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Gleckman’s film updates 1985's 'Shoah' for his generation

Millions watch teen high school dropout’s film on US Holocaust survivors

After interviewing two-dozen survivors, 19-year-old Ashton Gleckman from Indiana created his film ‘We Shall Not Die Now’ — with an assist from Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah’

Ashton Gleckman (courtesy)
Ashton Gleckman (courtesy)

While most high school sophomores are focused on grades and having a social life, Ashton Gleckman had something else in mind. At age 17, Gleckman started work on the film “We Shall Not Die Now,” a feature-length documentary about the Holocaust.

The film was released on Amazon in December, but the COVID-19 crisis lock-down helped the documentary reach 13 million minutes watched around the world, said Gleckman. The film is also available on YouTube.

In addition to two-dozen interviews with survivors and others, Gleckman also makes use of footage from Claude Lanzmann’s epic “Shoah” documentary. A two-week trip to Poland provided Gleckman with contemporary footage of the former death camps and major cities.

Prior to earning his documentary chops, the youth already had a fledgling career in film scoring. Composer Hans Zimmer “discovered” his musical talent in 2017, and dubbed him “the boy with bat ears.” All the way from Indiana’s Carmel High School, Gleckman found his way into movies.

At 18, after already gathering material for a year, Gleckman was ready to attempt his most ambitious project: a full-length documentary. He became a one-man crew and conducted the interviews, co-wrote and recorded the score, and edited mounds of footage.

“We had virtually no money for this, it was a passion project,” said Gleckman in an interview with The Times of Israel. “Most of the project we were trying to make ends meet financially,” said Gleckman, who is now 19.

‘Resilience and empowerment’

By age seven, Gleckman had watched “Schindler’s List” and other Holocaust films. His reading of “The Diary of Anne Frank” was at age six, a few years before his peers.

In 2007, Gleckman made a key visit to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and toured “The Power of Children: Making a Difference.” That permanent exhibition focuses on Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, and Ryan White, and it helped Gleckman think big with his own goals.

At one-hour and 47 minutes, “We Shall Not Die Now” is divided into chapters to break up the sweeping pace. Unlike more narrowly focused documentaries on the Holocaust, it assumes some viewers know little about the subject. That approach has won the film “Audience Choice” awards and other honors.

Ashton Gleckman on-site at Treblinka, in Poland, 2019 (courtesy)

“In that way, the film mirrors the process in which I learned about the Holocaust,” said Gleckman. “After the Holocaust, the film shows the resilience and empowerment at the end.”

Although Gleckman had no relatives in the Holocaust, he has a connection to the war.

“My great uncle was one of the liberators,” said Gleckman.

‘We shall not die now’

As the film opens, we are told “The Auschwitz Scrolls” were found buried next to the killing facilities of Birkenau in 1952. Written and hidden by Jewish inmates, the scrolls detail a Polish woman’s defiant speech on the way to her death:

“Tell our brothers, our nation, that we went to meet our death in full consciousness and with pride,” she said. “The history of our nation shall immortalize us, our initiative and our spirit are alive and flourishing. We shall not die now.”

Ruins of gas chamber-crematoria complex at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the former Nazi death camp in Poland, October 2017. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum appears throughout the film, offering context between the survivor interviews. The author and editor of 18 books, Berenbaum was influential in creating the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

According to Gleckman, when he first met Berenbaum, the historian was a bit skeptical.

“You’re how old?” said Berenbaum, according to Gleckman.

In the process of filming interviews and shooting on-site in Poland, Gleckman said he did not encounter ageism.

“There was an openness,” he said. “Everyone was unifying around telling a story.”

Ashton Gleckman with Michael Berenbaum at American Jewish University in California (courtesy)

In a sense, Gleckman’s film updates “Shoah,” made in 1985, for his generation. “We Shall Not Die Now” fills in blanks intentionally left by the late Lanzmann, whose minimalist approach was to focus on the person giving testimony and not introduce archival materials like photos.

Gleckman’s film, in contrast, uses photos, drawings, and video footage. Many images appear for only a few seconds, including glimpses of the six death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland.

To obtain permission to use some of Lanzmann’s material, Gleckman worked with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, where the footage is housed. Although Gleckman only came across “Shoah” in 2017, the film changed the way he planned to portray the Holocaust in his own documentary.

Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann is fitted with a hidden microphone to record Nazi testimony, circa 1978. (Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Yad Vashem)

“‘Shoah’ was entirely different than anything I’d seen before,” said Gleckman. “It was super meditative and reflective and had a big impact on me, almost like a dream in a way.”

Gleckman was fascinated by seeing survivors in middle age, he said, having only met eye-witnesses in their 80s or 90s.

“Lanzmann has over 100 hours of unused material and I wanted to bring some of it to a new setting,” said Gleckman.

‘We’re fine in our own company’

Not long into Gleckman’s film, the Simon Srebnik scene from “Shoah” appears.

As the evocative opening of “Shoah,” the scene is unforgettable for Srebnik’s sweet, sad singing voice as he paddles through a river near Chelmno, the former death camp where gas vans were used.

At the age of 13, Srebnik was forced to pull gold teeth from prisoners and then burn the bodies. He was shot in the head and left for dead by the Nazis.

As Srebnik talks about the camp, Gleckman shows glimpses of the memorials put up at Chelmno after the war. There are fleeting images of the church steeple near the camp and light scoring near the end of Srebnik’s interview.

Simon Srebnik in ‘Shoah’ (courtesy)

In the footage Gleckman chose from “Shoah,” the late historian Raul Hilberg dominates. Author of “The Destruction of European Jewry,” Hilberg gives methodical answers to Lanzmann’s probing questions, with smoke often rising from an ashtray between the men.

When Hilberg described the diary of the Warsaw ghetto’s Jewish Council head, Gleckman uses Nazi propaganda footage from the ghetto that was unavailable when “Shoah” was made. Contemporary sites in Warsaw are shown, including the memorial at the site of the ghetto uprising’s command bunker.

Gleckman incorporates a scene from “Shoah” in which Lanzmann, who died in 2018, visited Treblinka village in 1978.

Ashton Gleckman at work (courtesy)

In the encounter, recorded surreptitiously, a Treblinka resident reacts when Lanzmann mentions Jews and the former death camp.

Suffering was everywhere, said the villager. Corpse-filled trains were coming through town every day, and you want to talk about Jews?

When asked by Lanzmann if any Jews are left in Poland today, the man said no.

“We’re fine in our own company,” he said.

As recently as 2016, there were several survivors of Treblinka and Sobibor still living. Today, there are none. The clock is ticking on being able to interview survivors, and Gleckman knew this was his moment.

“I wouldn’t be able to make this film in 15 or in 20 years,” said Gleckman.

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