Unit­ed States Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Museum

In 2014 I pub­lished Three Min­utes in Poland: Dis­cov­er­ing a Lost World in a 1938 Fam­i­ly Film, a book about a home movie made by my grand­fa­ther, David Kurtz. Dur­ing a six-week sum­mer vaca­tion with my grand­moth­er in 1938, David revis­it­ed his birth­place — Nasiel­sk, Poland, a small town locat­ed thir­ty-five miles north­west of War­saw. At the time — one year before the out­break of World War II — Nasiel­sk was home to a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of about 3,000 peo­ple, rough­ly half the town’s pop­u­la­tion; few­er than one hun­dred of Nasielsk’s Jews would sur­vive the Shoah. My grandfather’s three min­utes of film are the only known mov­ing images of this com­mu­ni­ty pri­or to its destruction.

In one sense, the images are unre­mark­able. An unruly throng of chil­dren jos­tles for a posi­tion in front of the cam­era lens. Town res­i­dents exit the syn­a­gogue in a ragged pro­ces­sion. A young bul­ly shoves the girl stand­ing next to him. A proud host­ess shoos curi­ous onlook­ers away from her doorstep, clear­ing the way for her Amer­i­can guests to depart. But seen through the lens of his­to­ry, these ordi­nary scenes become dev­as­tat­ing. Watch­ing the film today, we know what the peo­ple in the frame do not: how soon their lives and their way of life will end in violence.

I dis­cov­ered my grandfather’s film in a clos­et at my par­ents’ home in 2009. It sat in an alu­minum can for sev­en­ty years, slow­ly dete­ri­o­rat­ing until it was bare­ly recov­er­able. The moment I saw this footage, I felt a pro­found respon­si­bil­i­ty toward the hun­dreds of peo­ple whose faces are so haunt­ing­ly vis­i­ble. As much as I want­ed to, I could not warn them of their impend­ing fate; I could not save them. Yet through the fluke of the film’s sur­vival, I was in a unique posi­tion to pre­serve their mem­o­ry. I want­ed to know what — and espe­cial­ly who—I was see­ing. And I want­ed oth­ers to see these faces, so that the film would stand as a memo­r­i­al — not only to this lost com­mu­ni­ty and to the thou­sands of oth­ers like it — but to these par­tic­u­lar people.

When I dis­cov­ered the film, how­ev­er, I knew noth­ing about it. I nev­er met my grand­fa­ther, who died before I was born, and my grand­moth­er, although she lived well into her nineties, nev­er spoke of their 1938 trip to Europe. I didn’t know why they went to Poland or what they did dur­ing their vis­it. I didn’t know what small Pol­ish town appeared in the film or the iden­ti­ties of any of the people.

My grandfather’s film is thus silent in more ways than one. There is no audio, and so we do not hear the con­ver­sa­tions or the com­mo­tion sur­round­ing him as he panned his cam­era across the crowd­ed mar­ket square. The film is also silent in a larg­er sense: It does not tell us what it is. The images are innocu­ous. Their poignance and pow­er are evi­dent only when we know the his­tor­i­cal fact that these peo­ple would soon be vic­tims of geno­cide. But just because we see these peo­ple does not mean we know them. And just because we know what hap­pened to them does not mean we know any­thing about their lives.

I hoped to hon­or the life of this com­mu­ni­ty, rec­og­niz­ing these peo­ple as indi­vid­u­als rather than as stereo­types, as men and women with com­plex lives.

Con­se­quent­ly, for five years I researched and trav­eled seek­ing to answer the decep­tive­ly sim­ple ques­tion, What do we see in this film?” Even­tu­al­ly, through a series of seem­ing­ly mirac­u­lous coin­ci­dences, I encoun­tered sev­en sur­vivors of Nasielsk’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, includ­ing an eighty-six-year-old man and a nine­ty-four-year-old woman, both of whom appear in my grandfather’s home movie as young peo­ple. Record­ing their rec­ol­lec­tions and painstak­ing­ly piec­ing togeth­er the few sur­viv­ing pho­tographs, let­ters, and frag­ments of mem­o­ry scat­tered around the world, I was able to doc­u­ment the his­to­ry of Nasielsk’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty with more detail than I had dreamed pos­si­ble. Ulti­mate­ly, the sur­vivors iden­ti­fied per­haps two dozen of the hun­dreds of peo­ple who appear in my grandfather’s home movie, as well as many more who do not appear in the film. Togeth­er, we pre­served not only names, but sto­ries, jokes and anec­dotes, songs, argu­ments, and hints of scandal.

