Churchill Roberts: The last flight of Petr Ginz


Published: Sunday, March 17, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 15, 2013 at 11:27 p.m.

After “Angel of Ahlem,” I wasn't sure I could make another Holocaust film.

I had stood with a survivor at Auschwitz, where boxcars unloaded him as part of the human cargo to be gassed and cremated or spared for use as slave labor. I had walked a path at Chelmno with a survivor whose parents had been killed there. I watched with a heavy heart as he contemplated the last moments of their lives.

The Holocaust, the genocide of 6 million Jews, was unimaginable. I had read about it but always kept my distance. It was statistics, killing on a grand but impersonal scale. And then my colleagues and I made a film about it.

We walked in the shoes of survivors as they relived the past and showed faded photographs of murdered family members. We visited childhood homes and listened to stories about the roundup and slaughter of entire families.

The Holocaust was no longer impersonal. It had names, dates, faces, locations. Filming these stories was an emotional roller coaster, and I was ready to get off.

But one day my colleague Sandy Dickson called and asked me to take a look at a book she read, “The Diary of Petr Ginz.” She assured me it was a different kind of Holocaust story. She was right. It was about hope as well as tragedy, about freedom as well as confinement. Most of all, it was about a child prodigy whose creativity and imagination trumped deprivation and even death.

Fragments of Petr Ginz's life, including his books, artwork and magazine articles, survived his execution at Auschwitz at age 16. The concentration camp at Terezin, where Petr was sent when he was 14, and the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, displayed his works. But Petr's story did not fully come to light until after the spaceship Columbia exploded in 2003. Aboard the spacecraft was Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon. He had taken with him a token to symbolize the Holocaust — a drawing of a moon landscape by Petr Ginz.

Stories about the Columbia's demise prompted a man in Prague to take a second look at some old manuscripts and drawings he discovered in his attic. They belonged to Petr and included a diary he kept during the German occupation of Prague. With the help of Yad Vashem, Petr's sister, Chava Pressburger, at one time imprisoned at Terezin along with her brother, obtained and edited the diary. An English-language version was published in 2007.

Sandy Dickson said when she read “The Diary of Petr Ginz,” she knew Petr would be the subject of our next documentary. But the odds were long. Other filmmakers were interested in the story and the company that handles Anne Frank's estate held the rights to the book. The key would be Petr's sister. In the end, Chava chose my colleagues and I to tell Petr's story.

And what an incredible story it is — a gifted young boy coming of age as the Nazis invaded his homeland and began a systematic campaign to kill Europe's Jews. Petr was kicked out of school, but he kept writing and drawing.

When he reached 14, he was taken from his family and sent to Terezin, but he kept writing and drawing. For two years, as people around him died from starvation and disease, or disappeared forever on a transport to the East, Petr continued to write.

The pen was his weapon. He became editor of a secret underground magazine called Vedem (We Lead). On September 28, 1944, three months before the liberation of Terezin, Petr was transported to Auschwitz. At 16 he had left a legacy of books, articles, poems, illustrations and paintings — inspiration for generations to come.

Only a handful of people are still alive who recall Petr's years in Terezin. One of them is Petr's bunkmate, Sydney Taussig, who will be in Gainesville on March 28 for the screening of “The Last Flight of Petr Ginz.”

More athlete than artist, more worker bee than leader, Sydney Taussig survived Terezin because his father, also imprisoned there, was a blacksmith, and Nazis needed their horses shod. The elder Mr. Taussig convinced them he needed his son to assist. But Sydney Taussig did more than assist. He risked his life by hiding 800 pages of Vedem in a metal container behind the blacksmith shop. Discovery would have meant certain death.

After the war, he returned to Terezin and recovered the manuscript. The poems and articles, including some by Petr, were published many years later as “We Are Children Just the Same.”

Children — yes, but the most remarkable children imaginable! In 2012, the United Nations published a 32-page study guide to accompany “The Last Flight of Petr Ginz.” In the forward, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote: “The Holocaust was a time of terror and uncertainty for Jewish children and their families. Despite their fears, many children, like Petr Ginz, bravely faced this danger armed with creativity and strength.”

I hope “The Last Flight of Petr Ginz” captures their creativity and strength. If so, the emotional roller coaster of reliving the Holocaust will have been worth the ride. Please join us on March 28 at the Phillips Center to see for yourself.

Churchill Roberts is co-director of the Documentary Institute and a professor of telecommunication at the University of Florida.

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