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    Tuesday, April 23, 2024

    Film co-produced by Waterford woman tells story of art rescued from Nazis

    Eva and Heinz Geiringer (Submitted)
    From left, Eva Schloss, Steve McCarthy and Susan Kerner at the Jan. 29 screening of “Eva’s Promise” at JW3 in London. (Sunmitted)
    Heinz and Eva Geiringer with their mother, Fritzi (Submitted)
    Eva Schloss, seated, in her London flat during the filming of the documentary “Eva’s Promise.” Her longtime friend and assistant Elisabeth Ravasio is helping Schlos get ready. Steve McCarthy and assistant Kenny Spooner are also pictured. (Submitted)

    They were just teenagers. He loved music and could play piano, accordion and guitar. She was his little sister. They were packed into a train by Nazis in May 1944 and weren’t told where they were going. But the horrifying destination was Auschwitz-Birkenau.

    On the trip, Heinz Geiringer, 17, had a request for his sister, Eva, 15. Back in Holland, he had secreted the paintings and poems he had created under the floorboards where he had been hiding from the Nazis. He wanted her to know that fact – in case he didn’t survive.

    Tragically, he didn’t. Neither did their father. Eva and their mother managed to make it through the notorious concentration camp, although they were haunted by the experience.

    Eva felt compelled to honor her brother’s wishes. She gathered his paintings and poems — about 200 in all.

    She has since shared them with the world — the paintings and poems are now in the Dutch Resistance Museum in Amsterdam — and is telling her brother’s story in the new documentary “Eva’s Promise.”

    The film is co-produced by Susan Kerner, who lives in Waterford. She is a stage director and was a theater professor at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J., for 24 years before recently retiring. Kerner, a North Haven native and a 1967 Connecticut College graduate, and her husband moved back to Connecticut during the pandemic, in 2020.

    “Eva’s Promise” is directed by Steve McCarthy, who was a staff producer for “60 Minutes” and “Dateline” before directing such documentaries as 2019’s “Breslin & Hamill: Deadline Artists.”

    Links to Anne Frank

    The Geiringers were connected to another now-well-known Jewish family living in Amsterdam before and during WWII: Anne Frank’s. They were neighbors who lived across the street. In “Eva’s Promise,” Eva says she and Anne became friends but not best friends, and Heinz and Margot occasionally did homework together.

    After the war, Eva’s mother, Fritzi, wed Otto Frank, the widowed father of Anne whose life work became bringing “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” to light. They remained married for 27 years.

    “Eva’s Promise” points out that Eva, whose married name is Schloss, didn’t speak about the Holocaust for 40 years. But she was troubled by nightmares. It was when she began talking about her family’s experiences that the nightmares abated.

    Discussing the importance of “Eva’s Promise,” Kerner says, “I felt like this story increasingly needs to get out into a wider audience. Everybody has seen the rise of antisemitism in this country. That, in combination with the fact that Holocaust survivors aren’t going to be around (forever) to tell their stories. Eva has been telling her story as an eyewitness, live, for a very long time. She’s been touring for about 30 years, telling her story all over the world. She can’t travel now (at age 93). I thought, with the film, at least we see her talking. It’s not seeing her in person, but we see her talking. Our main goal is to get this into schools. I think it’s really important that they hear from a person who experienced this that (the Holocaust) really did happen.”

    Schloss was also featured in the 2022 Ken Burns documentary “The U.S. and the Holocaust.”

    Fleeing to Amsterdam

    Here is some of the Geiringers’ story, as recounted in “Eva’s Promise”:

    Eva and Heinz Geiringer grew up in Austria.

    As a young child, Heinz developed a stutter. His parents took him to psychologist Anna Freud — Sigmund Freud’s daughter — and she cured him.

    But another physical infirmity followed. His vision began to fail, and he eventually lost his sight in one eye.

    Everything changed in Austria when the Nazis annexed the country in 1938. The shoe factory that Eva and Heinz’s father, Erich, ran closed, and the family ended up fleeing to Holland.

    Their new, contented life in Amsterdam was short lived. The Nazis invaded Holland in 1940 and instituted ever-increasing restrictions on Jews.

