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Tessie Jacob and Ella Prince, along with Frydman, accompany the archaeological crew to Majdanek, recounting the horrors of their past along the way. The film delicately exposes the terror, bitter sadness and fear involved in this difficult journey for the survivors. The camera hangs back and observes people with a sidelong glance rather than a direct scrutiny, and in doing so sensitively avoids a voyeurism of their unspeakable grief.
The film only glancingly touches upon the bureaucratic difficulties involved in such an endeavor — what it takes, for example, to get permission from Poland to excavate a field — leaving a viewer with an unsatiated sense of curiosity. There is one scene where Polish authorities express opposition to the excavation, saying that Majdanek is “not the right place” for such a dig. The filmmakers simply show the Polish official’s face, allowing his words to speak for themselves.
To the film’s credit, it does not exploit the angle of bad Poles versus good Jews; rather, it opts simply to follow the story of those who survived as they look for the treasures left behind by those who did not. The openness of their faces and sorrow reflects complete honesty — the utter openness, perhaps, of the children they were before Majdanek happened to them.
At one poignant moment, the 80-year-old Jacob — in the trappings of adulthood, with a red coat and red earrings, but with the unguarded vulnerability of the child she once was — speaks to her parents, who were killed at Majdanek: “I came to apologize. You told me to save yourself. I couldn’t have saved you. I was the baby, and I could not.”
By the time the archaeologists dig up the field and, in two days alone, find more than 80 pieces of jewelry, coins and other keepsakes, it is clear that they find only remnants of the true treasures: those who were murdered in the gas chambers of Majdanek. Though some of these remnants have monetary value — the film points out the precious stones, for example, found in some buried jewelry — we come to realize that their value as links to the past is priceless.
This little film says more implicitly than it does explicitly, and that is its greatest strength. It is humble in that it does not overstep its boundaries and try to tell the story of the Holocaust; rather, it shows the evidence of a simple and singular act of rebellion with a sensitive treatment of the past and present. The archaeologists’ — and, for that matter, the film’s — act of excavation, becomes, in its own turn, an act of defiance. And defiance of the murderers will continue, as the producers of the film are currently looking for high school and college students to do more excavations at Majdanek this summer. Nothing is truly gone, the film makes clear, if there are still those who are willing to look for it.
Jordana Horn is a writer and lawyer at work on her first novel.