16 PHOTOGRAPHS AT OHRDRUF
Q: What are some of your memories of your grandfather?
A: I remember a guy who loved jokes and puns, and wanted everyone to laugh. He played music in the church (my grandmother played piano and organ, he played guitar and bass and they both sang) and he always had new lyrics for old songs. This was in the 1980s so a lot of his jokes were about politics, the Cold War, and things like that.
He was also an outgoing person who wanted to help everyone. He volunteered for the local fire and rescue squad, and always had a police scanner in the house and the car. I remember as a teenager when I visited for a week in the summer, we spent every day riding around town on a 2-person bicycle delivering mail to old people (there was only a post office, no carrier) and helping out. We’d mow lawns or fix shutters for the sick and elderly, and pick up groceries for new mothers. It was fun, and he always seemed to have the energy for another person when needed.
Q: How long did you think about doing a documentary about your grandfather’s pictures?
A: Don died in 1991, and we found them soon after. In 1995 there was a fight in my family over what to do with them. The Holocaust Museum opened in 1993 and some of us wanted them donated, my grandmother did not. When she threatened to destroy them, my sister and I made copies of them in 1995 and I’ve had those copies ever since. When I was in art school I used a few of them, but I forgot about them a long time ago.
It was in 2008 when Obama mentioned his great-uncle’s experiences that I took them out and looked at them. Charles Payne, the great-uncle, had also been at Ohrdruf. That was what got me started working on a story, trying to figure out what I had. At first I thought it would be a web journal or some sort of YouTube short, but it grew and grew. Once Michael Equi agreed to edit, it became a full-blown documentary feature and we never looked back. Work began on the scripting and final research in 2010, with some primary shooting starting in April 2011. We shot interviews and footage between April 2010 and May 2012, with the editing taking place between November 2011 and August 2012.
Q: It is such a personal story and your grandmother was so reluctant to bring up the past. Has she seen the documentary? Did she give her blessing?
A: Unfortunately, my grandmother has Alzheimer’s and her memory is fading. At the time I interviewed her, she still had some memory and was able to talk with me a little, but she was also very reluctant to share much. I’ve always been a photographer and videographer, so she is used to me making pictures and running around with microphones. So in that sense she gave her blessing to my filming her, but that would not have been weird or rare. I don’t think she (or anyone, really) expected this film to become such a large production, or that it would be as widely received as it has been.
Sadly, her health is now completely deteriorated. As far as I know, she has never seen the film. My mother has seen it (she also appears on screen) and I’ve left it to her discretion as to whether or not to show my grandmother. At this point I think it would be more upsetting than heartwarming.
Q: Have you kept in contact with the veterans you met while making the film?
A: Absolutely! We have a very active correspondence, and my network of veteran friends has actually grown. Every week, sometimes every day, I get letters and emails from veterans who were at Ohrdruf, and who want to tell me their story. This week I’ve received 3 packages in the mail from vets about their experiences. I also get letters and email from their families, or families of vets who are now gone, with their photos and stories. I’ve also joined the 65th Infantry Division Association and met other vets who served with my grandfather, and I sometimes travel to visit them when I can.
At the end of editing, I got a tattoo with the logos of the 89th and 65th Divisions on my arm, because I wanted to keep for myself the memory of those veterans that I was lucky enough to meet while making the film. As long as they are still alive, I’m happy to be the guy who collects their history and can (hopefully) build a meaningful archive of this story about Ohrdruf. I never expected this when I started the film, but I’m proud that telling this forgotten story has allowed me to become the person the veterans seek out to keep their history alive.
Q: The emotion was still there as if it happened yesterday. Did you expect to see the emotional reaction from the vets you showed the pictures to?
A: I honestly did not expect the emotions that appear on film. Ralph Rush, in particular, was very emotional about his experiences and shared a lot of his experiences with me. I think part of it has to do with the time I spent with him — he invited me to stay in his house for a week and we took a lot of time getting to trust each other before starting the interview.
Q: Do you feel this work has given you a closer relationship with your grandfather as an adult?
A: I feel like I understand him a little more, and many of the parts of his life make sense and have a connective thread I never knew before. He spent his whole life helping people — as a medic in the war, a medic in the National Guard, serving on the ambulance and rescue squad, and being a good neighbor to everyone in East Dorset — and I think it all started with his experiences in combat and seeing the camp at Ohrdruf.
Q: What was the process like finding footage of the Holocaust to edit into the film? Did it take a toll on you emotionally?
A: When we started the film, I was using only still photographs taken from public sources. However, during the script revisions, we decided to emphasize “photography” as a major theme, so we only wanted still photos that were connected to the main story. That meant finding footage for the other historical areas. Luckily, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum has the Stephen Spielberg Film Archives, most of which are searchable online. What I found was that most of my “photos” were actually film stills from military footage, and I tracked down the source footage (often in color!) and was able to procure that from the archives.
The hardest part was finding footage that matched the scenes depicted in my grandfather’s photos — but I was ultimately able to find archival footage showing about 10 of the 16 scenes. That archival footage is used in the big reveal at the end of the fourth act, when we finally show the sixteen photographs. Finding and matching the footage and photos took about 48 hours of research.
Overall, between US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Library of Congress and other public archives I pulled about 120 hours of combat footage, newsreels, propaganda and other sources. With that richness of footage we were able to put together the right combo of shots to tell the story of these soldiers. Combined with contemporary news footage and some clips from recent films, I think the layering of media, interviews, archival footage and photographs makes for a richly textured film, which was important to us.
As for the emotional toll, some days were hard. Over time I think Michael and I grew pretty detached, often looking past the gruesome scenes in the foreground (corpses, etc) to look for details that helped place the shots — buildings, trees, things like that can be very useful in locating footage that is often unlabeled or cropped. But that thick skin doesn’t last, and when we did our first public screening it had been a few weeks since I’d seen the film. I was immediately hit again with the power of the scenes, and reminded why we chose those shots — we wanted that power, we didn’t want to look away, and we wanted people to feel what it was like to be there on April 4, 1945.
Q: What was it like to research the Holocaust in depth to make this film? How deep has your knowledge gotten? Does it make you understand why your grandfather said he would take the pictures out from time to time to look at them?
A: The Holocaust is too big of a topic for one film, or one person. The Holocaust Memorial Museum has just release a 14-book Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos… so I don’t think I’m any sort of expert. I think I understand most of the details of the Ohrdruf camp that the Nazis called SIII, and much of that I’ve learned after finishing the film.
Truthfully, I never set out to be a Holocaust scholar. I wanted to understand what it was like to be a soldier in the first days after finding the camp, and what those guys saw and went through. They didn’t know about the history of the place, or the depth of the Holocaust… on April 4 all they knew was that they’d found something uniquely awful. It was another week before they found Büchenwald and bigger camps, so Ohrdruf was their first experience with the Holocaust. I can understand why my grandfather didn’t talk about it, because it was horrible, but I think it is also a shame because Ohrdruf was the first camp found and that story has been almost lost. So what we wanted to do with the film was go back to that first moment… other scholars and filmmakers have told the Holocaust story better than I ever could, so we focused on Ohrduf and the story of the men who found it.
SATURDAY AUGUST 10TH AT 1PM
THURSDAY AUGUST 15TH AT 3PM