New documentary uncovers untold stories of hope in post-war Germany |

New documentary uncovers untold stories of hope in post-war Germany

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photo"Jewish Transit Berlin," a documentary about European Jews in post-World War II transit camps, has its U.S. premiere at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Doerr/Hosier Center in Aspen.

ASPEN – In 2005, filmmaker Gabriel Heim watched his fellow Berlin residents commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. Berlin focused on the German suffering that had taken place in the wake of the war, especially the expulsion of millions of Germans from Eastern Europe. Which got Heim thinking that a piece of the post-war story was missing: “I had the question, What happened to the Jewish survivors, the Jewish deported population in this period?” he said.The answer is presented in “Jewish Transit Berlin,” a touching 52-minute documentary that has its U.S. premiere Wednesday. But finding that answer was no simple research assignment. The spots where some 80,000 Jews eventually congregated in post-war Berlin – three transit camps set up by the U.S. army – bear no traces of what occurred there beginning in 1945. Heim found that he was working with a story that had gone largely untold. His research included contacting former residents of the camps, now living in the U.S.; and finding original footage at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., shot by the U.S. Army in Berlin, that had never been shown publicly.”It’s a completely forgotten story, absolutely,” said Heim, who will give an introduction and participate in a post-screening Q&A when “Jewish Transit Berlin” is presented at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Aspen Institute’s Doerr/Hosier Center, in a fund-raising event for United Jewish Appeal Aspen Valley. “Because people were in terrible turmoil, the storytelling doesn’t start until 1948, when the German state was on its way again. The collapse of the Nazi empire and the resettling of the future political, social and economic situation took two or three years. Everything was upside down and no one was paying attention to what went on. This episode of migrating, surviving, getting back into a life was forgotten.”As Heim, a 58-year-old Swiss-born Jew whose family on his mother’s side was killed in the Holocaust, tells it, the story begins with Jewish survivors coming from Poland, the Soviet Union, and literally out of the woods of Eastern Europe, back to Berlin. In the three transit camps – Wittenau, Tempelhof and Schlachtensee – they sought shelter under the umbrella of the U.S. army. “They didn’t trust the Russians; the British had enough to do with their Palestinian Mandate problem,” Heim said.In what Heim calls “the last shtetl on German soil,” Europe’s Jews began to reform their society. Despite what they had been through, the survivors displayed an optimism that surprised the filmmaker. They formed orchestras, revived their religious traditions, and staged plays – even the satirical “Nazis in Hell.” One former resident interviewed in the film referred to the camp as a “paradise,” and several others offered a similar sentiment, that this was a hopeful chapter.”I expected a more pragmatic attitude: survival at last, but exhausted,” Heim said. “It took me a long time to understand the underlying mental situation. And it’s striking to see, but where there is culture there is hope. These were educated people and they had religion, literature, music. When they were liberated, what they wanted most was culture.”The period of the transit camps proved to be a short one. With tensions between the Soviets and the West building, and Berlin as the epicenter of the clash, the camps were closed in the summer of 1948. Heim estimates that 10 percent of the Jews stayed in Germany, with the rest leaving for the U.S., other Western countries, or the newly formed state of Israel.When “Jewish Transit Berlin” was first screened, in October at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Heim said the audience had a reaction similar to his own.”Many were really astonished, that a population of Jewish men and women, who had such a terrible fate, were able to create hope on German soil,” said Heim, who is hoping to get distribution on American television. “This was a show of respect to the accomplishment of this generation, that they could cope so positively with it.”

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