My grandfather’s home movie is now the sub­ject of a doc­u­men­tary film, Three Min­utes — A Length­en­ing, direct­ed by his­to­ri­an Bian­ca Stigter, co-pro­duced by Acad­e­my Award-win­ner Steve McQueen, and nar­rat­ed by Hele­na Bon­ham Carter. Like my book, Three Min­utes — A Length­en­ing asks one ques­tion over and over: What do we see?” The direc­tor uses the cam­era to inves­ti­gate each frame, iso­lat­ing facial expres­sions and the pat­terns on women’s dress­es, not­ing the mezu­zot on door frames in the back­ground, deci­pher­ing the name on a gro­cery store sign. In this way, three min­utes in the life of the town are stretched into almost sev­en­ty, and the rich­ness and com­plex­i­ty of what my grand­fa­ther cap­tured is giv­en time to unfold. Draw­ing on the infor­ma­tion gath­ered in my book, as faces appear on the screen, we hear the names of some of the peo­ple we see, we learn a lit­tle about their per­son­al­i­ties and his­to­ries. The doc­u­men­tary pre­miered at the Venice Film Fes­ti­val in Sep­tem­ber 2021 and was an offi­cial selec­tion at the 2022 Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val. It will be released in the­aters this fall. Thanks to Bian­ca Stigter’s beau­ti­ful and sen­si­tive direc­tion, my grandfather’s home movie will now reach audi­ences around the world.

It still strikes me with won­der: Three min­utes of ama­teur vaca­tion footage! What would my grand­fa­ther think? Entire­ly unin­ten­tion­al­ly, he cre­at­ed a memo­r­i­al to a lost com­mu­ni­ty. He filmed only brief snip­pets of his vis­it, just a tiny sliv­er of the town’s every­day life. I’m cer­tain he had lit­tle aware­ness of most of what he filmed, no inkling of its sig­nif­i­cance. He was on vaca­tion. His cam­era was a nov­el­ty. He filmed casu­al­ly, like a tourist.

Sim­i­lar­ly, we can view these scenes casu­al­ly. With­out know­ing any­thing par­tic­u­lar about what we see, it would be easy to believe we under­stand it. So often with footage of pre­war Jew­ish life in Poland, in the absence of knowl­edge, we make an empa­thet­ic leap over the lost details, assum­ing that we know these peo­ple because they seem so human, because they seem just like us. But there is a world of dif­fer­ence between iden­ti­fy­ing with the vic­tims of the Holo­caust and iden­ti­fy­ing them.

Unit­ed States Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Museum

Espe­cial­ly today, as the sur­vivor gen­er­a­tion pass­es away, the nature of any Holo­caust memo­r­i­al depends on the qual­i­ty of our mem­o­ry. Even among those who wish to remem­ber, it is all too easy to con­tent our­selves with gen­er­al­i­ties. Watch­ing these three min­utes, it is tempt­ing to see only char­ac­ter­is­tic types — pre­war shtetl Jews; future vic­tims unaware of their immi­nent fate; rep­re­sen­ta­tives of a world” on the brink of destruc­tion. But every film and every pho­to­graph always cap­tures more than generalities.

From the moment I first saw my grandfather’s film, I hoped to hon­or the life of this com­mu­ni­ty specif­i­cal­ly, rec­og­niz­ing these peo­ple as indi­vid­u­als rather than as stereo­types, as men and women with com­plex lives, with fam­i­lies, rela­tion­ships, pro­fes­sions, secrets. Only by see­ing specif­i­cal­ly, with knowl­edge, do we rec­og­nize what my grandfather’s film pre­serves. And only in this way, I felt, can we begin to grasp the mag­ni­tude of what was lost.

In its pas­sage from film to book and now back to film, my grandfather’s home movie has become a dis­tinct kind of memo­r­i­al. Yes, it shows us pre­war Jew­ish life in Poland and anony­mous vic­tims of the Shoah. But if we know what we’re watch­ing, we also see Chaim Nusen Cwa­jghaft stand­ing skep­ti­cal­ly aloof; Czarna Myr­la laugh­ing with her sis­ter, Miri­am; Avrum Kubel talk­ing with his friend, Sim­cha Rot­stein. We glimpse a few, aching­ly brief moments of Faiga Milch­berg and Moszek Tuchendler just liv­ing their lives.

See David Kurtz’s orig­i­nal footage at the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Museum.

Watch the trail­er for Three Min­utes — A Length­en­ing.

Glenn Kurtz is the author of Three Min­utes in Poland: Dis­cov­er­ing a Lost World in a 1938 Fam­i­ly Film (Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). The doc­u­men­tary film, Three Min­utes — A Length­en­ing,” direct­ed by Bian­ca Stigter, will be released in the­aters in fall 2022. More infor­ma­tion is at www​.glennkurtz​.com