Marian Marzynski. Credit: Jason Longo.
Sometimes mundane, seemingly innocuous details can best impress the enormity of a tragedy on those who didn’t experience it. It’s the things that one carries, or “humps”—chewing gum, photographs, an illustrated Old Testament—that define one’s wartime experience, Tim O’Brien has suggested. “They carried all they could bear, and then some,” O’Brien wrote of the soldiers in Vietnam, “including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”
Holocaust survivors carry different sorts of objects and memories with them, but some of the details that emerge in the new, brilliantly-written documentary Never Forget to Lie by Emmy Award winner Marian Marzynski are particularly poignant—and terrifying—for their plainness.
One survivor tells Marzynski about the “clean, beautiful, awesome, shiny boots” of the SS soldiers which she still remembers. “For some reason, I was afraid of those boots,” she says.
Another survivor recalls the salamis his mother gave him when she sent him to ride the trams all day. He was only to return after nightfall, he tells Marzynski, because his mother didn’t want him to be home in case there was a Nazi raid.
And as a three-year-old, Marzynski remembers playing a “strange wartime hide-and-seek” game with his older cousin. The two hid in a wicker laundry basket from Nazi soldiers. When he was a few years older, Marzynski remembers his Jewish mother dropping him in a courtyard outside a Christian charity with a sign around his neck stating that his parents were dead. She gave him his favorite sugar sandwich so that he wouldn’t follow her when she left, he says.
“My childhood seems to be my psyche’s unfinished business,” the filmmaker says at the beginning of the documentary. “For almost 50 years, I’ve been filming other people’s lives.” His own tale starts in a horse-drawn carriage, where his parents turned him over to a family friend who covered his mouth as he screamed, “I want to go back to the ghetto; I want to go back to mommy.” He’d been told to forget that he was Jewish; his mother survived the war, but he would never see his father again.
Walking through Warsaw, where he notes that no more than 28,000 of the half a million Jews survived, Marzynski notes what is left of the ghetto—”some condemned buildings now being converted into luxury condominiums.”
In an apartment where Marzynski once lived, a Polish woman tells him that Germans were so trigger-happy because they were brought up that way. “I can’t even stand their language. I hate them,” she says. “I know it’s not right. God doesn’t allow it.”
Marzynski’s own view of God has changed dramatically. Using family watches and golden teeth from his father, a dentist, as bribes, Marzynski successfully evaded exposure by a known blackmailer and many neighbors of Christian families that hid him—”what might be called a bed-and-breakfast for Jews in hiding.”
“We spent days in Warsaw churches, then slept in basements, attics, and behind fake walls,” he remembers. Marzynski became the “most dedicated altar boy, a favorite of the priests. I was fascinated by the power of religion. God was the most powerful man that was. I saw him as someone with enormous shoes on the ground and his head high in the clouds.”
His transformation was so complete that when his mother showed up after the war—an “old woman with sunken cheeks”—he didn’t recognize her. He initially told her not to speak during mediations, and even after she took him back to Warsaw, he made her bring him to a big church so he could serve Mass. When he dropped the sacrament on the priest, he realized his church days were numbered.
“God didn’t want me anymore,” he says.
Marzynski’s mother once told him that God was taking a long nap during the Holocaust. “People often ask me if I am religious,” he says. “A son of secular Jews, I was raised Catholic but abandoned God after the war. I call my religion survival.”
One story of survival from the documentary stands out in particular. One survivor tells Marzynski of a German soldier pointing a gun at her and putting her up against a wall. Pleading with him, she tried a variety of tactics. “If you kill me, and I will be dead, you will never forget my face. You will always remember that you killed a little girl, an innocent little girl,” she says, no doubt reliving the terrifying moment. The gunman let her go, although her face remained burnt in his memory, no doubt, just as it will for everyone who watches the film.