Animated Holocaust film uses Spielberg online witness archive

A film by two Israeli students uses creative animation techniques — as well as testimony from the online Holocaust Witness project created by director Steven Spielberg — to teach about the Shoah

Nysoha and her mother hide in an attic (Courtesy)
Nysoha and her mother hide in an attic (Courtesy)

A pair of Israeli animation students used the Steven Spielberg-sponsored Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation project to produce an animated film that tells the story of a 10-year-old girl in Holocaust-era Poland. The film uses both stop-animation and classic animation techniques to describe an event in the life of Nyosha, the grandmother of Liran Kapel, who along with her partner Yael Dekel created the film. It will premiere at a film festival in Sderot in June, and from there will travel to other festivals around the world.

“It’s a story about faith,” Kapel told The Times of Israel, as she described the event that lies at the heart of the film. Nyosha lives in a small village in Poland with her mother, surviving from hand to mouth on very little money. One day, Nyosha sees a beautiful pair of shoes in the window of a shoemaker’s store, and decides she must have them. But after bringing what little money she could raise to the shoemaker, he tells her it isn’t enough; but if she wants, he will sell her one of the shoes.

Nyosha is so enamored of the shoes that she agrees, and for months walks around her hometown wearing that single shoe as she worked to try and raise money to buy its mate. But then comes the German invasion of Poland — and with it the destruction of her village and her way of life. As the Nazi soldiers approach, Nyosha and other townspeople take refuge in the attic of a building. Among those holed up in the attic is none other but the shoemaker, who now holds court over an enormous pot that everyone assumes contains food. The villagers beg for a morsel, but the hard-hearted shoemaker ignores their pleas.

This goes on for three days, after which the desperate villagers have had enough. They band together to attack the shoemaker and “liberate” the supplies — only to discover that the pot contained shoes, not food. One of the shoes, however, is the mate to Nyosha’s pair, and during the fight between the villagers and the shoemaker, she manages to get hold of the shoe, puts it on, and hides.

Just in time, it turns out. The Nazis, discovering the lair, march up the steps and hustle everyone outside, where they shoot the villagers. Nyosha’s mother is among those set to be shot, and she signals to her daughter to stay inside and hide. Nyosha does so just as a Nazi guard comes back upstairs looking for survivors. When he sees Nyosha’s small, pretty shoes lined up next to the bed she is hiding under, something apparently touches the Nazi and even though he knows Nyosha is there, he spares her. Hours later, when the Nazis have gone and the Jews have been killed or deported, Nyosha emerges to find herself utterly alone. She runs to the forest, wearing the shoes that just saved her life.

“It’s a true story,” Kapel said, adding that the follow-up was just as amazing. “She roamed the forest and eventually found villages, where she knocked on doors offering to work. One Polish family took her up on her offer, and she used a fake Polish name, never letting on she was Jewish. She worked for the family for years, and after the war she was eventually found by Youth Aliyah representatives, who put her on a boat for Israel, where she rebuilt her life.”

The film uses both hand-drawn images – over 14,000 of them in the classic animation segments – as well as stop-action (stop-frame) animation, which uses dolls and real objects on sets, and makes it appear as if the dolls were moving and acting. “Both of us studied animation at Sapir College in southern Israel, and we did this as a final graduation project.” But the moving story has been getting a lot of buzz on the Internet, with a widely-viewed Youtube clip, and coverage in Israeli newspapers and TV.

The story itself is narrated, using the testimony Kapel’s grandmother gave to the Spielberg project, one of over 50,000 testimonies in the archive. The archive is available on-line at the site of the Dornslife College of the University of Southern California, which recently launched an online application called IWitness, which lets high school students and teachers search through some of the testimonies by name, topic, or keyword. “We plan to show the film at festivals around the world,” said Kapel. “It’s an inspirational story, and we want as many people as possible to learn and understand the importance of having faith, even in very difficult times, as embodied in the film.”

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