Searching a Haunted Past

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By Elizabeth Deane
Longtime producer and writer for WGBH Boston 
 
Digging up a sidewalk in a small town in eastern Poland, three men unearth gravestones from a vanished culture. A black-gowned priest fetches tools to help them as a young boy looks on. The artifacts they seek are not ancient; this culture disappeared just 50 years ago. But time is running out for the three searchers. In a few years, all the living witnesses to this buried culture will be gone. 
 
This month from the Vault: Searching a Haunted Past
Holocaust Remembrance Day is April 8, and on April 30, a new film from Frontline, Never Forget to Lie, premieres. It’s Polish-born Marian Marzynski’s quest to enter what he calls “the haunted world of my ancestors.”
 
Marzynski (right) a child survivor of the Nazi destruction (Credit/WGBH)
Marzynski (right), born in 1937, is one of a dwindling number of child survivors of the Nazi destruction of the Jews. In earlier film explorations of the story, including Return to Poland (1981) and again in Shtetl (1996), he found he could not bring himself to approach his own experience head-on. 
 
The accompanying video clip is from Shtetl, and the gravestones he pries from the earth are in Bransk, Poland. It isn’t the shtetl (“little town,” in Yiddish) of his family but that of his friend Nathan Kaplan, from Chicago.
 
Kaplan, who was born in America, lost his father when he was two years old. “I have no memory of my father,” he tells Marzynski. “It’s only by going to Bransk that I can touch him, that I can understand who I am.” For Marzynski, it’s a bearable way into their shared past. 
 
The third searcher is a more enigmatic character. He is Zbigniew Romaniuk, nicknamed Zbyszek, a young Polish Catholic born and brought up in Bransk. Before the Holocaust, the town had a population of 4,600, more than half of whom were Jewish. When Zbyszek grew up, there were no Jews left in Bransk and he became intensely curious, almost obsessed, with learning about the town’s lost inhabitants.
 
He is a natural, if self-taught, historian and archaeologist, tirelessly and patiently reconstructing the world of the Jews of Bransk. It is he who found that the Germans, in an attempt to erase the Jewish past, had ordered that the gravestones be taken from the Jewish cemetery and used as under-pavement for local roads and sidewalks. 
 
As the gravestones are pried from the soil and their inscriptions haltingly translated by Zbyszek, who has taught himself some Hebrew, the stones begin to speak. 
 
Watch the clip to meet the three main characters and see what Zbyszek has created with the gravestones. I hope you’ll then venture into the full three-hour film, which will be posted on the Frontline 
website [  frontline.org] on April 5.
 
Like the epic film Shoah, it requires time and it is sometimes painful, but it rewards, and it sets the stage for Marzynski’s Never Forget to Lie. 
 
As you watch Shtetl, keep in mind that it stirred controversy among some Polish-Americans when it aired in 1996, and that Zbyszek Romaniuk, the young Polish Catholic in our video clip, was said to be unhappy with the finished film as well. 
 
Go here for more on the controversy.

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