This Doc On Holocaust Survivors Enduring Argentine Dictatorship Is a Warning Against Rising Fascism

Auschwitz survivors in Poland mark the 70th anniversary of their liberation in 2015. Photo: Ian Gavan via Getty Images

Rising right-wing extremism empowered by the normalization of hate in American politics is alarming evidence of how rapidly ignorance and xenophobia can turn violent and systematic. The circumstances, unfortunately, are not as removed as we would like to think from those that allowed Nazism to commit unspeakable crimes. Deliberately designed to hold the attention of younger audiences who grew up in the digital realm, Poli Martinez Kaplún’s documentary, Lea y Mira dejan su huella, runs just under an hour in hopes of reminding us that the Holocaust is not  in the distant past and that fascism thrives on misinformation. By capturing the testimonies of two Holocaust survivors, Lea Zejac and Mira Kniaziew, the director powerfully presents history in the first person. Both Polish-born women found a new home in Argentina after enduring the horrors of Auschwitz, the epicenter of the German killing machine during WWII. Adopting Spanish as their preferred language, the friends are determined to use their every breath to share their story and warn the world of what discrimination can bring about when matched with populist and nationalistic propaganda. Yet, what’s even more outstanding about their accounts is their strength to live with purpose despite the indescribable pain they have encountered. They embody the triumph of the human spirit with humor, wisdom, and a sisterhood unlike any other. The film had its international premiere at the 11th Gasparilla International Film Festival where we sat down with Martinez Kaplún, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors herself, to discuss her concise, but potent debut work.

On Developing a Bond with Lea and Mira Before Filming

“I thought that Holocaust survivors would very melancholic or sad, but I was wrong.”

There is a foundation in Argentina, Foundation Tzedaka, which organizes a literary workshop for Holocaust survivors – it’s very specific. I started attending and I asked them for permission because I wanted to make a documentary and I wanted to meet the people that attended the workshop. I went regularly for over a year, but ever since the first time I saw Lea and Mira I realized they would be the subjects for the film. From the first instance I was surprised by their vitality and I was shocked because they would laugh a lot. I thought that Holocaust survivors would very melancholic or sad, but I was wrong. In their particular case, they are very energetic people. I visited the workshop for such a long time to work on the pre-production and learn about their story and to understand how to approach them through the camera, whether I would film the workshop itself or do separate interviews. During that time I established how the shooting process would be and I also developed a bond with them. It was important for met to be sure that the day I turned the camera on for the first time, I already had certain familiarity with them that would allow me to create intimacy in this portrait. I think that’s one of the merits of the film, because of this intimacy it feels as if the entire audience was there with them in their living room.

On Living a Purposeful Life After Devastating Trauma

Knowing about WWII and the concentration camps, I was always surprised that even though it’s such a cruel and terrible part of history, the worst war in human history, it’s not an old passage, it’s almost contemporary. It took place just 75 years ago. It took place in countries were, supposedly, the modern man had already made important discoveries and culture had flourished in a radiant way, but despite that, these atrocities took place there. Since these are very recent events, people that witnessed and survived it are still alive, but not for long because they are in their 80s or 90s. In just a few years all of these survivors won’t exist. I felt the urgent need to go out and register this world of stories they have so that they are not lost. Moreover, since these two women are so elderly, I wanted to know how they have given significance to their lives after going through such terrible experiences. They experience the worst kind of trauma for a human being: extreme hunger, cold, enslavement. How could they continue on living after going through that? Because being alive is an act of willingness. It’s not difficult to just let yourself die and being alive is a voluntary act. These women, even after living those horrible situations where all their loved ones died, decided to keep on living. I was intrigued to know why. I wanted to get close to them and through them find the secret to life, because in their testimony one can find the flame of life, even after all the storms the flame can endure and not be extinguished. The film is an account of the horrors that people lived during the Holocaust, but it’s also an account of mankind’s ability to overcome even the most extreme pain. They are inspiring, if a person can overcome what they did; there is nothing one can’t overcome.

On Reliving Horrific Memories During Argentina’s Military Dictatorship

“The film is an account of the horrors that people lived during the Holocaust, but it’s also an account of mankind’s ability to overcome even the most extreme pain.”

