New documentary brings forgotten Holocaust heroine back to life

Film on Gisi Fleischmann, who led bribery operations to save Slovakian Jews, opens in Israel on International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Ingrid Timkova plays Gisi Fleischmann in the play that Natasha Dudinski filmed for her documentary, 'Gisi.' (courtesy of Natasha Dudinski)
Ingrid Timkova plays Gisi Fleischmann in the play that Natasha Dudinski filmed for her documentary, 'Gisi.' (courtesy of Natasha Dudinski)

The story of Gisi (pronounced Gee-zy) Fleischmann is the stuff legends are made of. Unfortunately the legend of this courageous female leader of a Holocaust rescue group in Bratislava, Slovakia has been largely forgotten.

Even Slovakia-born Jews like Israeli filmmaker Natasha Dudinski didn’t know of Fleischmann until a book of her letters was published a few years ago. This recent increased recognition of Fleischmann has led to the staging of an original play about her by the Slovak National Theatre in 2012, the 70th anniversary of the first Nazi transports of Jews from Czechoslovakia.

The play, in turn, spurred Dudinski, 46, to make “Gisi,” a documentary film about Fleischmann, which is set to premiere in Haifa on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Screenings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem will follow later this week.

Fleischmann was the leader of what is known as The Working Group, an alternative to the official leadership of the Slovakian Jewish community under German Nazi occupation. She raised funds for bribery operations to stop the deportation of Slovakia’s Jews, working both parallel and in cooperation with the notorious Rudolf Kastner who facilitated the “blood for goods” proposal to save Hungarian Jews. Kastner was assassinated in Tel Aviv in 1957 after an Israeli court accused him of having collaborated with the Nazis.

Fleischmann met a different fate. She was killed at age 50 in Auschwitz after forgoing opportunities to save her own life. She was deported on the last transport to the death camp from Slovakia in October 1944.

American author Joan Campion published a 2002 book about Fleischmann titled “In the Lion’s Mouth: Gisi Fleischmann & The Jewish Fight for Survival.”

Filmmaker Natasha Dudinski (photo credit: Karel Cudlin/courtesy)
Filmmaker Natasha Dudinski (photo credit: Karel Cudlin/courtesy)

“But even that book didn’t make waves,” Dudinski tells The Times of Israel.

“I’m not sure why her story is not better known,” she adds. “Maybe it’s because she was from a small country. Or maybe it was because it involved bribery. Or maybe it was because she was a woman. Women in history are often forgotten.”

In her research for her film, Dudinski (whose mother’s family spent the war years in England as refugees) found no evidence, unlike in Kastner’s case, of anyone ever doubting Fleischmann’s role in attempting to save Jews.

“Survivors of The Working Group wrote about her after the war, and they never questioned her motivations,” she says. “She was always focused on trying to help the whole community. She wasn’t giving anyone special treatment.”

The filmmaker finds no fault in Fleischmann’s using connections she established as a leader of Zionist and refugee aid organizations before the war to try to raise funds to pay off the Nazis. She engaged in ongoing underground correspondence with with Saly Mayer, the representative of the Joint Distribution Committee in Switzerland, Richard Lichtheim of the Jewish Agency, Natan Schwalb of He-Halutz in Switzerland and, later, with representatives of the Rescue Committee of the Jewish Agency in Turkey.

When Fleischmann and her colleagues believed their effort had successfully put a temporary halt to deportations from Slovakia in October 1942, they embarked on the Europa Plan, a broader scheme to save all of Europe’s Jews.

Fleischmann’s pleas for huge sums of money, as well as the plan itself, never came to fruition.

‘When you are drowning, you grasp at anything’

“The most important thing is that she tried and she fought. She did her best to do something,” says Dudinski of her subject. “When you are drowning, you grasp at anything. Even if there was the slightest chance, she didn’t give up. Hers is really an exceptional story.”

Dudinski decided to recount Fleischmann’s story using a number of storytelling techniques. “Gisi,” relies heavily on footage she shot of rehearsals for the play at the Slovak National Theatre in Bratislava. She also includes interviews with historians, such as Yehuda Bauer, a Czechoslovakian-born Holocaust historian at Hebrew University, who has written about Fleischmann in his scholarship about Jewish resistance.

