A new Hungarian film depicting the post-WWII attitude toward Jews in the country premiered last week in New York.
The movie, “1945,” is set one year after the Jewish population of a small Hungarian village was deported to concentration camps. When two Orthodox Jews arrive in town on a morning train, the villagers — some of whom had turned on their Jewish neighbors for personal gain — confront feelings of guilt and fear. “What the hell do they want?” the locals ask. Are the new arrivals seeking revenge? To reclaim ownership of their stolen property? “We have to give it all back,” some of them say. Others seek to hold on to their ill gotten gains.
At the height of the Nazi deportations, many locals witnessed the forced transportation of their Jewish neighbors to concentration camps and then looted their possessions. There were few who were not collaborators in the redistribution of the land, home furnishings and belongings forcibly abandoned by the Jews, but some later felt guilt and shame in doing so. In “1945,” the town is led by a clerk who had betrayed his closest friend, a Jewish pharmacist, and then took over his business. One woman confesses her remorse in revealing a young Jew’s hiding place; overcome with guilt over the theft of Jewish property, another villager commits suicide. The film explores the tension between those returning from the concentration camps and those who stayed behind in the local towns and villages.
“The human stories; the small stories; the local stories tell a lot about a society,” said “1945” co-screenwriter Gabor T. Szanto, in an interview with The Algemeiner, “and it was a real drama when the Jews came back and met with those who had seen when they were deported, who took their properties, who got their properties on behalf of the state on discounted options. [It] was a very dramatic element: how the state made the society of collaborators against the Jews.”
Szanto — whose father’s family returned to their apartment in Hungary after the Holocaust to find people living in their home — said that to understand the actions of the looters is to comprehend how impoverished the society was at the time. “It is a key element,” the Jewish screenwriter explained. “Because it was a poor society [so] it was very difficult to stand against this evil desire to get the property at half price or for free. I can imagine that the human beings were so fragile that in every political system they would make the same mistake.”
The film’s director, Ferenc Török, added, “90 percent of the society felt guilt but people never talk about it… it stayed a secret. Now after 70 years, in the 21st century, we can ask again these basic questions.”
Szanto said the struggle of the Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe during the post-World War II years was something difficult to understand, and was experienced by each survivor differently. “The survivors,” he explained, “if they stay in their country, they have to live among those who at least saw their suffering or took some of their properties. They were witnesses. Some of the survivors never went back because they felt nothing would be the same again. So they immigrated and went to Israel or somewhere. But some had to go back because they didn’t have foreign language skills or they wanted to find their families, or they were homesick.”
The film has been well received so far and has won awards at film festivals in San Francisco, Miami, Washington, Jerusalem and Berlin. There are also plans to show the film in theaters and on television stations in 25 countries. Both Török and Szanto noted that the lack of public discourse regarding the years in Eastern Europe following the Holocaust was a reason why they chose to address the topic in the film.
Szanto said, “Between the great narratives of the Holocaust and the communist dictatorship there were three years, partially democratic but partially under Russian occupation, which were not recognized in detail in history… Very few people write about it; very few people want to realize that there was an afterlife. There was life after the Holocaust in Europe and it was sometimes a very difficult life.”
“We need to tell this story because we think a lot of people in the audience care about this time,” said Török. “Something is missing here: information. Not just stories or memories. The US audience wants to learn about this age, what happened at that time. Gabor called this a ‘missing chain.’”