In 2009, Glenn Kurtz discovered long-forgotten footage, taken by his grandfather, in a closet in his parent’s home. Stored in an aluminum can for 70 years, the film had deteriorated to the point of being almost unrecoverable. Kurtz managed to preserve three minutes of his grandfather’s silent home movie, which captures a 1938 summer trip to his hometown of Nasielsk in Poland. In 2014, Kurtz published a book about what he had learned through careful study of the film; for five years, he had assiduously examined details of the synagogue, the street, and the faces of the children playing. Kurtz also tells the stories of other survivors who helped him piece together the history of Nasielk’s Jewish community. Kurtz’s research is now the subject of a new documentary titled Three Minutes—A Lengthening, directed by the historian Bianca Stigter. As Kurtz writes, the film “asks one question over and over: ‘What do we see?’”
At the time [of my grandfather’s visit]—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 100 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.
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.
Read more at Jewish Book Council
More about: Film, Jewish history, Polish Jewry