    When Heinz got a notice that he was going to be deported to a work camp in Germany, Erich decided the whole family should go into hiding.

    But they had to split up, with Heinz and Erich together, and Eva and Fritzi. While in hiding, Heinz had to find quiet alternatives to his music and so took up painting and poetry.

    In “Eva’s Promise,” Eva says they stayed in a half-dozen places over the course of two years. While some people were selfless in helping to protect Jewish families, one of the women who hid the Geiringer men started blackmailing them for more money.

    And then someone betrayed them. Eva and her mother were captured by Nazis and Dutch policemen, followed by her father and brother.

    They and other people were packed by the Nazis into a train cattle car, but they didn’t know where they were being taken. When the passengers got off and realized it was Auschwitz-Birkenau, some started to cry and scream, Schloss recalls in the documentary; they realized this was probably the end of their lives.

    Eva and her mother came face to face with Joseph Mengele, the Nazi doctor who conducted horrible experiments on prisoners and was one of the doctors who decided which prisoners would be sent to the gas chambers. Eva and her mother were among the people being separated into one of two lines, one for the gas chambers — for those who were deemed incapable of work, including children and older people — or the other line for work. Fritzi gave Eva a long coat and hat to wear, to make her look older so she might be more likely to end up in the work line, which is what happened.

    They survived until the Russians liberated the camp, and they returned to Amsterdam.

    An inspiration

    One of the main things that impressed Kerner when she first heard Schloss’s story, Kerner says, was her resilience — “that somebody could go through what she did — she spent about eight or nine months in Auschwitz, in horrible circumstances — and that she could come out such a positive (attitude). I mean, it took many years for her to get there, but she embraced life. Her curiosity, her positivity were so strong. She’s been an inspiration to me for the 27 years that I’ve known her because of the way she could bounce back and want to give back.”

    The journey to ‘Eva’s Promise’

    Kerner first met Schloss through a stage production she was developing.

    In 1994, Kerner directed a production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” at George Street Playhouse in New Jersey, where she was a resident director. She did research on the project that included travelling to Amsterdam. While there, she learned that Anne Frank’s former boyfriend was living in New Jersey. Ed Silverberg was Frank’s beau before the war when he was 16 and she was 12. “It was just kind of a flirtation, but they were friends,” Kerner says.

    Kerner contacted him, and he spent some time with the cast during the rehearsal process, talking about Frank and their relationship.

    After that, Kerner was asked to commission a play that would feature Anne Frank but would focus primarily on two surviving friends, whose identities were to be determined. Kerner already knew Silverberg, but she had to find a second figure. Silverberg was in hiding throughout the war with his family, so Kerner was looking for someone who was connected to Anne Frank but had survived a concentration camp.

    The Anne Frank Center in New York introduced Kerner to Schloss. The resulting play, written by dramatist James Still and titled “And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank,” has since been staged around the world.

    Schloss would regularly speak at various productions; she eventually sold her antique shop in London, where she lives now, to become a full-time Holocaust educator. She and Kerner remained good friends.

    Schloss felt it was very important to tell the tale of her brother’s life, which led to the play “My Brother’s Gift” by Claudia Haas. Kerner helped a bit with the development process and directed a couple of readings of the play.

    But Kerner thought there should be a film about the story as well. She approached McCarthy, a colleague at Montclair who was an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, with the idea and he agreed to the project.

    They began planning the film in Aug. 2021, and they traveled to London and Amsterdam in Nov. 2021.

    International screenings

    Kerner and McCarthy screened “Eva’s Promise” late last month at two locations in Europe.

    In London, Schloss was able to join the Q&A after the screening.

    In Amsterdam, the event was sponsored by the Anne Frank House and was held at the Dutch Resistance Museum. That event was essentially for staffs of the Anne Frank House and the Dutch Resistance Museum, as well as other Holocaust educators and invited guests. It was meant to introduce them to the film for potential screenings in Holland. The story of “Eva’s Promise” is set mostly in Amsterdam.

    Kerner hopes “Eva’s Promise” will be screened in Connecticut, but nothing has been set.

    Kerner says that she has always liked being involved with projects that make a difference for people and that go deeper.

    “This story has been my most important work and my most personally satisfying work,” she says.

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