'Six Million and One' Documentary and a Letter About Bel Kaufman

By Masha Leon

Published September 14, 2012, issue of September 21, 2012.
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“Six Million and One” a documentary by veteran filmmaker David Fisher, is a Holocaust film, yet it isn’t. It chronicles a journey that Fisher took with his Israeli-born middle-aged siblings— Esti Fisher, Gideon Fisher and Ronel Fisher — to retrace their late father’s life, as Joseph Fisher wrote about it in the memoir his children found after his death. As the Fishers drive through a picturesque Austrian countryside to the charming Austrian village of Gusen and then on to what had been the Gunskirchen concentration camp, the brothers argue and wax philosophical about the Holocaust, while sister Esti Fisher declares she is not interested in “revisiting a past” that she dubs as “akin to Timbuktu.”

At Gusen, the residents acknowledge to David Fisher that during the war, Gusen had not been “a good place.” In addition to several landmarks, the Fishers are shown what had once been a “joy house,” or a brothel, during those “bad times.” As the siblings walk through the town, retracing their father’s unspeakable past, an oom-pah-pah band with masked marchers walks by. By flashlight they visit the Gusen quarry , where at one time 1,000 Jews were worked to death cutting a tunnel through granite (which was sent to Germany).

Halfway through the film we meet jaunty white-haired Mickey Dorsey, 71st Infantry Division veteran and Gunskirchen liberator. In one scene, he is strolling down a hallway in full uniform, singing the 1944 mega-hit “Sentimental Journey.” According to several sources, this was the unofficial homecoming theme for World War II veterans. Dorsey meets David Fisher and he tells him what he and his fellow liberators witnessed. Shocked at discovering a death camp, Dorsey recalls: “I told the guys to bring all the K-rations, which the skeletal survivors wolfed down. We gave them cigarettes. They ate them, paper and all.” He paused, then said, “Many died two hours later.” Also interviewed by Fisher are 71st Division veterans Peter Carnabuci, who appears to still be suffering from post-traumatic stress, and William Jukach, who said: “We saw the worst…. I never saw a horror movie that compares to what we saw, what we heard. Trying to forget is hard.”

The Fisher siblings are led by an Austrian guide through a tunnel their father helped build according to his memoir “with his bare hands.” Somewhat detached, Esti Fisher ponders: “The normal survival was a week…. Father must have had other jobs to survive three to four months.” One of the brothers vows he will never read the diary, because he “wants to put it behind” him. After their visit to the tunnel, the siblings sit on a bench in what looks like a lush green forest. They talk about their unhappy childhoods. “I didn’t grow up in a normal house,” Esti Fisher insists.

In his director’s note, David Fisher writes: “My siblings did not want to read my father’s memoir…[in which] I learned of Gusen village, Gunskirchen forest, beatings, hunger, cannibalism…. It uncovered all my father’s demons…. I made half the journey alone. I forced the second half of the journey on my siblings, who didn’t want to participate, even while they were crawling around tunnels and enchanted forests. This isn’t a film about the Holocaust, because we spent most of our time laughing and there is nothing funny about the Holocaust; it’s about a rare kind of intimacy and sibling bond that replaces pain with bittersweet humor.” This brought to mind the bittersweet Yiddish expression vis-à-vis unbearable pain: Men lakht mit yashtsherkes — One laughs with little lizards.

In Hebrew, English and German with English subtitles, the film opens in New York City on September 28, at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Edna St. Vincent Millay to the Rescue of Bel Kaufman

Alluding to my August 17 “Too Busy To Get Old” column, about Bel Kaufman celebrating her 101st birthday, Alvin Graham of Great Neck, N.Y., sent me the following letter:

“During the spring of 1939 or 1940, I attended a meeting of a small group of City College students, most of whom were planning to take the TNT exam in order to qualify for the position of teacher-in-training at one of the high schools in New York City. Our guest speaker was Bel Kaufman, who told us that she had taken the exam twice, because she flunked it on her first try. She flunked because her interpretation of a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay was wrong according to the examiner. Bel was told she missed the point of the poem.

“Incensed, Bel wrote to the poet, giving her interpretation. Millay’s response was prompt and definite. ‘You are absolutely correct! That’s exactly what I meant!’ Bel appealed. The appeal was denied. However, the examiner did imply that if Bel took the exam a second time, there would be no problem. Bel Kaufman, distinguished author of a best-seller [‘Up the Down Staircase’] was required to take the TNT exam twice before she was thought to be qualified to teach in New York City. “

To verify, I called Kaufman. Without hesitation, she confirmed Graham’s story:

“The poem was ‘Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare,’ and I had to explain what it meant. And yes, the examiner failed me for lack of background in English and poor interpretation of the poem. So I went to my professors, and they wrote letters about my record — Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude, highest honors of Columbia. I wrote to Millay care of her publisher, and she sent me a three-page letter telling me she could not have interpreted that sonnet better.” She paused and said, chuckling, “ I’d like to think that ever since [Millay’s] letter, candidates for English posts in New York City high schools have been asked to interpret very dead poets.” Touche, Bel Kaufman.

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