Holocaust Documentary Genre Re-imagined in New Animated Short Films “The Podkamieners”

“Do not cast me off in old age; when my strength fails, do not forsake me!” Psalms 71:9 (The Israel Bible™)

On June 7, New York based producer Sarah Kamaras released to the public a Holocaust-related short film series, “The Podkamieners.”

Kamaras, whose previous work in production included award-winning news videos at NowThis, teamed up with documentary editors, sound masters, composers and an animation company to produce the five short films, covering the stories of different Holocaust survivors in her family from the town of Podkamien, Poland.

The short film series re-imagines the Holocaust documentary genre by mixing the use of animation and moving personal accounts. The animation brings the stories to life for a current generation whose Holocaust memory is fading—and for a future generation without survivors.

“When I made the films, I was thinking of my cousins who are 10-15 years younger than me. While I met my grandparents, they never did. So I sought to create something to move a generation forward in Holocaust memory, as they won’t have the same opportunities to hear first hand accounts,” said Kamaras, who also hopes that these films could help combat the rise of hate and anti-Semitism in the U.S. today.

While viewers of other Holocaust films are mostly used to concentration camp footage or interviews with experts and scholars, “The Podkamieners” pioneers a new artistic form of Holocaust storytelling through its use of animation, notes a press release.

The five films in the series tell the stories of a group of Holocaust survivors from the same family who were forced to flee their small town of Podkamien, Poland, and hide in the woods at the peak of World World II. Animation, along with first and second-hand accounts, unfolds on parallel tracks throughout the films, creating a vivid spectrum of the Holocaust from the eyes and minds of survivors and their descendants.

Each film in “The Podkamieners” illustrates stories of survival that words alone could not do justice, from a family of 30 finding refuge in the basement of a monastery, to a mother and son hiding in a coffin-sized bale of hay for more than 16 months.

Notes the press release, “Beneath those extraordinary stories lies the subtext of the lingering aftermath of the Holocaust, and its effects on survivors and their children alike. The films are punctuated by the complex nuances of surviving genocide, highlighting the contrast between those survivors who choose to remember their experiences and those who’d prefer to forget.”

The series contains the stories of five families and survivors: the Sarid family, whose four siblings share how their late father turned being a sole survivor into the essence of his family’s foundation; Mark, who describes in powerful detail some of the near-death experiences of the war that left him with haunting memories; Fay and Josh, siblings who exchange personal recollections of their survival as young children during World War II; Isidore, who reveals how he and his mother hid buried in a bundle of hay for nearly a year and a half, with nothing but the clothes they had on; and Benny, who recounts a childhood filled with war-torn memories in what became a real life game of hide and seek.

“When I thought of what I wanted to create, I wondered how I could really bring these powerful stories to life,” Kamars told Breaking Israel News. “I found the juxtaposition of animation throughout personal accounts perfect to encapsulate that to appeal and present it to a new generation.”

Kamaras’ grandparents, who are both from Podkamien, died more than 20 years now, so she related that she had often wondered how to unearth their story while creating something educational. “I interviewed relatives about what happened with them and developed an idea of what it was like to be from this small town, what they endured during the war and a different side of survival than we often hear growing up.”

Kamaras explained, “Growing up as a Jewish American, I was exposed to certain things through media, Jewish school and programming, which always centered around concentration camps – but my grandparents didn’t represent that kind of survivor, as they were in a ghetto and hid in the forest for 16 months.”

All of the survivors featured in the short films are either relatives or had a very close connection to Kamaras’s grandparents. “It was a town of 2,000 people, half of them were Jewish, and only 60-70 Jews survived the Holocaust, so everyone became family after the war,” she said.

Interviewing about such a difficult topic had its challenges, Kamaras maintained. “Not every survivor wants to talk about their experiences – some would prefer to move forward with their lives and it’s important that for those who don’t want to speak, we listen through their silence.”

In one of the short films, Mark Gellar says that after the Holocaust, “I made up my mind that anything happening in the past I wiped it off of [my mind]. I decided to take it away and I don’t even think about the past. The past is gone and my kids don’t know anything about me. They asked me a few times, and I said, “Forget it.””

“Hearing that made me feel uncomfortable, because we are so used to hearing ‘never forget.’ But I didn’t want to change Mark’s film, because it would take away his meaning. Having that sensitivity to let them speak their truth, even when it was not as pleasant for us to hear, really opened up a dialogue that we are not used to seeing in other Holocaust films,” said Kamaras.

Kamaras is currently looking for partnerships with museums and schools to add the films into curriculum about the Holocaust and WWII.

“Kids never make it through stacks and stacks of curriculum, and it’s also important to make things more palatable and relatable as we get farther away from knowing survivors,” she said.  “Many don’t want to sit through an hour of a heavy topic – it’s too much to bear. With short (10 minutes on average) animations and the ability to watch just one film, it can be really beneficial for a younger generation.”

She added, “Often it’s hard to even watch stock footage growing up, which often include things that might be too emotionally and physically graphic to bear. Because we are oversaturated with media and get desensitized to it, it also doesn’t have the same impact anymore.”

To Kamaras, educating about the Holocaust will have far-reaching consequences for the future of humanity. “History repeats itself and we are still experiencing plenty of genocide in the world and wondering when it will stop. To look forward and learn, we need to remember what happened in the past. Part of moving forward is looking back and learning how to grow from that,” she maintained.

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