Documentary chronicles the making of the Holocaust museum

April 26, 1993|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

A worn, wooden cattle car floats gently across the skyline, past the clean, white stone of the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Guided by a crane, it finally comes to rest on a floor of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Columbia resident and Emmy award-winning producer Jeffrey Bieber chose this as the opening image for his documentary on the museum's creation, "For the Living."

The boxcar, thought to have carried Jews to the Treblinka concentration camp, contrasts sharply with the art and inventions that celebrate human achievement along the Mall in Washington.

"It's about man's inhumanity to man," Mr. Bieber says of the museum, which opens today. "It's a balance to the Smithsonian Air and Space [Museum].

"Life is not all good."

Mr. Bieber's 58-minute documentary debuted last night on WETA, Washington Public Television, and will be repeated today at 8 p.m. It will air on Maryland Public Television this summer.

The documentary provides a behind-the-scenes look at the creative and sometimes contentious process that yielded the celebrated, $168 million museum.

Mr. Bieber followed the researchers and curators as they gathered cobblestones from the Warsaw Ghetto, leafed through photos of concentration camp victims and sorted their various possessions, including 4,000 shoes, for display.

But what sets this documentary apart is access. Viewers get to eavesdrop as organizers hotly debate how to portray one of history's worst episodes.

In one scene, museum Director Jeshajahu Weinberg and others argue about how to portray the story of the ship, the St. Louis.

It is a powerful tale with particular resonance for Americans. The ship set sail in 1939, carrying Jewish refugees across the Atlantic. Refused entry to the United States, they returned to Europe, where many perished.

"[Let's] tell the whole story to the bitter end," says Mr. Weinberg, lobbying for a large exhibit.

"There's a video," offers a man with a beard. "Right now there's a showcase this big," he adds, measuring out a small space with his hands.

"It's a dramatic story," Mr. Weinberg counters. "We have the material. Now what you're saying is we don't have the space? Is that it?"

"We don't have the space," the man says quietly.

Mr. Weinberg looks away in disgust.

Getting this kind of footage wasn't easy. The museum's creation was marked by infighting, some of which already has been publicized. The director of the permanent exhibition, also a filmmaker, feared an expose and opposed the documentary, Mr. Bieber said.

"She knew what reporters, filmmakers and editors can do in the editing room," he said. "She was very wary of things being taken out of context."

After more than a year of building trust with the museum's creators, he was allowed to begin taping in 1991. He spent 10 days in Poland and scores of hours with the organizers and researchers.

In all, Mr. Bieber shot about 66 hours of tape at a cost of around $225,000. Nations Bank funded most of the project.

In addition to being good, Mr. Bieber also was lucky.

While leafing through the photos of people from Ejszyszki, a small Jewish village in Lithuania massacred by the Nazis, a woman showed him a picture of two men. She said they were the uncle and father of actor Ed Asner.

"I knew then he had to be my narrator," Mr. Bieber said.

He wrote Mr. Asner a letter, and the actor quickly agreed. One of the program's more powerful moments is an extended shot of Mr. Asner speaking in a dark room before an enlarged, black-and-white photo of his father and uncle. (Mr. Asner's father escaped before the massacre and moved to Kansas City, Mo., where the actor was born.)

Jeff Bieber, 39, is a thoughtful, soft-spoken man who grew up in Queens, New York. He studied clarinet at the Peabody Conservatory before turning to public television in 1981.

"I wanted to do something with a steady paycheck," he said of the career change.

Mr. Bieber has spent the past 11 years doing a variety of documentary work for WETA, including programs on AIDS and homelessness as well as a weekly public affairs show for which he won an Emmy in 1991.

Like many involved in the Holocaust Museum, he has a personal connection. His father was a medic during World War II and helped liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp.

He was drawn to the museum, because of its unique quality -- the examination of the dark side of human nature. With the recent return of genocide to Europe, the museum's message of personal responsibility seems hauntingly contemporary, he said.

"The whole point of the museum is, 'Don't be a bystander.' "

SUNDIAL SERVICE

Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, has details about visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. To listen to the information, please call Sundial at 783-1800 and enter the appropriate four-digit code, 6106.

If you're thinking of visiting the museum, be sure to reserve tickets at least a few days in advance. Tickets for most of the coming week are already sold out, and only several hundred same-day passes to the museum are available.

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