Return to Poland
Throughout his adult life, Natan Grossmann (born in 1927) managed to suppress his memories of when he was held captive in the Lodz ghetto that had been set up by the Germans during World War II. He was able to repress his desire to learn about the circumstances of his parents’ death as well as the fate of his brother with whom he had lost contact in 1942. Seventy years later, Grossmann began to search for answers in Łódź (Poland) and was soon part of an emotional confrontation with the past. As he gradually uncovered details about his brother’s fate, memories of his parents and life and death in the ghetto came back to him and he discovered facts and met people that he never would have imagined possible just a few years earlier.
Jens-Jürgen Ventzki who was born in 1944 was also researching his family’s past in Łódź and was driven by a dark family secret — his father Werner Ventzki was the Nazi Head Mayor of the city at the time of the ghetto and Lodz was a centre of German repression and annihilation politics against Jews and Poles. Ventzki’s father was a high ranking and fervent National Socialist, an administrative lawyer and “Schreibtischtäter” (desktop perpetrator). Now Ventzki searches for traces of his father‘s crimes and motifs, thus breaking a long silence in his family.
In tracing their family histories, Grossmann and Ventzki inevitably confront each other. During this period, there was no other city in Europe where Germans, Poles and Jews lived physically so close to each other, yet they were practically worlds apart. Under German rule, a large ghetto was established within the city and it became the second largest ghetto on occupied Polish soil.
Those streetcar passengers who passed the ghetto could easily see the suffering of the imprisoned Jewish people. Several times a day for a period of more than four years, streetcar Line 41 passed through the ghetto. To those in the ghetto, Line 41 was a sign of their own powerlessness and the indifference of those who rode the streetcar everyday: Germans and Poles. These citizens were essentially bystanders of crimes and repressed what they saw. Today, Line 41 seems to be a symbol of the general reticence and injustice that bystanders may willingly accept.
From survivors and witnesses, we learn how people behaved during the German occupation of Łódź: victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. We hear about the ominous psychological implications of these events and even about a sense of guilt that survivors felt. After many years apart in completely different worlds, these people of Lodz now meet and discuss their pasts.
There is something about railroad tracks as a recurring motif in documentaries about the Holocaust. In Tanja Cummings’s “Line 41: A Documentary about the Lodz Ghetto” the title refers to the trolley that passed through the fenced-in Jewish Ghetto of Lodz. The trolley conveyed the free citizens through the few acres crammed with more than 100,000 starving prisoners, most of whom would not survive the war.
One who did survive was Natan Grossmann, who left Poland at 17 and did not return to Lodz until 70 years later when, he was accompanied by Cummings. He searched the city and its archives for traces of his parents, who died there, and for his brother, who disappeared and was never seen again. While there, he met Ventzki, who was also attempting to come to terms with the past.
Director Cummings brings the past to life with the harrowing recollections of her subjects and by using a white screen as a punctuating device. The blank screen fills with an ink sketch of images of the ghetto as it once was and then dissolves into the same scene as it exists now, “a poetic evocation of the process of memory and the persistence of a nightmare that must never be forgotten.”
This is not an easy film to watch but it is an important film in that the last of the survivors of the Holocaust are leaving us and there will be no more eye witness accounts.