The UK’s National Holocaust Centre is a unique and remarkable place. All the more so for having been set up not by the state, but by a non-Jewish family in rural north Nottinghamshire. It was a real privilege, then, to be tasked with producing a new short film to introduce the Centre to its visiting public.
The brief required a video of about 12 minutes which would provide an overview of the history of the Holocaust itself, outline how the centre came about, and provide a glimpse into the inspiration it has offered others internationally. Not too much to get in then!
We delivered the brief through a combination of reflections from survivors and students, narration by the wonderful Natasha Kaplinsky, and short interviews with the founders, doctors James and Stephen Smith, and their mother, Marina - all of whom have been honoured by the Queen for their contribution to Holocaust remembrance and education.
An earlier film production, made in 2002, offered a valuable point of reference but lacked the voice of survivors, and had become too dated regarding the Centre’s wider impact.
The first thing we realised was just how much the scene has changed in the past 15 years regarding historical archives. Much of the content used by the Centre in 2002 now has other rights holders - and with so much being digitised and moved online, few 15-year-old file references still applied. Essentially, the entire historical element of the film had to be rebuilt from scratch.
Picking the right visuals
On the upside, a huge amount of historical footage is now available for reference online - especially through the fantastic Steven Spielberg Collection at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. We were able to find extraordinary content, from colour archival of the Warsaw Ghetto to footage of Hitler among a crowd of onlookers at a 1923 rally just months before his coup attempt in Bavaria, accompanied by a man in the full uniform of the Schutztruppe - the German force which carried out the first genocide of the 20th Century, slaughtering the Herero in Namibia, 1904-1907.
Inevitably, picking the right visuals was a challenge. How do you signpost the reality and scale of the suffering and destruction, without either traumatising younger viewers or in some way risking a repeat of the indignity to which the victims were subjected?
A shot used in the rough cut showed how burial took place at the Warsaw Ghetto: emaciated bodies - including those of children - were slid down a wooden chute to waiting workers standing in the mass grave, who would whip them off, stack them on a pile of other bodies, and pivot back to grab the next body in one swift, practiced motion. The scene communicated so much. Yet it was so brutal. In the end, the team at the Centre decided we should swap that out. The final cut shows a wide with the carts of bodies on their way to the mass graves, followed by grave diggers shovelling earth into the pit.
A warning from history
One of the most humbling moments in this production was the opportunity to film Holocaust survivors Simon Winston, Steven Frank and Kitty Hart-Moxon. Gaining a glimpse of what they went through - and then hearing what the National Holocaust Centre meant to them - spoke more powerfully to the credibility and significance of this thought-provoking place than just about anything else could.
It was a voice from Rwanda, though, which showed how the Centre has offered an example for those trying to commemorate and apply lessons from more recent genocides. Robert Bayigamba was Rwanda’s Minister for Youth, Sports and Culture when he visited in 2002 with the Mayor of the capital city, Kigali. Having just been to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, they wondered how Rwanda could possibly match the scale of that institution. Then they saw what the Smith family had created in the Nottinghamshire countryside, and realised it didn’t need to cost millions of dollars. “The Holocaust Centre was very inspiring,” Bayigamba explained on camera. “I had never seen something like that, and it kicked off the idea to create a more meaningful memorial in Rwanda.”
They asked the Centre’s sister organisation, the Aegis Trust for genocide prevention, to establish the Kigali Genocide Memorial - today a national and regional hub for peace-building. Set up by James and Stephen Smith in the wake of the Kosovo crisis, Aegis applies the principle that “since processes leading to genocide are predictable, we can all play a role in making them preventable.”
Could anything like the Holocaust happen again? In the short edit of the film for online use (above), Auschwitz survivor Kitty Hart addresses the question directly. “If events happened once, they can happen again,” she told us. “It’s a warning…. take note. Little has been learned from history.”
Special thanks to all those who made this film possible, especially to our remarkable interviewees; to the National Holocaust Centre itself; to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Imperial War Museum, for access to their invaluable collections; to Clayton Hall Academy and its students, who we interviewed during their visit; and to the USC Shoah Foundation, where Holocaust Centre co-founder Dr Stephen Smith is now Executive Director. They furnished us with high quality footage of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp as it is today.