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Israeli film on SS officer’s romance with Jewish prisoner heads to Apple, Amazon

‘Love It Was Not’ utilizes creative photomontage, interviews and archival testimony to describe a wildly improbable Auschwitz love affair

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The photomontaged pictures of Helena Citron and Frank Wunsch, an Auschwitz prisoner and her SS officer who pursued a romance in the concentration camp, now the subject of an award-winning documentary, 'Love It Was Not" (Courtesy Love It Was Not)
The photomontaged pictures of Helena Citron and Frank Wunsch, an Auschwitz prisoner and her SS officer who pursued a romance in the concentration camp, now the subject of an award-winning documentary, 'Love It Was Not" (Courtesy Love It Was Not)

A new documentary chronicles a piece of history that seems impossible to comprehend, detailing a verboten relationship at Auschwitz between a Jewish prisoner and an Austrian SS officer.

The romance between the comely, apple-cheeked Slovak captive Helena Citron and the blonde Nazi captain, Franz Wunsch, is unwrapped in the deeply engrossing “Love It Was Not” documentary from Israeli filmmaker Maya Sarfaty.

Using findings from years of research, eyewitness testimonies and a moving chorus of voices from Citron’s fellow inmates as well as artful diorama photos and footage, Sarfaty tells the story of Citron and Wunsch at Auschwitz.

The award-winning film from Greenwich Entertainment — now making the rounds of film festivals around the globe, as well as streaming platforms Apple TV and Amazon Prime Video starting December 3 — is a deeper dive into the subject Sarfaty began exploring in the “The Most Beautiful Woman,” her 2016 student Academy Award winner.

The film opens with a photo of Helena at Auschwitz, looking improbably healthy and happy. It’s a photo that Wunsch had taken of his beloved in her striped prisoner’s uniform, copying it many times, according to his daughter Dagmar, so that he could cut up the photo and place Helena’s head on different outfits in other settings, away from the tragic and cruel surroundings of Auschwitz.

It was Wunsch’s crude method of collage that ultimately led Sarfaty to a creative photo technique used throughout the film.

The biggest problem with doing a movie about Auschwitz is that there’s no visual material, said Sarfaty.

“The little that’s there is very familiar, too familiar,” said Sarfaty. “We’ve all seen it; it doesn’t make our heart beat.”

As she searched for solutions, she came up with one in the middle of the night — mimicking Wunsch’s continued use of the same photo of Helena.

Using photos of the various characters, Sarfaty staged and filmed the the cutouts in different locations of the story: in the Auschwitz barracks, the crematorium, in the Austrian courtroom where Wunsch was tried for war crimes in the 1970s.

The photo taken of Auschwitz prisoner Helena Citron by her SS captain boyfriend, Frank Wunsch (Courtesy Maya Sarfaty)

“I wanted the audience to be able to tell the difference between the illustrative scenes, to see how I’m playing with the information and creating a drama,” said Sarfaty.

The drama, of course, is already there in this Auschwitz-based story.

Helena was one of the first 1,000 women and girls from Slovakia who arrived at Auschwitz in 1942, during the construction of the extermination camp. She was first assigned to dangerous demolition crew work, and then got lucky with a job in Kanada, a storeroom of suitcases and personal items belonging to those who were gassed.

She and the other women assigned there sometimes found food or warm clothing. It was also there that Helena, the daughter of a cantor, who once dreamed of performing, was chosen to sing at a birthday party for the 20-year-old Wunsch, an SS man in charge of the Kanada operation.

She performed the only German song she knew, “Love It Was Not,” which touched Wunsch deeply.

They began passing each other notes, developing a furtive relationship that could have meant death for both of them. Other prisoners knew about their love affair; as one survivor comments in the film, “he loved her to the point of madness.”

Director Maya Sarfaty used a creative form of photomontage in her award-winning Holocaust documentary, ‘Love It Was Not” (Courtesy ‘Love It Was Not’)

Helena’s story took another dramatic turn in 1944 when her older sister Roza arrived at Auschwitz with her husband and two children. Roza and her husband had been living in Palestine but returned to Europe, where she gave birth to her second child and they were then all sent to the concentration camp.

It was there, on the day of Roza’s arrival, that Wunsch stepped in and saved Roza in the changing area of the gas chambers; her children and her husband, however, were sent to their deaths.

This unbearable moment hung over both women for the rest of their lives. After Auschwitz they moved to Israel, each marrying and starting new lives and families.

Wunsch and Citron weren’t in touch after the war, although they shared a final goodbye when the Russians liberated Auschwitz.

The two didn’t see one another again until Wunsch was on trial for war crimes in Austria in the 1970s and Citron came to testify on his behalf, after a desperately written request from his wife.

Citron testified to the ways Wunsch helped her at Auschwitz, but also described the cruel ways in which he punished male prisoners. This was echoed in the film by Kanada storeroom survivors, some of whom didn’t experience the gentler side of Wunsch.

In the documentary, Sarfaty uses recorded video testimony from Citron and her sister, Roza, who weren’t alive when she began making the film. The recordings deal with the issues at hand, including Citron’s relationship with Wunsch and with her sister, as well as her lifelong sadness and dysfunction.

Director Maya Sarfaty, whose award-winning documentary, ‘Love It Was Not,’ is now making its way to streaming platforms and film festivals (Courtesy Maya Sarfaty)

Sarfaty, who produced the film with her life and work partner, Nir Sa’ar, had known of the story since she was a child, when she took art and theater classes with Miki Marin, the daughter of Roza Orenstein, Helena’s sister and fellow Auschwitz survivor.

Sarfaty always knew she would do something with this tragic tale, and first attempted a novel, then a film script. But the story of Helena and her SS boyfriend was so immense that the dialogue never felt believable.

Some six years ago, Sarfaty and Marin made contact with Dagmar, Wunsch’s daughter, who was curious and eager to cooperate. She gave Sarfaty her father’s journals, a turning point for Sarfaty in her decision to embark on a documentary.

Sarfaty first made “The Most Beautiful Woman,” the short film about the meeting of Helena and Roza’s children with Dagmar.

“Dagmar felt she was the daughter of the hero who saved the sisters,” said Sarfaty. “Miki didn’t feel that way because he was ultimately an SS captain at Auschwitz. He helped Helena because he loved her.”

There were other complex relationships that became apparent as Sarfaty continued her research. The two sisters were close but Roza always blamed Helena for the death of her children, creating anger that remained between them for the rest of their lives.

Sarfaty also interviewed surviving women from the Kanada storeroom, after she first listened to their testimonies at Yad Vashem and the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive.

“Every time you hear a story, you can’t imagine there’s another story that’s worse — it’s another hell and another hell and another hell,” said Sarfaty.

Sarfaty felt fortunate that so many of the women who knew of the romance between Helena and Wunsch were still alive — female Holocaust survivors now in their 90s, vibrant and clear-thinking.

“It was very meaningful to hear them because they helped me understand what the day-to-day looked like for them, how did he help her,” said Sarfaty. “The chorus of 1,000 women are the heroes, they bring the story from the start to the finish, and they’re not scared of saying the worst things. They’re full of empathy but truthful.”

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