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A snapshot of a lost prewar Polish Jewish community

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Screenshot from film Glenn Kurtz discovered
Screenshot from film Glenn Kurtz discovered

In the summer of 1938, the author’s American grandparents, David and Liza Kurtz, took a six-week European vacation that included a brief visit to a Polish town, where David shot three minutes of footage – mostly in colour, which was rare for that day – with a 16mm camera.

In 2009, more than 70 years later, Glenn Kurtz discovered the film in a dented aluminum canister in a closet in his parents’ home in Florida. But it had deteriorated so badly  – having “shrunk, curled on itself, and fused into a single, hockey-puck-like mass” – that it could not be projected. Fortunately, some of the images had been transferred to videotape, and when Kurtz saw them, he was amazed and transfixed: he knew the film was important, and that it had to be preserved.

The film showed a vibrant Jewish community in a Polish town in August of 1938, just three months before Kristallnacht and one year before the onset of the war. But what town? Family sources insisted it was Berezne, his grandmother’s ancestral shtetl, but Kurtz had growing suspicions it might be his grandfather’s ancestral shtetl of Nasielsk. In any case, no one could positively recognize any of the buildings depicted in the crowded town square, abuzz with life.

It was only after he donated the footage to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum – which excitedly declared it to be “unique”  – that Kurtz solved the mystery by finding an old photograph of the Nasielsk synagogue, identical to the synagogue that appears in the film.

Further confirmation that the town was indeed Nasielsk came after the film was posted online and the son and grandchild of octogenarian Maurice Chandler spotted him in the film as a sprightly 13-year-old boy wearing a cap. His family told Chandler, born in 1924 and one of relatively few Jews from Nasielsk to survive the Holocaust, that “you’re in a sea of ghosts.”

That’s a riveting moment in the increasingly dramatic story of how the obsessive Kurtz strives to provide context and identity to the rich, lost and initially anonymous world that has been preserved in those three extraordinary –  yet terribly ordinary – minutes of film. The random images of the townsfolk preserved on film – a crowd in the street, workers in ragged clothes, religious men in long black overcoats, women in kerchiefs, a procession leaving a synagogue – are laden with dramatic irony, since all seem blissfully unaware that their world is soon to be turned upside down and destroyed.

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As he endeavours to restore memory, identity and dignity to nameless faces, Kurtz travels across the United States and visits Canada, England, Poland and Israel; he also visits cemeteries, some in decrepit condition, and delves into archives, basements and attics. He eventually finds seven survivors from Nasielsk, including two who appear in the film as children.

Much of these discoveries could not have been made without the Internet; as poet Paul Simon once wrote, we live in an “age of miracles and wonders,” however overshadowed it may be by countervailing darkness. Ultimately, through a combination of diligence and luck, Kurtz succeeds in restoring a vibrant picture of Nasielsk’s Jewish community – at least that part of it recalled by a chance group of survivors consulted some 70 years after the devastation. 

“Nasielsk survives only in memory,” the author writes. “But the Nasielsk that exists in memory now is the chance artifact of those who happened to live longest. The memories themselves are equally artifacts of a ruthless process of selection, what is left over after 75 years of forgetting, suppressing, reworking, and smoothing out through repetition.”

Kurtz’s narrative is easily a quest, comparable to such memorable works as Theo Richmond’s Konin: A Quest (1995), Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (2006) and Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010). An attempt to celebrate the life of a Jewish community obliterated by the Nazis, Three Minutes in Poland is as much about the journey as the destination. The story is well written and gripping.