The other singularity they have is that they are European immigrants who survived the Holocaust and moved to Argentina, it’s a difference experience to those that migrated to the United States. Argentina was not a peaceful country like the US was from 1945 and on. In Argentina, we lived through an atrocious dictatorship where 30,000 people were taken from their homes and murdered them in concentration camps. In a much smaller scale, the same events took place in Argentina. One of these two women, who had survived the Holocaust, had to relive the horror in Argentina when her children were abducted by the dictatorship. Luckily, her children were freed 20 days later and survived, but this brought back memories of her experience in the concentration camps. This shows that these type of horrible events are not something that stayed in the past. It didn’t end in 1945. It continues to occur in different countries around the world even today. That’s why their story is so current. They tell the story of what happened to them so that people can be conscious of the terrible things that can happen when we discriminate against a group of people.

On Why Some Holocaust Survivors Don’t Believe in God Anymore

Something that’s very particular about them is that they are not religious at all. After going through Auschwitz they don’t believe in God. They are atheist. They know they are Jewish, because for them to say, ”I’m a Jew,” it’s like for someone to say, “I’m black.” They can’t deny their own identity, but they have nothing to do with religion. They don’t believe in God. They say, “If God existed, Auschwitz wouldn’t have existed. After Auschwitz there is no God.” That’s the way that a lot of survivors think, not only Lea and Mira.

On the Unique “Bloodshed Sisterhood” Between Lea and Mira

They refer to one another as “bloodshed sisters” (hermanas de sangre derrama). They were in the same concentration camp simultaneously, but they didn’t meet there. They met in Argentina, and as soon they met they felt great empathy. They felt like somehow they had parallel lives. They felt like they were twin sisters. Like Lea says in the film, when one of them thinks of something the other is already saying it. They finish each other’s sentences. That amazing friendship and sisterhood is one of the reasons why they were able to move forward with their lives. They also speak about the families they built and how that pushed them to reconnect with life, but at first they didn’t want any of that. They thought, “We are not going to bring children into this cruel and terrible world,” but life swept them like if it was an ocean and they found anchors to hold on to it: affection, friendship, and family. They relationship is a fundamental factor in the lives they were able to build after the horror.

On Spielberg’s Archive and Lea and Mira’s Legacy

“I hope the people that watch the film can see that even the smallest act of discrimination can set into motion more alarming events.”

My film is not the first time Lea and Mira tell their story. When Steven Spielberg started to create a global archive with all the Holocaust survivors’ experiences, around 20 years ago, they were part of it. He asked them exactly what they went through for this historical archive. There were many survivors that had never spoken about their experiences and who decided to speak just that one time for Spielberg before closing that chapter in their memories for good. On a psychological level, one of the ways in which people overcome trauma is by being silent and forgetting. These women needed to speak up to be able to live, and for many years they have been telling their story to whoever wants to listen. They have made it a mission in their lives to share their story because they believe that all that suffering has to have at least one purpose. Their purpose is to share it with the world so that something like that doesn’t happen again. They spend their days speaking about it in schools and other organizations. They want to show people how far can discrimination and hate go and that each of us has the responsibility to fight it. Their legacy is very important today.

On Learning History from First Person Accounts

This is a live testimony in the first person. In the film you hear a real person telling you about their suffering. It’s a much more vivid and emphatic way to understand history than just hearing a number: 6 million people. With data and photos it’s easier to distance yourself from the event, but here you have the chance to listen to a person who is telling you it happened to them. This woman could be any of our grandmas. The power of cinema is that it’s the most immediate way to represent reality because you can see and hear. It’s much closer than photos and text alone.

On the Xenophobic Climate in the United Sates and History Repeating Itself

This is my first time showing the film in the United States, and abroad in general, and just yesterday I saw in the news that a Jewish cemetery was vandalized and, of course, all the violent episodes that have been taking place against Muslim immigrants. It’s terrible that in the 21st century in such a developed country as the United States discrimination and hate can resurface at this level. I ‘d wish there were a responsible government that can stop this and not someone that instigates this hate from a position of power, because the racist and xenophobic groups, when instigated, can carry out horrific massacres like the Holocaust. It’s shocking that a phenomenon like that of Hitler can take place again which such level of dangerous populism and xenophobia today, despite the fact that humanity went through the Holocaust not too long ago. It’s shocking that we have no memory even it’s really so recent. These type of episodes as we are seeing today remind us of that. It’s terrifying. That’s why I think he film is so relevant now. I hope the people that watch the film can see that even the smallest act of discrimination can set into motion more alarming events. In the human race, we are all diverse but at the same time we are all the same.