She also filmed and interviewed some of Fleischmann’s surviving relatives who came to Bratislava for the play’s premiere as they visited sites related to Fleischmann’s life before and during the war. Layered on top of all of this are voiceovers of an actress reading Fleischmann’s letters, many of which were found in the Yad Vashem archives, the archives of the Joint Distrbution Committee, and the Moreshet Archive in Givat Haviva.

A photo of Gisi Fleischmann from the personal archive of her nephew Avri Fischer. (Courtesy of Natasha Dudinski)
A photo of Gisi Fleischmann from the personal archive of her nephew Avri Fischer. (Courtesy of Natasha Dudinski)

The filmmaker was deliberate in her decision to focus heavily on the creation of the play. “I used the rehearsals as a way of showing how the Czechs and Slovaks are processing what happened,” she says.

She notes an interesting dynamic among the mainly female Czech and Slovak cast and crew members working together on the experimental production.

“The director of the play, Viktorie Cermakova, told the actresses they are on a kind of mission to tell about their country’s past and make the audience face it head-on,” Dudinski recounts.

Each of the actresses approached her role differently, with some of these variations documented in the film. The actress playing Fleischmann’s mother, Emilia Vasaryova, who was born during the war, was upset about the fact that the past still hasn’t been dealt with enough. She was also wary of employing such an edgy theatrical style in dealing with such important issues.

The role of Fleischman was played by two different actresses, one representing her rational and intellectual side, and the other her emotional and physical side. Ingrid Timkova, who played the former, immersed herself in research of Fleischmann’s story, wanting to know all the historical facts and details. Halka Tresnakova, who portrayed Fleischmann’s emotions (and coincidentally physically resembles the actual Fleischmann), approached her role much more intuitively.

Ivana Kuxova, who played Gisi’s daughter and Queen Esther (Cermakova and playwright Anna Gruskova saw parallels between Fleischmann and the biblical heroine), was at times worried how her grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor, would react to the play.

Ingrid Timkova plays Gisi Fleischmann and Emilia Vasaryova plays her mother in a play Natasha Dudinski filmed for her documentary, 'Gisi.' (Courtesy of Natasha Dudinski)
Ingrid Timkova plays Gisi Fleischmann and Emilia Vasaryova plays her mother in a play Natasha Dudinski filmed for her documentary, ‘Gisi.’ (Courtesy of Natasha Dudinski)

Even after having made “Gisi,” Dudinski is left with many unanswered questions about Fleischmann.

“Was it blindness? Was it madness?” she wonders about why Fleischmann sent her daughters to safety in Palestine and did not take opportunities to save herself. (Her two daughters suffered greatly by being separated from their widowed mother, who was torn between her responsibilities to them and to the community. The daughters, now both deceased, did not lead healthy and happy lives in Israel.)

And did Fleischmann really believe that the Nazi killing machine could be stopped by bribery?

“That’s a difficult question and we will never really know,” says the filmmaker. “I guess she must have been moving between total belief, which made her work non-stop, and between the moments of despair. But she wouldn’t have been able to act if she had given in to the despair.”

Dudinski is inspired by this tragic hero, and she hopes others will be, too. She believes there is much to be learned from Fleischmann and her Working Group colleagues who, despite their own desperate situations, dared to resist. They helped save many people, even if they did not succeed in rescuing everyone they had hoped to.

Fleischmann’s story reminds Dudinski of something Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident-turned-president once said.

“He said hope is not the belief that things will end well. Hope is the belief that what we do is meaningful.”

Gisi Fleischmann's niece Sona Bachner and her granddaughter Su Peleg visit the Bratislava street when Fleischmann once lived. (Courtesy of Natasha Dudinski)
Gisi Fleischmann’s niece Sona Bachner and her granddaughter Su Peleg visit the Bratislava street where Fleischmann once lived. (Courtesy of Natasha Dudinski)

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