A Holocaust survivor shows his tattoo.
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Elliot has a lot of questions for his great-grandfather. What did you do for fun as a kid? Did you go to school? What did your father do for a living? Why do you have a number tattooed on your arm?
Ten-year-old Elliot loves spending time with his 90-year-old great-grandpa Jack. The sweet relationship between the two is the focus of a new HBO documentary that will air later this month, called The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm. The film is a joint effort of HBO and the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Directed by Amy Schatz, it features hand-painted watercolor animation from artist Jeff Scher. It is set to air on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The moving 20-minute documentary is narrated by Elliot, who enjoys spending time with his great-grandfather but is aware of his painful past. The young boy asks pointed, direct questions about Jack’s wartime experience, and also narrates a basic overview of the events of the Holocaust.
“Concentration camp was a place where they kept them behind a bunch of electric fences so they wouldn’t escape,” Elliot explains.
Sure, at times it’s clear that the boy is reading scripted lines, but the film’s overall effect is poignant and compelling. And there’s no denying the unvarnished, irrefutable love between the old man and the little boy.
Interspersed with footage of Elliot and Jack talking, and the photos of Jack’s life both before and during the war, are a full eight minutes of handpainted watercolor images by Scher recreating wartime scenes. The animation shows the roundup in the Sosnowiec Ghetto, the life in Auschwitz and the death march that began as the war neared its end.
Jack patiently tells Elliot about his life before the war, his father’s hat shop and his love of soccer. He then explains when they had to begin wearing yellow stars and leave their home and move to the ghetto. Jack was later deported to a string of concentration camps before ending up in Auschwitz. He never saw his mother or father again and always wondered what happened to them, he tells Elliot.
Jack rebuilt his life in Rochester, New York, where he opened a fish restaurant. One of the most moving scenes in the film features him in the store with a customer.
“This is his number right here,” the customer says, gesturing toward Jack’s arm. “And he knows exactly what it means to be hungry. So if there’s anybody hungry, he’s gonna feed ‘em. If you got money or not.”
Elliot’s matter-of-fact narration and unspoiled curiosity have created a short, sweet film that is appropriate for adults and also for older children. The horrors of World War II are not easy fare for any age, but they are also a necessity for everyone to learn.
“You need to know it to understand, to stop it from happening in future generations,” Elliot says. “They say in like a year or two, there’s going to be no survivors left. And so we’re trying to get all their stories and information before they pass away.”
‘The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm’ will air on HBO in the US on January 27. It will become available in Israel via HOT VOD and YES VOD on January 28 and will air on TV on February 3 (check TV listings).