Talking to survivors

Llion Roberts' new documentary Destination Unknown captures the stories of Holocaust survivors. He tells Stephen Applebaum how and why he made the film.


You started interviewing Holocaust survivors years ago. What drew you to the subject?

"My brother was organising what he called Battlefield Tours, and I went with him on the Auschwitz trip. Basically, I saw this photograph of a girl, with her head shaven. She was 13 years old, and she lasted five months in Auschwitz, and she was the absolute spitting image of my daughter. So it struck a chord. We then went to Birkenau, and it was a very late Winter, and extremely cold, and I thought, 'Hold on a minute. These people were in a striped uniform, with either bare feet or with rags around their feet, or they were wearing clogs, and we're in all-weather gear and we're freezing.' And then I went home and I started researching more into the subject.”

When did you start meeting survivors?

“Almost two years later, towards the end of 2002, I wanted to get this technical item that I needed, and the only company that have this was a company in Long Island. I couldn't get hold of them online, so after about a week I phoned up and I got through to this guy called Mark Hersly, who owns the company. He told me, 'We wouldn't have answered the phone because we shut down for the Jewish holiday.' Then we got into the Holocaust and he said, 'My father was in Block 11 in Auschwitz.' He said, 'Hold on a minute', and he put me on a conference call. So all of a sudden I'm talking to his father, Sam Hersly, and that was it. I said, 'I would love to interview these people', and he said, 'If you come over, I will line them up for you.' So I went out in March '03 and that was it. I booked a suite in the UN Plaza Hotel, and I think we were doing two, sometimes three, a day, for an entire week and a half. My head was spinning, because I was hearing stuff I hadn't heard before."

And you carried on from there?

“Yes. I was invited to the Yad Vashem remembrance dinner that year, and from thereon I met so many different people . . . I was digging myself a hole, and realised I was doing it at the time.”

Did you have any idea what you were going to do with the material?  

"No. A picture sort of developed as the years went by. I think when we got to about 2004 I was beginning to think, 'We're beginning to get in touch with Schindler Jews directly. We're getting in touch with partisans, people in hiding. . .' and I started thinking about themes. I thought everything seems to have been done on the Holocaust, it's been a history lesson, people have been bombarded with facts, and they're not very emotive. So I'm thinking you need to be emotive, and that will either attract or deter. And that's how it turns out. Not everybody wants to watch something that's emotive all the way through.”

When I interviewed the Nobel prize-winning author and Holocaust survivor Imre Kertesz, to discuss the film version of his novel Fateless, he said he felt that the Holocaust had to be presented in a neutral way, because if people think it sounds like complaining, they'll switch off. Was tone a concern for you and the director, Claire Ferguson?

"You have to be balanced, so you're not going to get somebody crying all the way through. If you're covering the Holocaust, and this is just my opinion, you've got to have the emotion there. But you need a story. You need a structure. So you watch [Destination Unknown] and you think, 'This is really bad. Can it get any worse?' And it does get worse. And it continues to get worse. And then there's light again at the end of the tunnel. They start a new life. Ed Mosberg, he's the only one that says, 'For me it's not a new life. It's a continuation of what I had before.'”

Ed clearly remains deeply affected. We see that in a scene where he's angrily showing people the kind of whip that he was beaten with.

"When you look at him with the whip, people say, 'I'm not really keen on that guy.' And then they say, 'Oh, he grows on you in the film.' So there was a decision: do we put this in? Because it does look like he's just an aggressive guy, and he's not. He's actually torturing himself there. That's his passion for those that have been killed. It's nothing else.”

Was how one goes on living as a survivor something you consciously set out to explore?

"I took the lazy approach. If I had researched every single one of them, I'd still be doing it now. Some of them I couldn't get any material on at all. Some of them spoke for the first time. So the easiest way to do it was I would ask them at the beginning, 'Please take me from childhood to liberation.' I would ask some of them one question and they'd finish five hours later.”

When Ed Mosberg talks about his sisters murdered at the Stutthof concentration camp, it sounds like something he's not talked about much before. It's obviously very painful for him.  

"I don't think he has. That was very, very difficult. That's the one time I felt absolutely brutal. Hated myself for doing it. We were on the way back from the Temple Synagogue in Krakow, his grandson's bah mitzvah had just finished, and we were walking back to the hotel, and I said, 'Ed, I've got to ask you a question. Can we sit down and do it here?' He said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'I've got to ask you about your sisters, because I know it's bothered you.' He just sighed and said, 'Okay, let's do it.' And that was it. But I didn't see him for a couple of days after that. He was actually ill after that scene where he's sitting on the bench and says, 'I don't want to talk about it. I never want to talk about it.'”

