Warsaw Ghetto Witness

The ideas to create a blog site for Ilana came upon us rather suddenly. The Cinema Arts Centre, the much-loved local alternative movie-house, was bringing A Film Unfinished to town in three days. We had suggested Ilana as a guest-speaker since she was in Warsaw when the Nazi propaganda footage was filmed, but thought she would have a few weeks to prepare. With three days to go, there was flurry of brainstorming, speech writing, research, and practice.

On day two, we were asked for a tag line to describe Ilana. “Warsaw Ghetto Survivor” was suggested. Before, she was even told the suggestion, I knew what her reaction would be: “No way! I hate that term.” To her, a survivor is just one step away from a victim, and she does not identify herself as either. Many organizations, including Yad Vashem (the holocaust memorial museum in Israel), keep lists of victims and survivors, so it’s not like the terms aren’t acceptable, but they suggest a passivity towards one’s fate that is foreign to Ilana.

It took her just a minute to come up with an alternative: “Warsaw Ghetto Witness”. I thought that was perfect. She was born in Warsaw and spent three years in the ghetto, so she indeed was a witness to the crimes that happened there. When I thought about the word witness, it had all kinds of meaning. We use ‘witness’ to refer to someone testifying in court. After the war Ilana was that kind of witness as well, speaking in defense of a Jewish policeman who had saved her life.

‘Bearing witness’ is another common phrase. Commonly, it means providing evidence like Ilana did at the honor courts in Warsaw. But ‘bear’ has the other meaning of enduring or carrying something. I like the poetry of that. When you see something horrible it makes you a witness. You bear the burden of what you witnessed for as long as you hold it inside, in silence, with guilt, or with shame. Bearing witness by telling your story hopefully sets you free.

Ilana bore witness after two showings of A Film Unfinished, and was received with great interest and appreciation. Of course the “Goosh” (a group of family and friends self-titled by the Hebrew word for “clump”) came out in force to support her. But, I believe the greater community was also touched and stayed for a very long time afterward to ask questions, share stories, and to thank Ilana. That is what prompted us to think we needed a forum to continue the process. And here we are.

Who am I? I guess I’m a witness to the witness. I’ve been listening to Ilana’s stories for two decades. More recently, I’ve been helping her research some of the details of her life, and it is getting more interesting every day. We are discovering connections to people and events that she had no way of knowing before the age of the Internet, and it makes her story more profound and universal. I’ll give an example in the next blog. But first, I’d like to invite everyone out there to also be witnesses.