Video: Movie tells Holocaust horror

By Brian Williams Anchor & “Nightly News” managing editor
NBC News
updated 5/6/2005 11:34:01 AM ET 2005-05-06T15:34:01

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the World War II concentration camps. Just as there has been a race to record the memories of the GIs of the Greatest Generation, the same is true of the survivors of the Holocaust. A new documentary, called "A is for Auschwitz," has been endorsed by Amnesty International and selected for several film festivals for the way it tells the story of what happened in the Holocaust.

It has the feel of a home video, a weekend visit to the grandparents’ house in suburban Maryland, some of it put to music. There is 90-year-old Izzy Smilovitz and his 80-year-old wife, Rita. But then we're shown a striking image: the numbers the Nazi's left on Rita's arm.  And then we begin to hear their story.

Rita: "So one day came the -the train, and like you take animals in the train….How you call a train like that? An animal train and they put all the Jewish people in that train, no windows, no nothing. And they shipped us to Auschwitz."

Izzy tells of the four years he spent in a slave labor camp, with only the clothing on his back and no shelter.

Izzy: "We were living right there in the woods…In the winter time, in that big snow, we had to live there."

In a matter-of-fact fashion, they proceed to open the memories that have been locked away for 60 years.

Rita: "He says, 'You're all going to go in the chimney. The young ones we're going to take for work and labor and the old ones, they're all burning up there.'  So they showed me and they say 'That is your father, already in the smoke, burning.'"

It is the work of a first-time filmmaker, heavily-influenced by Steven Spielberg. He knew the story would come out if he just started asking the questions. That's because Izzy and Rita are his own grandparents.

The filmmaker is 17.

Zach Smilovitz made the film with a home video camera as a student project at Detroit Country Day School.

"One day I sat them down, and my grandmother spoke for one hour and my grandfather spoke for two hours,” says Zach Smilovitz. “Later, when I was looking at the footage and logging it, only then did I realize that it was like, wow, they're telling something pretty amazing and horrifying."

Bernie and Donna Smilovitz are Zach's parents. Donna is a psychologist and PhD. Bernie is the sports anchor at the NBC TV Station in Detroit.  And while Izzy and Rita are Zach's grandparents, they're Bernie's parents, and while he grew up knowing they were holocaust survivors, that's where his parent's stories stopped.

"It was unspoken,” says Bernie Smilovitz. “Yeah, you didn't go there. That was an area not up for discussion at all. When I first saw it, I started crying because it was stuff I had never heard. I think they probably withheld because they just wanted to protect us from those atrocities and from that horror."

Their son's film has had a profound affect on all those who've seen it.

"People would come up to us after they'd seen the film,” says Donna Smilovitz, “people of every nationality, and would be crying and would talk to us about their grandparents. There were some universal themes somehow encapsulated in Zach's film that touched people who weren't just Jewish."

One story Rita tells, about what she was forced to do, goes to the depth of human depravity.

Rita: “And I heard crying and I saw somebody had in the train a little baby. And the baby was crying, but I pushed it in the oven because he was staring at me. And I had to put it alive in the oven so I have all these bad dreams about that.”

"I just learned what we'll do to survive,” says Zach Smilovitz. “And what they did is remarkable. It'll always be in the family. It's, you know, an heirloom, you might say, and it'll always be there."

Zach: “It was worth surviving?”

Rita: "It was worth to survive, because I'm in a very nice, free country. But there was hell. Very hell.  Zachary, that's enough. I got to make you French toast. I have chicken soup and noodles.”

Rita's grandson, Zach Smilovitz, has now turned all of 18 and is headed for the University of Michigan.

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