Did any of the survivors talk about how the Holocaust had affected the way they think about their Jewish identity?

"They're all proud of their culture, every single one. That generation tends to be secular, as if to say, not that they do say, 'Where was our God?' But their children tend to become very often fairly Orthodox, but not all of them. But when they are, they can be extremely Orthodox. They can adopt the philosophy of - because I had this debate with one of them - 'It was meant to be. That's why I'm religious. God saved them.'”

Only Roman Ferber, who survived Auschwitz as a boy, mentions God in the film. Did you discuss faith with any of the others?

"That one wasn't planned. The Roman Ferber one just came out. I don't think he was asked a question about religion. I didn't go there because it's a murky area. It's an area that can alienate. So I avoided it, really. And another one that was important to avoid was politics. When I was about to interview [Israel's former Chief Rabbi] Yisrael Lau, who's not in the film but he's in the rushes, in New York, 2006, some people said, 'Why don't you ask him about Palestine?' I said, 'Hold on a minute, what has that got to do with the Holocaust?' They go, 'It's Israel, isn't it?' You've got to think to yourself, 'What does this have to do with the murder of 6 million European Jews?' I can't see the correlation. So I didn't go there, either. So Roman's the only one, really, that came out with 'God wasn't there for us'."

Ed went to Yad Vashem in 2009 to meet Pope Benedict XVI. Did you go with him?

 "Yes, we recorded it. We actually miked him up, which you're not supposed to do, so we've got the conversation between him and the pope, where he says to the pope, 'I respect you for being the leader of the Catholic Church. But please denounce the deniers.' The Pope said, 'Yes. Yes. Yes.' The headline of the, I'm not sure it if was the Jerusalem Post, the following morning, was: The Pope Denounced The Holocaust Deniers. We didn't use it in the film but it may be among the extras.”

In the film, Marsha Kreuzman, who was in various camps including Mathausen, is trying to describe the dead bodies and the smell but sort of gives up, saying it's unbelievable. Do the survivors sometimes feel like they're coming up against a wall of disbelief, because what happened was so extreme and incomprehensible?

"Yeah. Ed Mosberg would tell you that if he was told his own story by someone else, he's not sure if he'd believe it. It's that far-fetched how bonkers they were. How crazy they were at the time. So it becomes less credible because of the extreme nature of what actually happened."

You have archive material in the film that places some of the survivors actually in the camps visually. We see photographs, for example, of Ferber standing behind a barbed wire fence at Auschwitz, and Stanley Glogover on the ramp at Auschwitz, wearing the striped prison uniform.

"That was bizarre, actually. I'm glad you brought it up. There used to be a famous English photographer called Tony Ray-Jones, back in the 60s. He's passed away. His widow, Anna Ray-Jones, was writing the biography of Roman Ferber, Journey of Ashes, as a ghost writer, and she sent me an email, which is that famous picture that we've all seen thousands of times on different documentaries, of Stanley greeting these people [as they come off the train], and she circled him saying, 'Do you want to talk to this guy?' I said, 'Too right I do.'

“So I called him up in Florida and I said, 'Stanley, would you go back there?' He said, 'Yes, I would.' So I arranged a flight for him and his daughter-in-law. We did the interview in the Grand Hotel in Krakow, and then the following day we were going to go to Birkenau. Now, in his story, he said that one of the Sonderkommandos that were working in Crematorium II told Stanley, 'Stanley, I've separated your mother's ashes and your sister's in little jars, so I haven't mixed them up. They're not going to be thrown into the Vistula like the rest of them. So I have buried them underneath the largest tree near where the Sonderkommandos' exit door was.' I knew where this was because I had worked for three months doing animation for the Crematorium from drawings I had from Auschwitz archive. So I took Stanley to the tree and he just went to pieces. He was kissing the tree. He said, 'I have found them at last.' He said Kaddish there. It was a bizarre moment for him to find this in 2007. And standing, probably, only a couple of feet from where the jars were. We didn't use that in the film, but it could be in the extras."

Seven of the people interviewed in the film have died, including Stanley. Was there a sense of urgency when you were making this, because of the ages of the survivors?

"Absolutely. But I didn't realise, really, the urgency until the last two-three years, when you had to go back and do a couple of voice overs, where the voice had changed. So I didn't feel there was an urgency at the time when I started. They all appeared to be in their 70s, they were pretty fit, they looked good. Some looked wealthy and they had good healthcare. But now, it's too late. The ones that you will get now to interview are the ones that were about 5 years old at the time, and there's a limit to how much information they can give you. They'll say, 'Yeah, I remember these men marching down the street. I remember bands outside the houses.' That's all they can tell you. So we were lucky, really. And remember, this was not planned at all. There's nothing clever about what we did. We just happened to be there, by accident, in 2003, when it seemed to me like a period when they wanted to talk about it anyway. Those that were going to speak were going to do it then.”

