Poignant footage showing life of Jewish community just before start of WWII is turned into full-length documentary
A three-minute colour film showing the vibrant life of a Jewish community less than a year before WWII broke out has been 'stretched' into a full-length documentary.
Originally a travel souvenir, the film taken by the American David Kurtz in 1938 is one of the only moving picture records of a typical Jewish town in Poland on the brink of catastrophe.
Made during a summer tour of Europe, for decades the 16mm film lay unnoticed in a house in Palm Beach until it was discovered inside a battered tin can by Kurtz’s grandson Glenn Kurtz.
After viewing scenes from the Alps and Dutch villages, Glenn came across the three-minute sequence showing the community of Jews in his grandfather’s hometown of Nasielsk just north of Warsaw.
Crowds of curious youngsters are seen crowding around Kurtz on a cobbled street, their faces beaming innocence and fascination with the camera, a novelty at the time.
Realizing the importance of what he had discovered, in 2009 Glenn Kurtz donated the film to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where experts restored and digitalised the film.
In 2015, he published a book titled Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film, which became the inspiration for filmmaker Bianca Stigter to make what is akin to a cinematic monument to the Jews of Nasielsk shown in the film.
In Three Minutes: A Lengthening, Stiger examines the existing three minutes to unravel the stories hidden in the celluloid.
Using only Kurtz’s original footage, she zooms in, showing the footage frame by frame, enlarging and focusing on details, stretching the three minutes to seventy.
Sometimes it is shown in slow motion, sometimes still, moving forwards and backwards to draw meaning from each frame.
In total, she extracted the portraits of 150 Jews from Nasielsk, even putting names to some of them.
Stigter said: “It’s a short piece of footage, but it’s amazing how much it yields.
“We had to work as archaeologists to extract as much information out of this movie as possible.”
Off camera, Helena Bonham Carter narrates and Nasielsk survivor Maurice Chandler (né Moszek Tuchendler) talks about the village and its inhabitants.
Chandler, who is one of the smiling teenage boys in the film, was one of the few to survive, escaping on forged papers.
Now in his nineties, he was identified by his granddaughter who recognised him in the film, when the museum put it on its website.
Jews started to settle in Nasielsk in the 17th century. By 1939, the community had grown to around 3,000.
The Germans entered Nasielsk in September 1939 and started to exercise a reign of terror. At 7.30 on December 3, all the Jews were ordered into the market square within 15 minutes.
From there, they were sent to a train station four kilometres away. Forced along a muddy path, they were whipped by the German guards and forced to roll in the mud.
They were deported to ghettos in Łuków and Międzyrzec, from where they were eventually mostly sent to their deaths in Treblinka.
From the 3,000 members of the Jewish community in Nasielsk, only 100 survived the Holocaust.
Through Kurtz’s book, Stigter’s film and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, some of the people in the original film as well as details of the community have been discovered and restored.
Three Minutes: A Lengthening premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September last year.
It is continuing to be shown at documentary festivals, including the Sundance Festival in January, and is due for wide release in cinemas in April.