WBAL special is rare, moving

Holocaust piece has wisdom seldom seen in local news

TV Preview

April 19, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Local television news is easily criticized: From its endless stream of over-hyped crime stories to self-important talking heads, easy-to-hit targets abound.

But every so often, local stations do exceptional work - important journalism that provides a public service. Survivors Among Us - a one-hour, prime-time special airing without commercials tonight at 8 on WBAL-TV (Channel 11) - is an example of such work.

In the documentary, WBAL chronicles the histories of Baltimore-area Holocaust survivors. Reporter Deborah Weiner and videographer Chuck Cochran travel from Baltimore to Brooklyn, N.Y., France and Germany to tell remarkable stories from one of the most horrible and heroic chapters in history - the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. Their work shows a sensitivity and wisdom seldom found anywhere in television news - at the network or local level.

Much of the show's power is rooted in the survivors themselves. Pikesville resident Leo Bretholz jumped from a train headed for the Auschwitz concentration camp and lived in hiding for seven years. Bretholz, who settled in Baltimore in 1947 working in the textile and book-selling industries, already has told the harrowing story of his years on the run in the book Leap into Darkness, which he wrote with Sun columnist Michael Olesker.

However, rather than simply retelling the saga of Bretholz's journey through war-time Europe, Weiner and Cochran travel with the 84-year-old to France. There, he is reunited with a 93-year-old Roman Catholic nun who protected him from the Nazis as he lay helpless in a hospital.

Bretholz says the nun, Sister Jeanne D'Arc, renewed his faith in humanity. The nun says she never for a moment considered turning Bretholz into the Nazis - no matter the risk. When Bretholz and Sister Jeanne embrace, one senses not only a profound bond between them, but also the power of the human spirit for endurance and goodness.

But many of the inspirational stories told by Survivors Among Us are less well-known. Emmy Mogilensky, 81, of Park Heights recounts how her parents put her on a train for England - part of the Kindertransport - while they stayed behind in Germany, where they were killed by the Nazis. A photograph from the period shows the desolation felt by the teenager forced to leave her family and board a train headed to an uncertain future. In the documentary, Mogilensky marvels at the sacrifice her parents made to give her a life.

One of the film's most moving recollections comes not from a survivor, but a former soldier, Sol Goldstein, who helped liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp. The strapping businessman from Pikesville begins to sob as Weiner presents him with a stone that she brought from the grounds outside the Buchenwald crematorium in memory of what he witnessed there.

"You know, I tell people that there was no grass, trees or bushes. Had there been, the inmates would have eaten them. Just rocks," Goldstein says, looking at the stone in his hand.

Survivors Among Us does more than merely recount the survivors' stories. It offers glimpses of their resilience by recording moments of ceremony and ritual in their contemporary lives. Mogilensky, for example, plants a tree in memory of her parents.

Felix Kestenberg, an 83-year-old native of Poland who came to the United States in 1949, is documented traveling with his wife, Vera, from Mount Washington to Brooklyn for the Orthodox Jewish wedding of their first grandchild, Nechamee.

Kestenberg survived eight concentration camps and two death marches by the Nazis. "I lost all my family in Europe," he tells Weiner as the outdoor wedding unfolds beneath a beautiful night sky. "I had to start a normal life. A night like this doesn't happen too often."

Unfortunately, such informed and moving documentaries made by local television stations are equally rare.

Survivors Among Us

When: Tonight at 8

Where: WBAL-TV (Channel 11)

In brief: Fascinating stories well told.

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