A beautifully rendered, understated short film screening internationally until October 3 through the Manhattan Short Festival demonstrates how Holocaust trauma is passed down through generations and expresses itself in the smallest of domestic details.
“Ganef” (Yiddish for thief), written and directed by Mark Rosenblatt, brings viewers back to 1962, into the well-to-do suburban London home of a young couple, Mr. and Mrs. Hirth, and their six-year-old daughter Ruthie. The family has a maid named Lynn (played by Downton Abbey actress Sophie McShera) who cleans the home and keeps an eye on the little girl.
It all seems quite normal until Mrs. Hirth comes home from clothes shopping, opens the front door just a crack and hands her bags to Ruthie, who has come to greet her.
“Take these bags and run as fast as you can to my room. Quick, don’t let anyone see you. Go, go, go,” she instructs her young daughter.
Shortly thereafter, upstairs in the bedroom, Ruthie asks her mother, “Why can’t Lynn see the bags?”
“Because,” answers Mrs. Hirth in her German-accented English. “People don’t need to see what they don’t need to see.”
When Ruthie won’t drop the matter, her mother explains that when she was a little girl in Frankfurt, a soldier — a ganef —came to her family’s home and took what they had.
“But if he didn’t know what we had, he couldn’t take it,” she says.
From that point, the story takes off in a heartbreaking direction as Ruthie internalizes what her mother has said. Despite Mrs. Hirth’s attempts to shield her daughter from her wartime experiences, her brief mention of the ganef imprints itself on the impressionable Ruthie’s mind.
“At such a young age, it is more possible for a child to confuse things, to ingest anxiety and behave impulsively as a result,” Rosenblatt said in an interview with The Times of Israel.
Ruthie’s hearing about the ganef in Germany is traumatic and causes her to misinterpret an action by maid Lynn. As a result, the bond and trust between Lynn and the family are tested.
Multigenerational Holocaust trauma is a subject personally familiar to Rosenblatt, 44, whose maternal grandmother and other relatives were survivors. Rosenblatt grew up in a traditionally Jewish family in North West London, haunted by the echoes of the genocide.
“I was aware of the survival narrative in the family, but I also intuited the gaps, those who were missing,” Rosenblatt said.
Interested in exploring how trauma is passed down, Rosenblatt, also an accomplished theater director, decided to set his film in the early 1960s.
“This was a time before survivors spoke about their experiences to others, and even among themselves — particularly in the UK, where there were fewer survivors than in the US and Israel. There was a silence around it. This film wouldn’t be the same if it were set later,” he said.
Rosenblatt modeled Mrs. Hirth on his grandmother, who survived the Holocaust on the run. As a young teenager, Rosenblatt’s grandmother fled from Frankfurt to Antwerp. From there she continued to the south of France, ultimately escaping over the mountains to Italy, where she was hidden in a convent in Rome.
Unlike Rosenblatt’s grandmother, the fictional Mrs. Hirth was incarcerated in Auschwitz, as is evident from the tattoo on her forearm.
“That was inspired by an elderly survivor relative of mine whose tattoo was visible as her sleeve pulled up a bit when she would pour tea for us,” Rosenblatt said.
The director said it was important to him to write a script about a young Holocaust survivor now, when people think of survivors as very elderly — if not already dead. He wants people to perceive survivors as they were not long after the war, as they tried to rebuild their lives and start families.
“It’s about showing the incongruity of a well-appointed woman in a comfortable suburban home with the trauma of living in a new country as a survivor,” Rosenblatt said.
Mrs. Hirth is surrounded by nice furnishings, fancy perfumes and fur coats. But the fact that she sleeps in the middle of the day, requires silence in the house and stashes cans of beans at the back of her clothes closet point to her mental fragility.
Rosenblatt said that both McShera and Lydia Wilson, who plays Mrs. Hirth, signed on to appear in the film right after he approached them about it.
The director praised Wilson, an acquaintance, for her subtlety. “She can convey a lot with very little,” Rosenblatt said.
He essentially cold-called McShera, who was intrigued by the role of Lynn.
“I was worried she would tell me that she had played enough maids for a while, but she didn’t,” Rosenblatt joked, referring to McShera’s long-running role as the maid Daisy in the blockbuster series “Downton Abbey.”
Rosenblatt said he couldn’t have been more thrilled to find Izabella Dziewanska for the role of Ruthie. Just five years old at her audition, the young actress showed the prodigious ability to inhabit the lead role of Ruthie, through whose eyes the story unfolds.
In the early stages of qualifying for the Oscars, “Ganef” runs a mere 14 minutes. But in that short time, it quietly yet powerfully conveys how a sense of love, trust and belonging can quickly be sabotaged by even the smallest paranoid impulse for self-protection.
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