by Christine Westwood

Jordy Sank is a South African director, producer and writer who founded the Johannesburg film production company, Sanktuary Films. The company brief is a commitment ‘to creating documentaries and narrative video content that enlighten the world.’ The statement continues with, ‘we create a sanctuary for audiences who believe in the power and impact of storytelling and value the craft of filmmaking as a sacred art.’

It was in this spirit that Sank launched his first feature in 2019, a documentary, I Am Here, about South African Holocaust survivor.

The film was funded by the Conference on Jewish Material Against Germany, and the Blumenthal family had a hand in the production. It is unapologetically placed in one clear viewpoint, completely on the side of Jewish survivors, refuting Neo Fascist propaganda that seeks to deny the Holocaust.

Racism feeds on targeting a scapegoat and the mass extermination of Jews in the Second World War is a striking example.

The opening montage of Sank’s documentary sets up the context with news footage. Neo Nazi propaganda seeks to deny the extent of murders of Jews under Hitler’s regime including perpetrating hate crimes against synagogues and, in a spectacular reversal of evidential history, accusations that Jews were mass persecutors of the Germans.

The documentary centres around Ella Blumenthal, celebrating her 98th birthday with her large family of children and grandchildren plus close friends. Over the weekend, Ella opened up about her past in a way she never has before. The narrative is simple and clear, contemporary scenes with the family are filled out with animations of Ella’s back story as she recounts it. Sank knew exactly what he wanted to depict in his documentary, a straightforward telling of a life from one woman’s point of view.

Following the style of features like Waltz with Bashir and Flee, I Am Here uses animation to tell Ella’s memories, in a story that would be almost unbearable to film with actors.

Born in Poland, Ella was 18 at the outbreak of the war. Her family had already been rounded up and compounded in the Warsaw ghetto. The youngest of seven children and with a sprawling extended family, Ella counts 23 of her relatives as lost to the labour camps and gas chambers at that time. She, along with her father and niece, hid underground until Nazi soldiers flushed out the surviving ghetto Jews after the Warsaw uprising.

“The sight of the burning ghetto is forever in front of me,” Ella tells her children 80 years later. “The smell is still in my nostrils.”

Ella and her younger niece Roma were sent to a labour camp, enduring near starvation and crippling heavy work. She recalls being forced to watch a friend be hung after trying to escape, and how she and Roma were transferred to Auschwitz where the horrors and privations continued.

Ella puts her extraordinary survival down to three vital things, being able to draw on memories of a happy secure childhood, her religious faith (including finding a page in Hebrew from the Torah that she still treasures), and the more than lucky moment when a (Christian) childhood friend consigned as a nurse in Auschwitz, struck Ella’s name from the list of prisoners condemned to the gas chambers.

Fast forward to the end of the war and Ella’s whirlwind courtship and marriage to Ivan Blumenthal, who took her to settle in Johannesburg. She raised her children, cared for her husband and their successful business and never talked about what had happened to her during the war.

“I couldn’t talk about my suffering because the open wound was still bleeding,” she explains to her family.

Ella is a perfect subject to tell this confronting story of survival. She is emotional, feisty, loving and bossy with her kids, a strong upholder of Jewish traditions in rituals of cooking and festivities. Miraculously, her youth and physical vitality (she was a keen swimmer) were enough to get her through the years when she suffered grief and faced the threat of death every day. She is funny and with a streak of vanity that her family fondly indulge. Having decided to reveal what she has held inside for so long, she is impassioned and articulate.

Her children talk about her over protectiveness when they were growing up. Her response is a shock to them. “I was afraid the Nazis would take my babies”.

And her notorious stinginess suddenly makes sense to everyone when they hear stories of starvation in the ghetto, of hiding morsels of food under her clothes at the concentration camp… “What struck me was that she could relay the harrowing stories with tears in her eyes and then the next minute, she was singing and dancing, playing with the kids,” Sank told United Herzlia Schools.

He talked about her boundless energy, saying “when Ella walked into a room, the whole place lit up”.

It’s this paradox of two different worlds within one person that Sank found fascinating and the reason for his wanting to feature her life story. He felt like the world needed to learn from her and her positive attitude.

I Am Here is screening on February 1, 2023 in Sydney and Melbourne, followed by a virtual Q&A with Director Jordy Sank and Producer Gabriella Blumberg

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