If Josh Webber has his way, his grandfather’s dramatic escape from a Nazi concentration camp will be an HBO special, seen by people around the world.
Webber, 26, is making a documentary about how the now 93-year-old Max Fronenberg and two other inmates spent almost a year secretly digging a tunnel out of the Pawiak camp in Poland during World War II. A total of 18 people were able to flee in 1944 as a result.
It’s a daring story that Webber learned at an early age, but beyond the family and the local audiences Fronenberg spoke to at schools and synagogues in Montreal, it’s little known.
Webber, who grew up in Côte St. Luc and is a 2008 graduate of the New York Film Academy, is virtually singlehandedly producing Escaping the Holocaust, a project that recently took a surprising turn.
While participating in a Birthright Israel trip to Israel this past June, the Los Angeles-based Webber discovered that one of the other diggers, whom his grandfather lost contact with many decades ago and who was presumed to be dead, is alive and well and living in Haifa. The third man, who had lived in Florida, is known to be deceased.
In September, Fronenberg, who lives in Montreal, and the other digger, Yusec Atlasovich, will be reunited in New Jersey, where the latter has a daughter. Webber will interview him to add to the vivid memories his grandfather has of the escape.
In 1942, Fronenberg was deported from his home in Warsaw to the Pawiak camp, where he was forced into sheet-metal work.
Pawiak was a 19th-century prison on the outskirts of the Polish capital.
Several months later, all of Fronenberg’s family were killed, except for his father, who had been sent to Pawiak as well. Soon after, the younger Fronenberg and two other men devised a plan to dig their way out of the camp from the basement of a workshop.
The tunnel would lead to the Warsaw sewer system, through which they could, it was hoped, find freedom.
There’s also romance in this story. In the camp, Fronenberg met a pretty girl named Rena and they fell in love. But when the tunnel was completed, she was too afraid to crawl through with the others, fearing she would be caught and killed. She begged Fronenberg to tell her family what happened to her if he got out alive.
The camp was liquidated in July 1944. The remaining 2,400 prisoners were sent to the Gross-Rosen and Ravenbruck concentration camps, and the Germans destroyed Pawiak’s buildings. The prison’s archives were never found.
Fronenberg assumed Rena – the love of his life – had perished.
Shortly after the war, a friend of Fronenberg, who had been in Pawiuk, met Rena by chance at a train station. She asked him if he knew Fronenberg and was overjoyed to learn he had survived as well and told the man to tell him she was alive.
Two days later, Fronenberg went to her hometown and they were reunited. He met her family and they planned to get married, but he wanted to make some money first. Fronenberg had been earning a measly living smuggling vodka.
He promised to come back for her a few weeks later. But that plan was doomed.
While on a smuggling run, his coat got caught and he was dragged underneath a moving truck. His pelvis was crushed and other bones were broken. His friends rushed him to a nearby military hospital, claiming he was a Russian soldier, so that he could get medical help.
Fronenberg spent three months recovering in a body cast, unable to contact Rena. Photos show a handsome young man with dark hair and a thin mustache, and haunted eyes, lying in bed.
Once his pelvis healed and he was out of the cast, he made a quick escape from the hospital before anyone discovered he wasn’t a Russian soldier. Though still limping, he walked miles to the station to catch a train to Rena’s home.
She was shocked when he turned up at her door. It was assumed he had died, and her father had married her off to someone else.
Both were heartbroken, but he left.
Several months later, he met Halina, who was also in Pawiak, but had been freed earlier through the aid of political connections. They got married in Poland where their first child, son Louis (now an orthodontist in Montreal) was born. They moved to Israel, where their daughter Iris (Webber’s mother) was born, before settling in Montreal in 1953.
Thirty years later, Halina passed away.
The following year, Fronenberg was on a business trip to Toronto – for many years he co-owned a major metal-works company – and reconnected with Rena through the Jewish community. She and her family had emigrated there years ago. By then, she was widowed as well.
Their love had not diminished, and they’ve been married now for 25 years.
Webber knew that Rena was his grandfather’s second wife, but until he interviewed Fronenberg, he had not known how they had met, lost each other and finally wed.
Webber had plenty of material for a gripping film with this alone. But his trip to Israel in June yielded a whole new avenue. Although Atlasovich was thought to be dead (Webber’s grandfather had not had contact with him for some 50 years), Webber searched for him anyway, but came up with nothing.
Later, six Israeli soldiers joined Webber’s 10-day Birthright Israel trip for a few days. Webber spoke to one about his film project and his attempt to track down the other digger.
“She played around with her phone, and I don’t know where she looked, but in a few minutes came up with a phone number,” he said.
Webber reached him immediately. “I freaked out. I couldn’t believe he was not only alive, but here I was talking to him.” Although Atlasovich was roughly his grandfather’s age, Webber said he sounded much younger and spoke very good English.
“He wanted to meet with me and talk about the escap. His memory was great – he even spoke of a book he wrote about it. I extended my stay in Israel by two days, but unfortunately, he became ill in that time and we had to cancel.”
This month, Webber spoke to him again by phone, and Atlasovich told him he was going to New Jersey to visit his daughter, and suggested that they get together at that time. So, Webber, who has been living in Los Angeles for four years, is arranging to bring his grandfather to New Jersey with him.
Fronenberg, who lives in a Côte St. Luc condo with Rena and is still hale and active, is keen on Webber’s documentary and has been fully co-operative.
“But I’m not sure how seriously he takes me. I think he still sees me as his little grandson, playing with a camera,” said Webber, who left Montreal at 18 to study business at Arizona State University.
After graduating from Jewish People’s and Peretz Schools, Webber attended Wagar and James Lyng high schools, before moving back to Halifax, where he was born, to finish secondary school.
Webber has already directed one film, a feature, A Broken Code, about two brothers (he plays one of them) who try to find out who killed their grandfather, a mob boss. This straight-to-DVD movie will be available in Canada in September.
Webber wants to shoot re-enactment scenes for Escaping the Holocaust, but money is, of course, an issue. Webber is trying to raise at least $25,000 through the online crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to complete the film.
“This is an incredible, true story that deserves to be told, and told properly,” he said. And that includes purchasing archival footage, quality visual effects, music and editing, all of which takes money.
The budget has so far been modest because he has basically done everything himself.
Pledges via Kickstarter can start at $1. Anyone who wants to chip in $5,000 or more will receive a credit as an executive producer.
“It’s important to get the survivors’ stories out there before it’s too late… and I plan to find a way to finish this film one way or the other.”