Marek Edelman worked as an errand boy at a children’s hospital during the summer of 1942, the time of the ‘Grossaktion Warsaw’ – the roundup of the Jewish populace of Warsaw for extermination. At the same time, he was also a founding member and a commander of the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB), one of the Jewish resistance factions. After the war, Edelman became a cardiologist and remained in Poland. Marek Edelman…And There Was Love in the Ghetto is an essay film based on his memoir of the same name. It is a personal and intimate work.
The stories are given a personal and intimate visual feel through close-ups of faces. Marek’s face, which throughout the film is shown in the same framing, the faces of the Jewish people from archive footage of the time, and newly shot footage of re-enactments of Marek’s stories. All this footage is intercut, a technique that might not have worked at all as re-enactments can give a film an overly dramatic feel.
However, the new footage and the archive footage seem to act as one as the film progresses – working together to give a more complete picture of the authentic people and events described.
The new footage includes clothes and other elements of the past but is shot in the present day, bringing the characters into our current view and making them easier to identify with. The floating slow-motion camera movements add a dreamlike element.
«What I say is not true. This is the mysticism that I saw in it all», Marek says. The camera work is indeed a physical representation of this statement.
Thousands of Jews were taken through the Umschlagplatz every day
What Marek describes are stories he previously told in his memoir: Love amongst people he knew first hand, friends and co-workers, colleagues. For example, a story about an aborted sexual encounter with Dola, whom he found intensely beautiful, is followed by her own story of love and death. In another story, Mrs. Tenenbaum – a nurse from his hospital – commits suicide in order to leave her daughter her coveted «life number» that is meant to make her untouchable to the Nazis. In a third, a spontaneous encounter between a liaison girl and a lonely man sparks a love that radiates from them so brightly it buoys them up above the constant terror.
All of these stories come from the mouth of Marek, the voice of the film. They are personal and heartbreaking, filled with love, hope and often death.
«What I say is not true. This is the mysticism that I saw in it all» – Marek Edelman
What makes this film so special is the intensely personal nature of the descriptions and the stories. The viewer gets to know a time, a place, a person. One gets a deeper insight into the actual people that were rounded up and murdered during this terrible time.
Memories play before our eyes
This film is stated as being made at Marek Edelman’s request, expressed shortly before his death in 2009. But during the interview he is, at times, angry, agitated, smoking one cigarette after another. It is like we are watching his actual memories on screen, being wrenched from his mind and played out before our eyes.
At one point he describes the crowds of people being herded through the square in Warsaw Umschlagplatz, a German word that refers to the place where goods are handled before their transport by train.
Thousands of Jews were taken through the Umschlagplatz every day, sometimes having to stay overnight to wait for the freight trains that would take them to their deaths.
What makes this film so special is the intensely personal nature of the descriptions and the stories
As the interview questions get more detailed, we feel the interviewer trying to wring every last drop of memory from Marek, sending him over the edge: Was the line of people walking to the trains quiet or loud?
«Quiet», says Marek, «Why would it be loud? […] It’s not true that people screamed. The stories about the cries of despair aren’t true. You see in your footage that people were walking quietly. So why are you asking?»
The interviewer answers: «So that you will say it.»
Marek describes constantly searching the crowds for friends or comrades to try to rescue, to pull out of the hoard. «It was just a crowd. A shapeless crowd of people. If I saw someone I knew I woke up.»
Marek Edelman… And There Was Love in the Ghetto is not a historical account, not a teaching of facts. It is a beautiful, joyous and painful bubble of the memories of one man who lived at the time. The viewer is sucked in and held in his memory, seeing what he saw, feeling a portion of what he felt. It is an honest film about love from one person’s vantage point during the cruelty and tragedy of the Holocaust, which is often seen from a bigger overview and generality.