Our visual palette for World War II comes largely from footage shot after the liberation of Europe, as millions of refugees made their way home, or as far away from home as possible. For the Swedish documentary “Every Face Has a Name,” researchers used social media and digital technology to “tag” individual refugees from April 28, 1945 newsreel clips. In that day’s footage from the Swedish port of Malmo, 1,948 refugees — representing 20 nationalities — arrived to begin their post-war lives.
Specificity is the bread and butter of this film, in which ten former refugees from that post-liberation rescue scene — now living all over the world — are tracked down and interviewed. With the producers’ laptop a mainstay on the coffee tables of these one-time prisoners, the aging survivors recognized themselves with a range of emotions.
“I didn’t want to be touched,” recalled 93-year old survivor Elsie Ragusin upon seeing herself. Though Roman Catholic and from New York City, Ragusin and her father were captured by the Nazis in Italy, and sent to Auschwitz as spies.
“Why am I here,” Ragusin recalled asking herself, “the only American girl in Auschwitz?” Seeing her 24-year old self arrive at Malmo brought back positive memories for Ragusin, who now lives in Orlando. She mentioned the rescuers’ smiles and adequate food as standing out.
Not all ten refugees agreed to share what happened to them before arriving in Sweden. In Israel, survivor Nurit Stern was not interested. “I don’t want to remember this. The only thing I am willing to talk about is the moment of liberation,” she said.
While viewing the footage, Stern identified herself waiting in line with other women to go into a medical tent.
“I was 14, I probably was very happy,” said Stern. “Everybody looks happy there.”
‘I saw that everybody seemed happy, so I decided to be happy too’
Stern also found her mother in the footage, “smiling and happy.” On a dour note, she recalled being forced to burn her only coat and dress, along with all private belongings, to prevent epidemics. Stern said she bought the coat and dress for a portion of bread, but revealed nothing else about her wartime experience. For her and others taken in at Malmo, the day felt like “the start of something good.”
Director Magnus Gertten previously worked with the Malmo rescue footage for his 2011 documentary, “Harbor of Hope.” Obtained from Swedish public broadcasting authorities, the “crown jewel” newsreels and outtakes show concentration camp inmates rescued during the “White Buses” action of the Swedish Red Cross, when refugees from all over Europe were funneled by the Baltic Sea to Malmo, the cultural and economic center of southern Sweden.
Frustrated by not knowing the identities or stories of anyone in the footage, Gertten envisioned a documentary about the process of finding the names behind the faces, and interviewing them after 70 years.
Seeking to make the archival footage “one of the main characters in the documentary,” Gertten used new “4K scan” technology to zoom in more closely on the refugees’ faces than was previously possible. Not only were hidden details revealed, but Gertten found “new scenes” within clips he had probed years ago for “Harbor of Hope.”
To match the high-res faces with names, filmmakers used Facebook and Twitter to disseminate — for instance — passenger lists and photos of the refugees. Some of the ten interviewees expressed elation upon seeing the footage, both at having identified themselves and in recalling their emotions that spring day.
“Something is coming back to life in me,” said Svenn Martinsen, a resistance fighter who smuggled Jewish children into Palestine. “I look very pleased indeed,” said Martinsen while viewing his 21-year old self at Malmo, a survivor of three concentration camps.
Fredzia Marmur, now living in Toronto, was delighted to identify herself, her mother and several friends in the footage. A survivor of the Lodz ghetto and Ravensbruck, Marmur recognized herself by the coat she wore upon leaving the ghetto, where she was put as a four-year old.
“I saw that everybody seemed happy, so I decided to be happy too,” Marmur said of her pre-teen self in the footage, overjoyed by what several survivors called “sudden freedom.”
The documentary is interspersed with 2014 clips of port workers preparing a boat slip in Sicily, where hundreds of refugees from Muslim countries disembark at the end of the film. Like refugees from Malmo’s rescue ships, some newcomers are “tagged” with their names by the filmmakers, metaphorically bridging the waves of freedom seekers.
Using Europe’s refugee crisis as a contemporary frame, the filmmakers took a pass on filming at Malmo itself. During the past decade, the art-filled city has become a case-study of Muslims immigrants’ non-integration into Europe, and a terrifying place to live for Jews.
In violence against Jews per capita, Malmo is one of the most anti-Semitic places on Earth. One decade ago, about 2,000 Jews lived in Malmo. As thousands of Muslim refugees settled in the city each year, violence against Jews skyrocketed, including fire-bombings, beatings, and frequent defacement of Jewish institutions. All but a few hundred Jews have fled the city, just one generation after 4,000 Jews called Malmo home.
In the warmer climes of Sicily, the nighttime arrival of Muslim refugees evokes the old Malmo footage, albeit in color. Mothers clutch the hands of children, and people carry their lives on their backs. Everything is serene and hushed at the Sicilian port, unlike the jarring adjustment of refugees across the continent in Malmo, where 150 years of Jewish life may be coming to an end.