Two documentary films, each touching the Holocaust era and celebrating the courage and devotion of non-Jews, are screening in Los Angeles.
The first is about Leopold Engleitner, bright-eyed and lucid at 107, who spent 11 years in and out of prisons and Nazi concentration camps, and, after a flight from Vienna to Los Angeles, is ready for his personal appearance tour.
He is the central figure in “Ladder in the Lions’ Den,” a tribute to the man and to the steadfastness of thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Hitler regime.
Engleitner, born in 1905, was an Austrian peasant farmer in a small village near Salzburg when he joined a Jehovah’s Witness study group. He soon became a full member, accepting the movement’s belief in complete separation from secular governments, including refusal to salute the flag or serve in the army of any nation.
He got his first taste of prison in 1934, under the authoritarian regime of Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, and when the German troops marched in in 1938, Engleitner’s fate was sealed. He wouldn’t raise his right arm in the Hitler salute, and after refusing army service was shipped off to Buchenwald as the first in a series of concentration camps.
There, some 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses were kept in separate barracks from Jewish prisoners, with whom, according to Engleitner, the Witnesses shared some of their food.
From time to time, the Nazis, badly in need of manpower, offered Engleitner his freedom if he would sign a document affirming his loyalty to the Third Reich.
His courageous refusal to do so is followed in the film by the tactless insertion of a Jewish inmate, who affirms, “I would have signed anything to get out.” This statement, just a few seconds long, is one of the few allusions to the extermination of the Jews. That omission may be hard to swallow, but seems pardonable given how many books and films have recorded the Jewish holocaust, and how few the fate of other groups.
All in all, according to the film’s postscript, there were 20,000 Witnesses in Germany and Austria before Hitler came to power, of whom 9,270 were imprisoned, 1,130 died and 310 were executed.
When Engleitner finally returned to his village, he was scorned by most of his neighbors as a coward for his refusal to serve in the army, and as a likely criminal given his imprisonment in concentration camps.
His story might have died with him, but for a chance meeting with Bernhard Rammerstorfer, a fellow Witness and later the executive producer and co-director of the film. Rammerstorfer persuaded the centenarian to tell of his experiences in a book titled “Unbroken Will,” (a title more apt than the movie’s) and then created the 39-minute documentary.
Credits include co-producer A. Ferenc Gutai, actors portraying Engleitner and others as young men, and Frederic Fuss, an Angeleno, as the English-language narrator. There are some rough edges to the documentary, pointing to a slim budget and the inexperience of the filmmakers, but it is a story well worth telling.
As Fuss noted in an interview, “The film shows the difference that one man can make.”
“Ladder in the Lions’ Den” will screen daily Nov. 9-15 at 12:30 p.m. at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino, with Engleitner scheduled to be in attendance.
A second film centers on Gyongyi Mago, a Catholic high school teacher in the Hungarian town of Kalocsa, who, through sheer conviction and persistence, wills her largely indifferent community to resurrect and honor the memory of its murdered and exiled Jewish citizens.
Her story and that of an extinguished but once content and assimilated Jewish community, are documented by veteran Los Angeles filmmaker Gabor Kalman in the full-length feature “There Was Once…”
Kalman is both the creator of and a participant in the film, which is told with affection but not sentimentality, while also warning that the anti-Semitism and fascism pervading much of Hungarian society in the 1930s and ’40s remains a constant today.
Born in Kalocsa 78 years ago, Kalman received an e-mail from Mago in 2008 asking for his help in her research on the once 600-strong Jewish community in his birthplace. The effervescent teacher had found Kalman’s name on the “Jaross List,” compiled by a local official who conscientiously put down the names of all Jewish residents slated for extermination.
Kalman was so impressed by Mago’s project and dedication that he flew to Hungary, rounded up a camera crew and started interviewing elderly Christian residents who still remembered their former Jewish neighbors. He followed up by talking to a handful of the town’s Jewish survivors and their descendants now living in Canada, the United States and Israel.
The camera follows Mago as she exhorts and mobilizes her high school class to bear witness to the lives and fate of the town’s Jews, scours church archives for the history of the first Jews to settle in Kalocsa, and explains to those who wonder why a Catholic should care about dead Jews, “I have always felt for those who were humiliated.”
She then persuades the powerful local archbishop and the town’s mayor to back her plan to put on a commemorative ceremony in 2009, exactly 65 years to the day that the Holocaust caught up with Hungary’s Jews.
The ceremony, attended by seven survivors and their children and grandchildren, is the moving highlight of the film. In stark contrast are scenes of Hungarian Nazis in uniform, demonstrating a few blocks away.
The film is marked by thorough research, moments of high drama, and innovative cinematography and graphics. For example, in one Jewish grade school picture, five survivors are highlighted, while the 10 victims remain in dark shadows.
Kalman and his parents survived the war, largely in hiding. Gabor participated in the abortive 1956 Hungarian Revolution against the Soviet occupiers, and then immigrated to the United States.
After graduation from UC Berkeley and Stanford, Kalman established himself as an award-winning documentary filmmaker and teacher at USC, Occidental College and currently at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
“There Was Once…” will screen as part of the local Hungarian Film Festival on Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. at Laemmle’s NoHo 7 Theatre in North Hollywood.
Tickets are $6 per person and can be purchased in advance by phoning Laemmle Theatres at (310) 478-3836 or the Hungarian Film Festival at (818) 564-4228.
For more information about “Ladder in the Lions’ Den,” visit unbrokenwill.com.
For more information about “There Was Once…,” visit therewasoncefilm.com.