to fight against this preconception, because most people know, or think they know, what they are going to see if you say ‘this is a documentary’. It’s a documentary, so they immediately box it within history, Holocaust, TV, seen this a million times. And it is always the same. But once they see it, they actually realize that it is a little bit different from the other ones. And I think young people react best, I don’t know if it is because they don’t know that much about the Holocaust any more, or whether it is because they are more open. But they see it as a story, they see it as a story of human lives, and a story of people trying to save their lives. They see it as a thriller, which is what I wanted to achieve, not as history.”

The series of films has taken Lukáš years to complete and has consisted of an enormous amount of painstaking research, which he himself does not undermine:

“Out of 270 people who survived altogether from the several dozen thousand people who were deported to these places, I found 70 who were still alive when I started the project, and I talked to all of them. Of course, we also interviewed local Jews from all of these places, we interviewed the so-called ‘bystanders’, the local civilian population, and in some cases we also interviewed some Nazis who were still alive. That was about 270 hours of footage, and if you ask about how many people I spoke to in general, that must have been several thousand, because behind every photograph in the film, there are several hundred phone calls, because a lot of the material that is used in the films comes from private hands. Because I believe that there is a visual record of basically everything, it’s just not in official archives. So you have to go to a Polish village and get drunk with men in the pub and they give you photographs, or you go to Germany and you ring the doorbell of the family of a former SS man for so long that they give you the keys for their garage and they say that you can go and rummage through there. That is where the material comes from.”

That was something I wanted to ask you about. Because it seems that you have some very, very rare period footage of even the roads that these transports went down. That must have taken you to the ends of the earth to find. What was the wildest goose chase that you embarked upon to find a piece of footage?

“I would not use anything that is not time- and place-authentic. As I said, I believe that there is a visual record of everything, so, whatever these people in the film say, I document using photographs and films. And you can actually recognise people who speak in the film in photographs from the camp itself, or from places of forced labour and so on. So, if they say ‘well, we worked in Tallinn and there was a diver’, then I go to the archives and find out all the names of the divers who worked in the Baltic between 1941-1944. And then I look up all the families and then I find the one picture in which the women are pulling up the diver onto the boat.

“For the last film, because I needed some footage from Hungary, so I went through 600 hours of footage and selected the 12 minutes of footage that I needed. I go to Germany, I need footage of Szamos, it’s a few seconds, more probably doesn’t exist. But I go through the 80 hours to find that few seconds of that railway station at the time that I needed.”

Is there anything that you just couldn’t find? That you are sure is out there, but that you just couldn’t get…

“In the end I usually get everything. But there was, for example, a story in the film about Estonia – a very interesting sort of Romeo and Juliet story in a concentration camp. And I was looking for a photo of the girl for four years. And it was such a basic, incredible story and I knew it was a building stone of the film, but I just couldn’t find a picture of the camp commander, nor of the girl.

“She had a very Swedish-sounding name, Inge Sylten, which was very strange, so I looked up all the Syltens in the world. And none of them were Jewish, and none of them were relatives. In the end, I found out that they couldn’t have been related because Inge’s father changed his name from something like Silberstein, or something very Jewish, to this Swedish-sounding name. And they kept moving all over the place, so she was deported from Brno, but her father worked in Ostrava. And her parents were divorced, so it was all very complicated.

“So, I found all the schools she went to and I looked up all of her former classmates. And none of them had a picture. And then, one day, it was completely incidental, I was asked whether I could help with some research about the Jewish soldiers who were in the Czechoslovak army in the Soviet Union. And I am going through these hundreds and hundreds of names, and suddenly I see this name, Sylten. And immediately, I realized. I knew that the father wasn’t deported with the rest of the family, but I didn’t know what had happened to him. And suddenly I see that he was arrested in 1940 by the NKVD, the KGB of that time, imprisoned in a gulag, and then, in 1942, he was released on the condition that he joined the Czechoslovak forces and fought the Nazis.

“He survived the war – I managed to find his record from 1945 – and then I found a record that he emigrated in 1948 to Israel. So, I went to Israel to look for him there.”

Lukáš managed to locate the street that Inge’s father had lived on and questioned all of his former neighbours in a bid to find a lead. A couple of people said that they remembered an old man with a family which renewed Přibyl’s hope:

“I knew that I wouldn’t find this man alive because he was born in 1891, and the chance that he would, at 60, start a new family was very slim, but he did. Now I knew that somewhere in Israel was a woman with the maiden name of Sylten, and I had to find her. So I kept looking for her, I kept calling all over the place and I solicited the help of one of my distant relatives there. He also called everywhere and it took months. And then one day, his wife came home and he was again on the phone and she asked him ‘where do you keep calling?’ And he said ‘well, I’m looking for this woman whose name is Sylten’, and she said ‘Sylten? Ruth Sylten? I went to high school with her!’ And so then it was easy.

“I called her up and I asked her ‘do you have a picture of your half-sister?’ And she said ‘what do you mean? I don’t have any half-sister’. And I replied ‘well you do, well you did. You had three half siblings, because your father had a family before the war.’ She said, ‘no, that’s impossible, because my father never said anything like that and he would have said’. She didn’t believe me at all. And I kept on telling her things about her father and the family which all matched. And so I said ‘please, will you give this a chance, I know you said you know all of the photos in the family albums, but will you please go through them again?’”

Ruth Sylten agreed and, as chance would have it, was due to visit Prague on holiday in the following couple of days. She brought her photo albums with her and Lukáš and she met:

“I was flicking through the pages and then suddenly I see this picture of a very pretty girl. And so I asked ‘who is this?’ and she said ‘you know, you’re right, I don’t know who this is’. And so we carefully peeled the picture away and on the back it said, there was an inscription which said, ‘to my friend (I don’t remember the name now), from Inge Sylten’. And the most amazing this is that actually the picture was inscribed to a woman whom I had contacted during my search, but she no longer remembered that she had had this photograph. And that is why I couldn’t find any photos anywhere, because what the father did after the war was what I was trying to do 60 years later. He went round all the acquaintances and friends of Inge and collected the pictures, because coming back from the war he had nothing. And he wanted a memento of his family who had perished. And behind basically every photograph in the films is a similar story.”

What made you start on this project which has taken so many years of your life and so much of your attention and devotion?

“Well I started because of the history of my family as well. So, I was interested in where my family had been deported to and my grandfather, who actually survived, was in the very first deportation of the war. He was deported in October 1939 already, one month after the beginning of the war. And he was also deported to this tiny, completely forgotten, obscure camp. And since I knew where he was deported to, but I couldn’t find any mention of it in scientific literature – or, at least, if it was mentioned, it was really only mentioned in passing and there was nothing more said about it. So, I decided that there was no other way to find out about it than investigate it myself.

“So I did start looking for this camp and I interviewed a lot of people and through this research I actually realized that there were many more places where Czech Jews were deported to, and we just know the destination, but we don’t know anything about what happened to them there. So I gradually started collecting that information as well, and when I started meeting some of these people I realized that they are so incredible and that their stories are really so different from what I myself imagined the survival story of the Holocaust was. And each of them was like a Hollywood thriller.

“I felt that I had to record them on camera as well as just writing these things down. Because writing things down is good for historians, but then you write a study and it collects dust on university bookshelves. And no one reads it, and these stories are not just stories of Jews during the war, they are really universal in a way. So, these films are really not so much about the Holocaust, although there is all this research behind everything and every detail is very painstakingly documented. But I think these films are about how people react in utter extremities, and that is what I was trying to achieve.”

For more information on the ‘Forgotten Transports’ series, go to the films’ website, www.zapomenutetransporty.cz.