Like so many of us, Evelyn Rochwerg was noodling around the Internet one night, on a Facebook group for children of Holocaust survivors. Someone had posted a YouTube trailer for a film called Every Face Has a Name, an award-winning 2015 Swedish documentary that attempts to track down and interview survivors of German concentration camps, seen in black-and-white archival shots, arriving at the harbour of Malmo, Sweden, on April 28, 1945.
The film trains its lens on elderly survivors’ reactions as they recognize themselves or relatives in the grainy, black-and-white footage of those arriving to safety in Sweden at war’s end. The film’s Canadian premiere will take place at the closing of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on May 15.
Rochwerg, who lives in Richmond Hill, was always interested in locating long-lost loved ones. She clicked on the two-minute trailer – “I figured, what are the chances?” – and within 10 seconds, she “totally freaked out.”
There in the crowd, smiling broadly and waving between two grim-faced kerchiefed women on that spring day in 1945 was her 16-year-old mother, Lola.
“Oh my God, I was screaming. I said, ‘My mother’s in the video!’ I didn’t know this existed. I never saw a picture of my mother as a child. I was on such a high,” Rochwerg, 58, told The CJN in an effusive interview.
After calming down, Rochwerg ordered the film and wrote to its producers, who have said they are eager to track down the stories of the people in the archival shots.
“I’ve gone through these pictures quite a lot of times and have more than one time wondered about the girl with the big smile,” said researcher Sebastian Claesson, who had a few questions for Rochwerg.
The Krakow-born Lola Preiss was an inmate of the Ravensbruck concentration camp in northern Germany and lost her parents and both brothers in the Holocaust. After liberation, she was taken by the Red Cross to Denmark, where she was quarantined for several weeks, and then on to Sweden.
“You can see from the few seconds of footage that they’re not happy,” Rochwerg noted of the glum arrivals.
“They’re now free but they’ve just been through hell.”
Yet, her mother wears a high-wattage, ear-to-ear smile.
“She was still young and all alone, but I guess she realized that she had her whole life ahead of her.”
Lola is now 87 and is wintering in Florida. Rochwerg said she can hardly wait to screen the footage for her. And in keeping with the movie’s theme, she also wants to film her mother’s reaction to seeing her younger self.
“She has the same face,” Rochwerg said with a chuckle.
After arriving in Sweden, her mother was taken to an all-girls school in the town of Forsbacka. Soon after, Jakob Sylman, a fellow Pole who survived the war in Siberia, arrived to attend an all-boys school. The two met and planned to get to Palestine.
They set sail at the height of the British blockade. Though their ship landed, they and the other passengers were intercepted and taken to Cyprus, where they were interned.
Following statehood, they made it to Israel, where they helped start Kibbutz Dovrat, in the north. They were married in 1949 and came to Canada in 1952 to begin new lives.
Her parents “never talked about their experiences,” Rochwerg said. “It wasn’t something we discussed. My mother tried to shield me from anything bad.” Her father died two years ago.
As an added bonus, also in the same shot as her mother is Rochwerg’s father’s first cousin, Hava Sylman, who was then around 25 and also survived Ravensbruck. She’s now in her mid-90s and lives in Toronto.
Hailed by Variety magazine, Every Face Has a Name shows Jews arriving from all over Europe – “Norwegian prisoners of war, Polish mothers and children, members of the French resistance and British spies – and perhaps unique among them, a young Italian-American who was accused of being a spy while visiting her grandparents and deported to Auschwitz.”
Rochwerg still can’t get over the shock of seeing her mother’s young, happy face.
“I keep looking at the video,” she said.
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