Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World
in a 1938 Family Film
By Glenn Kurtz
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
418 pages, $30
By Stephanie Shapiro
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Of the 14 minutes of 16mm black-and-white and Kodachrome color film that David Kurtz shot during a European vacation in the summer of 1938, three minutes shows a visit to Poland. The camera could hold two different films, so the color scenes mingle with the black-and-white.
The three minutes reveal brief scenes of people waving at the camera, walking down the street, sitting in a horse-drawn carriage – a typical tourist vacation film. But not really so typical.
By the time Kurtz’s grandson Glenn discovered the film in his parents’ closet some 70 years later, the vinegary relic had deteriorated so severely it could not be projected. It had shrunk and fused into “a single, hockey puck-like mass.”
But someone had transferred part of the film to videotape, and Glenn Kurtz soon was off on the adventure that would dominate four years of his life. His search took him to several cities and continents and has produced this endearing account of his quest for any connection with the town and its smiling and unsuspecting residents.
Before he could even begin researching the film’s contents, he had the film restored as well as possible with help from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Then he narrowed down to two the possible names of the town his grandparents had visited. He painstakingly tracked down some of the people in the film, and interviewed them, working through the lapses and distortions of long-ago memories.
Seventy years later, for example, a 12-year-old boy shown in the film, now elderly and retired in Florida, isn’t sure who owned a certain store or where the button factory was. But everyone involved agrees that there was a button factory, and Kurtz even travels to the town and finds what’s left of it.
Kurtz laboriously, thoroughly and perhaps almost obsessively has traced his subjects’ lives from that summer to the present (the present being through November 2012). Although not everyone’s memories matched exactly, he has managed to reconstruct reasonable versions of their lives and bring six of the survivors together. They compare notes, they discuss, they transcend the horrors they have lived through.
Something about the not particularly remarkable film captivated Kurtz. It was taken just three months before Kristallnacht, the Nazi explosion of violence that destroyed synagogues, homes and businesses and sent thousands of Jews straight to concentration camps. The actual war didn’t begin until September 1939. Although there is no “usual” pre-Holocaust home movie, we viewers all know – but the people in the film have no idea – what awaits them and that they soon will have little enough reason to smile or wave.
“Through the brutal twists of history, my grandfather’s travel souvenir became the only surviving film of this Polish town,” Kurtz tells us, yet “much about the story of my grandfather’s film is untraceable.”
Oddly enough, Glenn Kurtz had spent several years in Vienna during the 1980s and in 2008 was writing a novel about two brothers who escape from the city after the 1938 German invasion of Austria. His character Mara discovers a stray piece of old film in the flea market … and life begins to imitate art.
The 15 pages of notes at the end of the story proper include links to online sources, including one, a line and a half long, to his grandfather’s actual film. The research methods are up to date and the author offers tips on how to find out specific information.
In trying to reconstruct the camera angles of the original film, Kurtz photographs the town square at different times of day. Just getting there is an exercise in stress, dealing with an unfriendly bureaucrat here and there, searching for this road or that intersection, reassuring a current resident that no, the Jews are not coming back to try to claim their former homes. Little details mentioned by the survivors, such as second-story balconies no longer on some of the buildings, help him match the present-day scene to specific places where the old film was shot.
Some paragraphs in the book are so meticulously detailed that the reader just knows skipping a line or two won’t make much of a difference. But Kurtz worked so hard, traveled so far to find out every little fact that it seems almost unkind to do much skipping around, a sense that the least we can do is pay attention. Much of what he has accomplished cannot be repeated: people die, landscapes change.
Totally separate from Kurtz and “Three Minutes in Poland,” an event titled “Letters to Afar” at the Museum of the City of New York uses six hours of pre-World War II videotape to re-create Polish small-town life in the 1920s and ’30s. Audio speakers suspended from the ceiling provide music, narration, lists of names. A recent full-page newspaper story about the exhibit and its creator, Peter Forgacs, doesn’t specify how long it will run.
The museum project, simultaneous with the publication of Kurtz’s book, may be the only such exposition using home movies. Yet future creative events eventually might inspire even more ways to illuminate the lives of the unsuspecting people waving to us from those old, vinegary films.
Three minutes of old film changed Glenn Kurtz’s life and those of the survivors he searched for, found and introduced to us. The world is richer for his efforts.
Stephanie Shapiro is a former News writer and editor.