Over seven decades after Nazi Germany and the other Axis powers were defeated and the Holocaust finally came to an end – at least in an immediate corporeal sense – tales of miraculous escapes continue to emerge.
We all know the story of Anne Frank based on the diary the teenaged Amsterdam girl kept, which her father received when he returned after being incarcerated at Auschwitz. It was first published in 1947, but now, 70 years on, another and possibly more surprising Holocaust-related tale about Dutch-based Jews is the subject of a documentary by Dutch-born Jerusalemite filmmaker Willy Lindwer.
The Israeli premiere of 72-year-old Lindwer’s film, The Train Journey, at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on January 28 (6:30 p.m.), is part of this year’s International Holocaust Day events. The film was shown on primetime TV in the Netherlands last year also on International Holocaust Day.
The Train Journey tells the scarcely believable story of 89 Jews who were living in the Netherlands prior to and during WWII and were allowed to leave Nazi-controlled Holland for Budapest thanks to their Hungarian roots – either through birth or marriage.
Remarkably 73 of the 89 people survived the Holocaust, and Lindwer’s documentary features four of the survivors, and the son of another.
Before he came across the storyline of the documentary, Lindwer had a slew of works under his belt across half a century of professional endeavors, quite a few of which were on Holocaust-related themes. He also picked up some hefty kudos along the way, including an Emmy for The Last Seven Months of Anna Frank, made in 1988, which reconstructs the final chapter in the young girl’s life following her arrest and her incarceration in concentration camps, as told by seven women who knew Frank during that time. Lindwer subsequently put out a book based on the film.
Another Holocaust documentary by Lindwer, Child in Two Worlds, from 1993, is about Jewish war orphans and brought him the Dutch Golden Calf award for Best Documentary.
He has also made acclaimed films about Afghan refugees, various areas of the arts, environmental issues, Teddy Kollek, Yitzhak Rabin and hassidism.
In 2010 he received a royal seal of approval for his wide-ranging oeuvre, when Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands bestowed upon him the title of Officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau. “That sort of makes me Sir Willy,” Lindwer chuckles.
However, Lindwer gives the impression of being far more interested in finding the next juicy story to film than gathering awards. The Emmy and Golden Calf statuettes occupy a lower shelf of a glass cabinet in his basement studio in Ramot, Jerusalem, with some of his yesteryear cameras for company.
The Train Journey came about following Lindwer’s confluence with a Dutch historian by the name of Aline Pennewaard. Pennewaard is not Jewish but she became interested in Holocaust events in the Netherlands following an intriguing discovery about her own family. “Aline was nine years old when she was gripped by the story of her grandparents who had hidden some Jews in the countryside,” Lindwer relates. “Since that time she was fascinated with Jewish children that were killed during the war, and she started to collect pictures of the children, from the Internet and anywhere else she could find.”
That growing interest evolved into In Memoriam, a book she co-researched and co-authored with compatriot writer Guus Luijters, about the 18,000 Jewish Dutch children, aged up to 18, who perished in the Holocaust. An exhibition was also created on the topic which, after a highly successful run in the Netherlands, recently took up a temporary berth at to the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, at Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot.
Pennewaard is currently working on a PhD under the auspices of Haifa University about the fate of Dutch Jewish children during WWII. This work eventually spawned The Train Journey.
“Aline did work on deportations from the Netherlands,” Lindwer explains. “That’s her thesis. While doing this research she discovered these five train journeys, in 1943, in the archives in Amsterdam. Nobody touched that information before that. Nobody knew about it.”
It seems there was a seven-month window of opportunity, between March and October 1943, during which close to 90 Jews from the Netherlands, with Hungarian roots, were allowed to “return” to Budapest. For most of them it ended up saving their lives.
Lindwer’s parents were also ostjuden (Eastern Jews) who were among the 10% of Dutch Jews who survived in hiding. “There were 300 Hungarian Jews who came to Holland in the 1930s, who ran away from there because of antisemitism, like my parents,” he says. Lindwer’s mother and father came from Poland and the Ukraine. “So, almost one third escaped to Hungary.”
The long-serving leader of Hungary at the time, Miklós Horthy, had struck a deal with Hitler, allowing Horthy to protect Hungarians under his aegis, including Jews. Hence the safe passage from Amsterdam to Budapest.
