INTRODUCING A POETRY VIDEO ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST
This short documentary is based on a Polish poem titled LETTER TO MARC CHAGALL that was written after the end of World War II by Jerzy Ficowski. The poem was translated into English in 1981 and is enacted here along with rarely seen illustrations that were contributed by Chagall. The video was written and produced by Michael Nevins who worked with a skilled team of collaborators and it is offered free of charge for educational viewing and discussion. To read an essay that describes the background of this video click here: THE CURIOUS ODYSSEY OF A HOLOCAUST POEM
VIEW THE VIDEO (16 min)
In 1976 African-American journalist Alex Haley published a novel titled ROOTS that was based on his family’s history. It was followed by a television mini-series of the same name and before long millions of people either had read the book or watched on TV. ROOTS prompted great interest in genealogy and I, too, was bitten by the bug. One day I suggested to my three, then teen-aged, children that it might be fun if they constructed a family tree. They rolled their eyes and said, if you think it would be so much fun, then why don’t you do it? So I did!
I gathered what limited information I could find and my attention soon focused on Dabrowa, the shtetl from where my father’s parents had emigrated during the 1890s. Back then the town was in czarist Russia, midway between Grodno and Bialystok, and today it’s located in northeastern Poland. Dabrowa means “oak forest” and when I began this study, my own family was living in a subdivision in northern New Jersey that also was called Oak Forest — the coincidence appealed to me and so in 1982 I published a yizkor book (memorial book) that contained all that I’d learned about the town where during my grandparent’s youth, roughly 75% of some 2,000 townspeople were Jewish.
Suddenly I found myself an “authority” about this shtetl although I’d never visited the place, until about a dozen years later, I got a chance to do just that. Two sisters from Maryland, who’d escaped the town just before the start of World War II, had raised money to build a stone wall and gate to protect the neglected Jewish cemetery, and when it was completed in 1995 my wife and I attended a small memorial event in Dabrowa Bialostocka.
During the next two decades I rarely thought again about my grandparents’ town until in late 2015, I received an e-mail from a school teacher in Dabrowa by the name of Dorota Budzinska. She explained that her students were studying their town’s Jewish history, also had been clearing the cemetery, and now were planning to hold a Jewish culture conference. Dorota had read my book on-line and invited me to speak at this event and how could I refuse? So in May 2016 I revisited “our shtetl”, this time accompanied by one of my sons and also a grandson. Needless to say, it was a memorable event. Before we left for Poland, I received a formal invitation from the town’s mayor which announced that the program’s official title would be A READING OF ASHES. Because those words were intriguing, I “googled” them and discovered that this was the title of a collection of 25 poems, all on Holocaust themes, that were written after the war by a now deceased Polish poet by the name of Jerzy Ficowski. I’d never heard of him, and it was difficult to locate a copy of the only English translation of this book which was published in London in 1981.
A literary critic once wrote that “Ficowski is Poland’s best kept secret” and after reading these harrowing poems, I had to agree. They were stark condemnations of Nazi war crimes told in simple but graphic language and, in particular, one poem had a curious title: LETTER TO MARC CHAGALL. In effect, it was the heartrending story of two very young Polish children who were caught up in the chaos of the Holocaust. Then I learned that in 1960 after Ficowski had mailed a French translation to the famous artist, Chagall decided to make five illustrative etchings of the poem. Again with some difficulty, I located copies of these pictures and later was able to purchase signed originals.
In 2021 I decided to combine Ficowski’s words with Chagall’s etchings in order to introduce them to an English-speaking audience and the result is this video. The subject matter is grim but, after all, this is a Holocaust poem and our purpose here is to stimulate thought, perhaps even to inspire action.
Producer and Co-director Michael Nevins is a retired physician and medical historian.
Co-director and editor Vera Aronow is co-founder of Turnstone Productions with her husband cinematographer Roger Grange.
Narrator Elzbieta Smolenska is a Polish-born former BBC World Service producer and freelance photojournalist who now lives in London.
Reader Wally Glickman, a retired physics professor, is a skilled actor and poet.
Reader Arlene Moskowitz is an actress who has appeared in films, television and off-off Broadway.
Composer, pianist and thereminist Dalit Hadass Warshaw currently serves on the faculty of Juilliard and CUNY-Brooklyn College.
“IN THE SILENCE OF THE LATE EVENING I WATCHED YOUR TENDER CREATION TWICE. IT IS DEEPLY MOVING.” “REMARKABLE…ELEGIAC, BEAUTIFULLY PRODUCED AND EMOTIONALLY DEVASTATING.”
“THIS IS SO BEAUTIFUL AND AT THE SAME TIME SO HARD TO SWALLOW. I WANT TO EMBRACE EVERY MOMENT…..THANK YOU, THANK YOU.”
“A MASTERPIECE OF RAW EMOTION AND ARTISTIC MAJESTY.”
FROM THE POET’S DAUGHTER: “WE LOVE WHAT YOU’VE DONE AND ARE VERY GRATEFUL…IT’S A REALLY FANTASTIC THING. I WISH JERZY FICOWSKI AND MARC CHAGALL COULD SEE IT.”
ADJECTIVES USED BY OTHER VIEWERS: SHATTERING, STIRRING, STUNNING, SUPERB, UNIQUE, REMARKABLE, FASCINATING, CHILLING, HAUNTING MUSIC, ELOQUENT, MARVELOUS, MONUMENTAL, WONDERFUL.