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Film captures Jewish life in a Polish town before the Nazis arrive

Florida’s heat and humidity had nearly solidified the
celluloid into a mass “like a hockey puck,” Kurtz said. But someone had
transferred part of it onto VHS tape in the 1980s, so Kurtz could see what it
contained: a home movie titled “Our Trip to Holland, Belgium, Poland,
Switzerland, France and England, 1938.”

The 16-mm film, made by his grandfather, David Kurtz,
on the eve of World War II, showed the Alps, quaint Dutch villages and three
minutes of footage of a vibrant Jewish community in a Polish town.

Old men in yarmulkes, skinny boys in caps, girls with
long braids. Smiling and joking. People pour through the large doors of a
synagogue. There’s some shoving in a cafe, and then that’s it. The footage ends
abruptly.

Glenn Kurtz, nevertheless, understood the value of the
material as evidence of Jewish life in Poland just before the Holocaust. It
would take him nearly a year to figure it out, but he discovered that the
footage depicted Nasielsk, his grandfather’s birthplace, a town about 30 miles
northwest of Warsaw that some 3,000 Jews called home before the war.

Fewer than 100 would survive it.

Now Dutch filmmaker Bianca Stigter has used the
fragmentary, ephemeral footage to create “Three Minutes: A Lengthening,” a
70-minute feature film that helps to further define what and who were lost.

“It’s a short piece of footage, but it’s amazing how
much it yields,” Stigter said in an interview in Amsterdam recently. “Every
time I see it, I see something I haven’t really seen before. I must have seen
it thousands and thousands of times, but still, I can always see a detail that
has escaped my attention before.”

Almost as unusual as the footage is the journey it
took before gaining wider exposure. All but forgotten within his family, the
videotape was transferred to DVD and sent to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum
in Washington in 2009.

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“We knew it was unique,” said Leslie Swift, chief of
the film, oral history and recorded sound branch of the museum. “I immediately
communicated with him and said, ‘If you have the original film, that’s what we
want.’”

The Holocaust museum was able to restore and digitise
the film, and it posted the footage on its website. At the time, Kurtz didn’t know
where it had been shot, nor did he know the names of any of the people in the
town square. His grandfather had emigrated from Poland to the United States as
a child and had died before he was born.

Thus began a four-year process of detective work, which
led Kurtz to write an acclaimed book, “Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a
Lost World in a 1938 Family Film,” published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in
2014.

Stigter relied on the book in completing the film,
which is coproduced by her husband, Steve McQueen, the British artist and
Academy Award-winning director of “12 Years a Slave,” and narrated by Helena
Bonham Carter. It has garnered attention in documentary circles and has been
screened at Giornate degli Autori, an independent film festival held in
parallel with the Venice film fest; the Toronto International Film Festival;
Telluride Film Festival; the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam;
and DOC NYC. It was recently selected for this month’s Sundance Film Festival.

Nasielsk, which had been home to Jews for centuries,
was overtaken Sept 4, 1939, three days after the German invasion of Poland.
Three months later, on Dec 3, the entire Jewish population was rounded up and
expelled. People were forced into cattle cars and travelled for days without
food and water to the towns of Lukow and Miedzyrzec, in the Lublin region of
Nazi-occupied Poland. From there, they were mostly deported to the Treblinka
extermination camp.

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“When you see it, you want to scream to these people,
‘Run away, go, go, go,’” Stigter said. “We know what happens, and they
obviously don’t know what starts to happen, just a year later. That puts a
tremendous pressure on those images. It is inescapable.”

Stigter stumbled across the footage on Facebook in
2014 and found it instantly mesmerising, especially because much of it was shot
in colour.

“My first idea was just to prolong the experience of
seeing these people,” she said. “For me, it was very clear, especially with the
children, that they wanted to be seen. They really look at you; they try to
stay in the camera’s frame.”

A historian, author and film critic for a Dutch
national newspaper, NRC Handelsblad Stigter worked on this film, her
directorial debut, for five years. She started it after the International Film
Festival Rotterdam invited her to produce a short video essay for its Critic’s
Choice program. Instead of choosing a feature film, she decided to explore this
found footage. After making a 25-minute “filmic essay,” shown at the Rotterdam
festival in 2015, she received support to expand it into a feature film.

“Three Minutes: A Lengthening” never steps out of the
footage. Viewers never see the town of Nasielsk as it is today or the faces of
the interviewees as talking heads. Stigter tracks out, zooms in, stops,
rewinds; she homes in on the cobblestones of a square, on the types of caps
worn by the boys, and on the buttons of jackets and shirts, which were made in
a nearby factory owned by Jews. She creates still portraits of each of the 150
faces — no matter how vague or blurry — and puts names to some of them.

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Maurice Chandler, a Nasielsk survivor in his 90s who
is one of the smiling teenage boys in the footage. He was identified after a
granddaughter in Detroit recognised him in a digitised clip on the Holocaust
museum’s website.

Chandler, who was born Moszek Tuchendler, lost his
entire family in the Holocaust; he said the footage helped him recall a lost
childhood. He joked that he could finally prove to his children and
grandchildren “that I’m not from Mars.” He was also able to help identify seven
other people in the film.

Glenn Kurtz, an author and journalist, had discovered
a tremendous amount through his own research, but Stigter helped solve some
additional mysteries. He couldn’t decipher the name on a grocery store sign
because it was too blurry to read. Stigter found a Polish researcher who
figured out the name, one possible clue to the identity of the woman standing
in the doorway.

Leslie Swift said that the David Kurtz footage is one
of the “more often requested films” from the Holocaust Museum’s moving picture
archives, but most often it is used by documentary filmmakers as stock footage
or background imagery to indicate prewar Jewish life in Poland “in a generic
way,” she said.

What Glenn Kurtz’s book and Stigter’s documentary do,
by contrast, is to explore the material itself to answer the question, “What am
I seeing?” over and over again, she said. By identifying people and details of
the life of this community, they manage to restore humanity and individuality.

“We had to work as archaeologists to extract as much
information out of this movie as possible,” Stigter said. “What’s interesting
is that, at a certain moment, you say, ‘We can’t go any further;

this is where it stops.’ But then you discover
something else.”

©2021 The New York Times Company

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