“Horthy, the antisemitic ruler of Hungary, had an agreement with his good friend Hitler,” says Lindwer. “All the Hungarian nationals would be protected, wherever they were in Europe.”
Initially it proved to be a boon for the 89 escapees, who included a handful of survivors who feature in The Train Journey, and accompanied their parents to Budapest in 1943. Germany did not invade Hungary until March 1944 and, in the meantime, the new arrivals from the Netherlands suddenly found themselves living in a veritable – relative – Shangri-La. “They didn’t even have to wear the yellow star there,” Lindwer notes. There was also a plentiful supply of food in Budapest, certainly compared with the desperate situation in Holland. They also had more freedom of movement, although they had to watch out for the vicious members of the fascist Arrow Cross party.
“The Nyilas (Arrows) were worse than the Dutch Nazis,” notes Emmy Korodi in the film. Korodi, whose father was Hungarian, also left the Netherlands for Budapest as a child in 1943, as did Vera Rudnai who also appears in the film.
ONE OF the most moving parts of the film features a reenactment of the 1943 trip by Anki Tauber and Gideon Hartman. Gideon is the Israeli son of Rosette Hartman-Koster, who died shortly before Lindwer began shooting the film. Tauber relocated to Budapest with her family at the age of 10. The ride from Amsterdam to Budapest is clearly an emotional experience for both survivor and survivor’s son. “Gideon was very moved by the experience, of going with Anki to Budapest, because he grew up with a totally traumatized mother,” says the director.
Lindwer’s preliminaries for the documentary included tracking down as many survivors of the 1943 Amsterdam-Budapest journey as possible, including Hartman’s mother. “I contacted Gideon because I wanted to see if I could interview his mother.” Unfortunately, he’d missed the boat. “Gideon told me his mother passed away a few months earlier.” Lindwer’s trip to Hartman’s home in Ramat Gan was not a complete waste of time, however; far from it. “He showed me a carton box, and he told me he’d taken it out of his mother’s apartment [at a senior citizen’s home in Herzliya], and he told me it was full of photographs, and had documents in Dutch.”
While Hartman’s spoken Dutch is fluent he was unable to read the documents due to impaired vision. He suggested Lindwer peruse the contents, and the director was able to enlighten Hartman about some of the events surrounding Hartman’s parents time in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation, and in Budapest.
“I read some of the documents to Gideon and he said he had no idea about the things that happened there.” Lindwer continues, “how [the head of the deportation of Jews from the Netherlands to concentration camps, Ferdinand] der Fünten, himself, schlepped Gideon’s parents out of their home, and brought them to the train [to Budapest] and told them ‘you go back to Hungary, you are Hungarians, you don’t need to go to Auschwitz.’ Gideon didn’t know about that.”
The documentary was also an eye opener for Lindwer. “I didn’t know, for example, that the Arrow Cross were violent and killing,” he says. There was also a revelation connected to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish businessman turned diplomat who saved the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews. “There are so many things we still don’t know about the Holocaust,” Lindwer observes. “Every day we learn new things. The Train Journey is a new story. Nobody knew about that before, and Anki’s parents were instrumental in getting Wallenberg to Budapest.”
Lindwer would like his viewers to go home with more than just new information about some of the events which took place during the Holocaust. “There is deeply-rooted antisemitism in Hungary, like in many countries in eastern Europe, like the Ukraine. That was started, actively, by Horthy in the 1920s, even before Hitler. When Hitler was still in jail and wrote Mein Kampf, Horthy was already in power. He already started his anti-Jewish measures before that. That was one of the reasons why young Hungarian Jews fled in the 1920s and 1930s, and some came to Holland.”
Lindwer would like us to keep our wits about us. “People [in Hungary] maybe want to hide the reality [of Hungary’s role in the Holocaust],” he says, referencing the Hungarian government’s plan to create a new Holocaust museum in Budapest, and fears that right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban will use the museum to downplay his country’s collaboration with the Nazis. “They might try to say that was the past, but we are now better. The mentality of the people has not changed.”
That, says Lindwer, also applies to his country of birth. “These Dutch people in the northern part of Holland are also deeply rooted antisemites, maybe from the church – maybe they tell them we Jews killed Jesus. I don’t know. Antisemitism is always there, and it will never change.”
For more information about the Jerusalem Cinematheque screening: (02) 565-4333 and https://www.jer-cin.org.il/en