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A Holocaust survivor returns to the scene of her horrors

By Peter Crimmins Daily Planet correspondent
Friday September 07, 2001

When speaking about the Holocaust there are many levels that might be difficult to fathom: the cunning political maneuverings, the cultural devastation, the cold ingenuity of the concentration camp’s engineering and the deep, almost inhuman hatred humans are capable of.  

In a documentary by Berkeley filmmaker Jonathan Gruber, “Pola’s March,” the Nazi horror is seen through the eyes of his grandmother. The film follows the aging Holocaust survivor’s journey back to her ordeal in the concentration camps to trace the process of remembering, and recalling it for the benefit of future generations. 

In 1995 Pola Susswein traveled back to Poland, the childhood home she had not seen in over 50 years, with a busload of young students as part of an international group called March of the Living. Her grandson Gruber went along with video equipment and a small crew.  

Beginning in Tel Aviv, where she cares for the elderly in a community home, the warm and upbeat Susswein admits to the camera she has reservations about returning to a place of both happy childhood memories and great suffering. The twofold reason for her return is to submerge herself in a chapter of her life she had heretofore never spoken of, and to share it with a younger generation. 

Because Susswein had not spoken openly with her family about her experiences in the concentration camp, Gruber did not know what to expect during the trip and was caught between being a filmmaker and being a grandson. All the on-camera interviews seen in the film were not conducted by Gruber, but by the film’s producer, Amy Cairns. 

“She had an easier time discussing things with people she doesn’t know very well,” said Gruber, wanting to avoid the familial shorthand and evasions which would have undoubtedly tainted the interviews had he done them himself.  

Susswein acted as a living resource for the teen-agers traveling as March of the Living, who, wearing matching blue windbreakers underneath Star of David flags, retraced the death march from Auschwitz to Birkenau. The goal of the journey was to sharply instill the history of the Holocaust in youth such that it might not happen again.  

While Pola’s recovering memories told over the tour bus public address system provided the young people with a tangible lifeline to the atrocities soaked in the stones and monuments of Poland, a historian also came along to give the march its factual historical context.  

For a dramatic metaphor – and a bizarre teaching – Rabbi Micah Halpern describes the concentration camps as if it were a different planet. “The laws, the physics, the chemistry of the normal world doesn’t work there,” he says in the film. 

The lasting message of the Holocaust is that the laws, physics and chemistry of the normal world did, in fact, create genocide. That real people were able to slaughter real people by the hundreds of thousands is the implied lesson of Pola Susswein’s presence. The Holocaust did not happen in history books, instigated by an alien race, but was committed in the hometown of that warm, upbeat woman speaking on the bus public address system. 

The focus of Pola’s March, ultimately, is not rediscovering the Holocaust, but the way by which Pola reclaimed her own past. After Gruber had collected an enormous amount of video footage of the trip, the story of his grandmother started to emerge. 

“Part of the enjoyment comes out in the editing room,” Gruber said about the filmmaking process, and some of what came out was his grandmother’s realization of her own memories. In an extended sequence visiting her former home – now converted into modern apartments – Gruber’s camera stays with Susswein as she slowly pieces together the details of her childhood. 

Those details, however, have either disappeared, been reconstructed, or – as she looks at sepia-toned photos of unrelated faces – the recovered details sometimes aren’t hers at all. The film gets sidetracked with Pola’s eddying memories while she seeks the familiar in a city that has been almost completely overhauled. 

As the young people in the March of the Living try to know the Nazi terror vicariously through Pola, the stronger lesson she embodies is the bravery of remembering the past, and the blessing to be able to share it. 

The film was screened Thursday at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley and is available for future screenings. Call 848-1124 or view the Web site at