#523) One Survivor Remembers (1995)
Directed by Kary Antholis
Class of 2012
“One Survivor Remembers” is available for free at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum website.
The Plot: Commissioned by HBO, “One Survivor Remembers” is the story of Gerda Weissmann, a Polish and Jewish woman who as a teenager, endured the horrors of Nazi occupation and the Holocaust. Over 50 years after these events, Weissman recounts in grim detail being separated from her family, working in labor camps making fabric for the German military, and walking over 350 miles on a death march intended to kill herself and other prisoners, therefore destroying any evidence of Nazi inhumanity. Throughout her journey Weissmann details the extraordinary happenstances that had to occur for her survival, which she took as a sign that her story needed to be told.
Why It Matters: The NFR gives a rundown and praises the “simple yet powerful eloquence” Kary Antholis brings to telling this story. There’s also an essay by…filmmaker Kary Antholis! Why don’t more movies on this list have corresponding essays from the actual filmmakers?
But Does It Really?: World War II and the Holocaust are such seismic events in world history that any first-hand recollection is undoubtedly worthy of preservation, and “One Survivor Remembers” is no exception. The story is powerful, tragic, yet somehow uplifting, told by Gerda Weissman in a focused, natural style, with effective visuals and archival footage from Kary Antholis and his team. At a time when we started to seriously re-evaluate World War II, I’m glad someone decided to document this story, and “One Survivor Remembers” is an important addition to the National Film Registry.
Everybody Gets One: A history major at Stanford, Kary Antholis pivoted towards documentary filmmaking, and by the early ’90s was an executive at HBO’s Documentary programming. When commissioned to produce something for the 50th anniversary of WWII’s end, Antholis and HBO Documentary President Sheila Nevins visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and were so moved by a video interview of Gerda Weissmann and her husband Kurt Klein, they immediately contacted the couple for their documentary. In an unorthodox move, Antholis suggested himself to direct the film, seeing it as a way to connect with his mother, who lived in Nazi-occupied Greece during the war.
Seriously, Oscars?: Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, “One Survivor Remembers” met the Oscar eligibility requirements for Best Documentary Short. When the film won the category, Kary Antholis brought Gerda Weissman on stage, and Weissman gave a brief yet powerful speech about not taking freedom for granted. In a weird bit of eligibility overlap, by virtue of its premiere on HBO, “One Survivor Remembers” was also nominated for – and won – the Emmy for Outstanding Informational Special.
- After zeroing in on Gerda Weissman as the documentary’s subject, Kary Antholis went to her home in Arizona, and spent two days talking to her and learning more about her stories. In an attempt to capture this kind of intimate, revealing conversation on film, Antholis asked Sandy Bradley to interview Gerda, as she had for the original video that inspired Antholis. They even went so far as to match Gerda’s hair, makeup and wardrobe with how she looked in the first interview.
- Shoutout to the film’s sound team (headed by Richard Fiocca), who use Weissmann’s recollections – as well as footage shot in the actual locations of her stories by Kary Antholis – to recreate her wartime experience. It helps put you in Gerda’s shoes, though I’m sure watching the final product was a bit triggering for her.
- It’s very easy for a modern audience (especially those of us who weren’t there) to oversimplify the WWII experience to binary viewpoints (Allies good-Nazis bad), but Gerda’s story about her boss at the textile mill Frau Kugler shows the shades of gray involved, with Weissmann even saying that she is indebted to Kugler for saving her life on a day when SS officers arrived for a surprise inspection.
- The moments that sticks out most to me occurs during the film’s examination of the death march. Gerda explains that what kept her going during the march was focusing on trivial things like what dress she would wear to a party after the war was over. It was these seemingly insiginifant mental exercises that kept her going each day of the death march. Weissmann believes that this imagination saved her, whereas focusing on the reality of her situation would have broken her spirit.
- The film does not reveal Lt. Kurt Klein (or the fact that he is Gerda’s husband) until he appears in her story, as part of her liberation. For those unfamiliar with Kurt and Gerda’s story (like myself) it is a pleasant surprise. The one silver lining in the midst of all this chaos.
- As with “Into the Arms of Strangers“, “One Survivor Remembers” has an online teacher’s guide. The film has a page on the Teaching Tolerance website that includes discussion questions, photos of Gerda and her family, as well as an interview with Gerda from 2005. According to the Teaching Tolerance website, over 130,000 copies of “One Survivor Remembers” have been distributed to schools across the country in the last 15 years.
- Kary Antholis spent the ’90s and ’00s as the President of HBO’s Miniseries Programming, overseeing such hits as “Angels in America”, “John Adams” and “Chernobyl”. Antholis left HBO in 2019 and now does what every American does these days: hosts a true crime podcast.
- As per this film’s epilogue, Gerda Weissman and Kurt Klein married in 1946, and moved to Phoenix, Arizona, with their family eventually expanding to three children and eight grandchildren. Although Kurt Klein passed away in 2002, Gerda Weissman is still with us at age 96. Among her accomplishments after “One Survivor Remembers”: publishing a children’s book and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Further Reading: Gerda Weissmann wrote several books about her Holocaust experience, with many of the stories in “One Survivor Remembers” being related in her first book: 1957’s “All But My Life“.