Did you encounter many people who weren't ready?

"The only ones would be the spouses of those that spoke. One of them would, the other one wouldn't. I think Ed Mosberg explains that one in the film. Where he will talk about the Holocaust, his wife was forced to do it. We have this. It's a situation where it looks as though Ed is the ventriloquist and she says, 'I don't want to say this. I don't want to say this,' and he's forcing it out of her. And then she talks about that scene in Schindler's List where the trucks come in and take all the kids away from Plaszow. Her brother was in that scene, in the real one. She goes through it: 'That's the last time I saw my brother.' I have it but it was a delicate one and I decided not to put it in."

Victor Lewis, who escaped from a train to Belzec by cutting through the bars with a hacksaw, says he reached 79 and decided to write his story. Had he written it when you met him?

"Yes. Now it's bizarre because when I'm doing DIY, or whatever I'm doing, and I see a hacksaw blade, I see it in a different light. Something as simple and tangible as a hacksaw blade, generations have survived because of that one item, because he used it. He put it in his boot and he cut through the bars."

You have so much material. What are you going to do with it?

"The Shoah Foundation would like to have access to it. I've spent over £2 million now on the archive. You pay for the crew. You pay for the hotels. You pay for the flights. It mounts up. I'll never get that back from the film. So to answer your question, I don't know what I'm going to do. It's 400 hours. I was offered half a million dollars for the [Mietek] Pemper interview, several years ago. I turned it down. Because no Pemper, no Schindler's List."

How did you get access to Pemper? He hadn't talked before, had he?

"I think the Shoah Foundation had something on him. Thames Television did something a few years ago but I have nothing on video, although I do have the transcripts. It's a very, very brief interview. What had happened was he was advising Spielberg on the set of Schindler's List, when they were in Krakow, and the New York Times journalist came up to him and said, 'Mr Pemper, why did you choose to become the stenographer for Amon Goth?' He said, 'If people in America think concentration camps are run by interviews and job applications, you have absolutely no idea how they work.' So from there on he said, 'F*** this, I'm not talking to any of journalists.' And he didn't.”

So how did you get him?

“Ed and I had a discussion way back in 2004 and Ed said, 'There's only one guy that can tell us about Schindler, everyone else has gone. He knew everything because he intercepted telegrams. He knew everything anyone needs to know.' So Ed called me up and said, 'Right, I'm calling Pemper in a conference call.' Pemper did remember Ed Mosberg from Plaszow and said, 'I will do it, but not now. My throat's not right.' So these excuses kept coming up. And then 18 months later, he sent a fax to Ed and said, 'I'll do it.'”

How long did you have with him?

“We met in Vienna, 25th of June, 2006. He was asked four questions. He took 2 hours 11 minutes to answer. He talked about how the list came about, about everything that happened. He explained why there were so many lists. He spoke about Marcel Goldberg, not in good terms: he was taking people off the list, putting others on; taking bribes. I think Spielberg does touch on that in the film, actually. So that's how it happened.

“He passed away on June 7th, 2011. I thought he would have gone on a lot longer. He was an amazing man. My wife was in the room at the same time and she said, 'It felt as though you were in the room with a different power.' There was an aura about him and I felt it too. I can't explain it. It's the only one I felt that with. There was something extraordinary going on there."

Has meeting all the people taught you anything about who we are?

"Pemper, his closing line when I asked him, 'Is there anything you want to add?', said, 'There's a Latin term, horribilis, which has two meanings. It means awful or amazing.' And he said, 'The 20th Century, with the 1908 Law of Relativity from Albert Einstein, to the medicines that have doubled man's life, these are amazing things. But it's also an awful century where 8 million died in the First World War, over 50 million in the Second.' So, he said, 'Man should be designed to do good. It will probably take decades, if not centuries, for man's moral upgrade to reach that stage.'

“If I was going to choose my word, I would say that the problem we've always got is not woman's but man's ego. We're underdeveloped in that area. You can do your homophobia, you can do your racism, you can do all that, and I think it's fantastic what has been achieved there. But man's ego still prevails. And you've got it now. You've got North Korea. You've got world leaders on the other side. They've all got huge egos. But when you've got those conflicting forces, you will have conflict and people will die. It's complicated, but it's really quite simple.

"This is what I feel. And I have felt more passionate about it because I have listened to people. I have listened to people that have suffered, and it doesn't harden you, it makes you more sensitive. I cry quite easily now. It doesn't take much to do it."


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