I deeply cherish Glenn Kurtz’s THREE MINUTES IN POLAND.
Praising this important book, Noble laureate Elie Wiesel said: “It is intensely moving and brilliantly researched, and it reads like a thriller.”
In 2009, Glenn found a film his paternal grandparents made of their 1938 trip through Europe. One three-minute section especially arrested his attention, as it shows people in various locales within his grandfather’s hometown of Nasielsk, Poland going about their lives just three months prior to Kristallnacht.
Curious, cheerful children jostle for a chance to be in the movie. People emerge from a synagogue. Another segment shows Jews relaxing at home. Some in the streets wear traditional Hasidic garb while others sport secular clothing.
Haunted by an awareness that most Jews seen in his grandparents’ vacation footage would have been murdered in the Holocaust, Glenn assumed the charge of learning as much as he could about the people in the film. Through an extraordinary concatenation of events that makes for compelling reading, Glenn was able to identify a young teen in the film as Maurice Chandler. At birth named Moszek Tuchendler, Morry was the sole member of his family to survive. In establishing himself in the U.S., Maurice Chandler largely blocked out his tragic past. Yet, gifted with a nearly photographic memory, he gave Glenn great depth of detail about the people and places in his grandparents’ footage from Nasielsk.
With tireless, humanistic devotion to pursuing knowledge about the people in his grandparents’ film, Glenn produced his text, a valuable contribution to history in addition to being a gift to general readers, taking us into the warm, beating heart of Jewish life in Europe shortly before the Holocaust.
Recently, Glenn Kurtz was kind enough to speak on the phone with me about THREE MINUTES IN POLAND. (This conversation has been edited for blog-post-appropriate concision.)
I asked Glenn about his exhaustive research process for the book.
“The years long process was very start-and-stop. I discovered my grandparents’ movie in 2009. It was an orphan film, and I knew nothing about it. My grandparents were no longer alive. My father at first mistakenly thought it showed my grandmother’s rather than my grandfather’s hometown.”
“Eventually, I deduced it must be my grandfather’s hometown. I did locate and interview one survivor from Nasielsk who had been so traumatized by the war and the loss of her family that she spent the next 70 years trying to forget everything. She was, in fact, unable to remember much.”
“When you hit a dead end like that, what do you do? Each time, I had to decide whether to continue. And each time I decided to continue, I had to find another way to keep it going. The task grew as I performed it. At first, with each frame of the movie, I tried to answer the question ‘What am I looking at?’ And I asked: ‘Who are these people? Why are they behaving this way? What is the path that took them each step of the way until the Holocaust?’ The more specifically you seek to answer the one simple question – ‘What am I looking at?’ – the deeper it takes you into the enormous richness of what’s contained in any one frame. The clothes, the buildings, the window shades, the wallpaper; every single thing in the image. I became obsessed with these images. It was a way to honor the memory of the people who were killed.”
“It’s possible that these are the only images of these people, these children. Knowing that the vast majority of them wound up murdered, the responsibility of trying to remember them as individuals fell to me.”
I asked Glenn if he ever felt despair over his mission.
“With any story touching on the Holocaust, I think despair is the first thing you feel. You look at this film, the people are happy and excited, pointing and jumping up and down, but looking at them on the screen doesn’t save them from the fate we know they’re going to suffer. So, the very first impression was one of despair.”
“Yet, with the help of the survivors and with tremendous research, I succeeded in learning the names of many who lived in the town as well as details of their lives. One thing I could never have imagined when I began was how large and rich the tapestry would eventually become. I was arbitrarily pulling on any thread I could find. And I discovered that while some threads are broken without recovery, many others are connected, spreading out into a network of survivors and descendants, including some non-Jewish residents of Nasielsk who are motivated to talk about their families. Think of what a trauma it was for some of these non-Jewish residents of the town, that the Nazis took away thousands of their neighbors.”
“And I must say that all the friendships and relationships I have developed along the way, connecting with survivors, really has been life changing, life enhancing.”
What are some of the main ideas Glenn hopes readers will take away from THREE MINUTES IN POLAND?
“The first thing I want people to understand is ‘How much is lost.’ In imagining the life of a small town in detail, you recognize the enormity of what was lost. When I began my research, what I thought I was doing was creating a memorial to the dead. But I was aware that we have a tendency, in memorials, to think that remembering people will bring them back to life somehow. However, it does not. It replaces their particularity with our sentimentality.”
“I do still feel that the book serves as a memorial to the dead. But to make it serve truthfully and meaningfully as a memorial, I wanted to draw a line, as sharply as possible, between what we can and cannot know about the people. How do we grasp what is lost if we don’t understand what it is that we cannot know?”
“Then the second thing I want people to take away from reading this book is an understanding of how complex what remains can be. The film itself shows fragments of my grandparents’ visit, but these fragments led me to the survivors’ rich recollections.”
And indeed, it is those rich recollections that make THREE MINUTES IN POLAND such rewarding reading. We are enriched by learning about these people’s vibrant lives, and thus are able to consider them in a fuller human dimension than were they anonymous Holocaust victims.
“Another thing I hope readers take away from my book is that as isolating as trauma often is, and as much as we tend to suffer such memories as something isolating, they can nonetheless connect us in surprisingly meaningful and beautiful ways.”
“I connected, and entered into, a group of people who together hold the memory of Nasielsk in a unique way. These people suffered unimaginable losses, yet for the survivors and their descendants to find ways to connect provides solace for them, allowing them to feel less alone. I am profoundly thankful to the survivors for being willing to share with me. And I worked hard to honor my role in connecting them.”
THREE MINUTES IN POLAND is available here on Amazon, and here on Barnes & Noble.
The Wikipedia article on Glenn Kurtz is here.
And Glenn Kurtz is on Twitter here.