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Right from the start of the new documentary Martha you know you’re going to like the tiny firecracker of a grandmother, Martha Katz.
“I don’t know how I am alive? I’m alive, just like in Auschwitz I had luck, that’s all,” says the then-90-year-old Katz in the opening moments of the 21-minute film made by her grandson, Daniel Schubert.
The Auschwitz luck she speaks of involves her surviving the notice of the truly evil Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. In the film she recounts how Mengele approached her and singled her out, as she lay ill. Mengele’s mark was meant to signal that Martha was to be held back as others were moved out the next day. However, her sisters, Yudka and Rosie, had other plans.
“Her sisters literally propped her up to make her look healthy for the last inspection so she could get on the train out, because they thought they were going to kill her because she was so week,” said Vancouver’s Schubert.
After successfully dodging the Angel of Death’s dark plans you can understand why Katz thinks she’s lucky.
The excellent and important National Film Board of Canada-produced movie will debut on its site Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
In the film, Katz recounts her life from when the Nazis took her, her parents and seven siblings (four boys and three girls) from their home in Berehove, Czechoslovakia. Her mother and two younger siblings died when they first got to the camp while her father, who was in other work camps, died just as the war ended. Amazingly, Martha and her two sisters and two brothers all survived the concentration camp.
After the war Martha met Bill Katz in Vienna and they married and moved to Winnipeg in 1948. They had two kids (Jack and Sharon), and they moved to Los Angeles for her health in 1964. It’s there that she lives to this day and it’s there that the film-viewer sees her learn something very heart-wrenching. While touring the Museum of Tolerance: A Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum with Schubert, Katz found out that her mother and two little brothers didn’t die instantly in the gas chambers as she always thought. Instead, she learned that their deaths weren’t quick.
“It was something new, something she didn’t know and that really affected her,” said Schubert when asked about his grandmother’s reaction.
For Schubert, who co-wrote the film with Birdie Hamilton, there were a few things that led him to finally tell his grandmother’s story.
“My grandpa died 20 years ago and I never got his stories down on tape and I was always the family filmmaker and I felt bad. I felt ashamed I didn’t get his stories on record and so I have always been threatening to do it with my grandma,” said Schubert, referring to his grandfather and Martha’s husband who was also a survivor. “But I think it was Charlottesville (Va.) that was the big turning point for me. When (U.S. President) Trump said there were good people on both sides I thought this is insanity and if people believe this and all these Holocaust survivors are dying rapidly, that’s when I decided to do it.”
While his grandmother at first wasn’t so quick to embrace the filmmaking process, she came to realize that the story she could tell was much bigger than her.
“She wanted her great grandkids and the next generations to know her story and for it to remain in the family forever as a testimonial. That was her main reason for doing it,” said Schubert.
Now thanks to Schubert and the NFB, Martha’s story is there for all to hear and frankly it now seems like a really good time to remind people about fascism.
“The Trump thing was the last straw but I had also read articles where I had read that 50 per cent of millennials don’t really have an idea of what the Holocaust is,” said Schubert. “If they don’t know, what chance is there for Gen Z or the generations after? They are not going to know anything. I grew up with this first-hand and I thought this needs to be told.”
The folks at the NFB agreed.
“Upon reading the proposal, we believed the project had strong potential for community engagement: to provide opportunities for audiences to learn about and/or re-engage with the Holocaust through this very personal story,” said Shirley Vercruysse, executive producer, National Film Board of Canada, B.C. & Yukon Studio, in an email. “The current rise in anti-Semitism throughout Canada, and the world, highlights the need for media works that talk about this terrible chapter in history, and help to foster an understanding of the generational impact of the Holocaust.”
While the subject matter is deeply serious, there is so much light that comes from Martha. She is a charming, engaging storyteller who, through living a long, successful life, has beaten the Nazis.