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    Sunday, April 21, 2024

    Film about local Holocaust survivor to premiere at the Garde

    The new documentary “Henny: A Legacy of Hope” focuses on Holocaust survivor Henny Simon. (Submitted)
    Henny Simon looks at a photograph of her mother, Jenny Rosenbaum. (Submitted)
    World War II veteran Bob Cooper holds a photo of Henny Simon. (Submitted)

    For years, Henny Simon didn’t speak out about what she had lived through.

    But she had nightmares, which she didn’t even tell her children about.

    Those night terrors stemmed from the lingering trauma of having suffered through the horrors of the Holocaust. Simon, a German Jew, had been imprisoned in work camps and a concentration camp and had seen and experienced awful things.

    Finally, she opened up.

    Simon, who lived in Colchester after immigrating to the U.S. in 1949, started giving public talks about the Holocaust in the 1980s and made an indelible impression on generations of Connecticut students.

    She died in 2017 at age 91, but her legacy lives on — and will now be memorialized in a new documentary.

    “Henny: A Legacy of Hope” by Jerry Fischer and Todd Gipstein focuses on Simon’s extraordinary and impactful life. It will premiere Feb. 29 at the Garde Arts Center in New London.

    Fischer got to know Simon well during her life. He interviewed her for his 2016 documentary, “Harvesting Stones: The Jewish Farmers of Eastern Connecticut,” and he worked with her in the Encountering Survivors program, where survivors like Simon spoke to students. She helped make the youths, as the film publicity states, “understand the need and responsibility to fight hatred, intolerance, revisionist history and assaults on human rights.”

    In 2016, Fischer accompanied Simon back to her hometown of Hanover, Germany, for the 75th anniversary of when Jewish families including hers were expelled from the city.

    He felt compelled to preserve her story by creating a documentary.

    With “Henny: A Legacy of Hope,” Fischer said, “I wanted to bring forward that there’s incredible darkness in the world, there’s just incredible evil, and people suffer and lose their lives to this evil. But the people who make it through — the light of their life can really shine. No trauma has to be so overwhelming that it destroys your life forever. Henny is an example of that.”

    As a voiceover in the movie says, this is a story about resilience, reckoning with the past and speaking out for the future. It’s also a love story.

    Simon was a widow twice over when she met U.S. WWII vet Ben Cooper in Connecticut. He had helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp. He said in “Henny: A Legacy of Hope,” “What I witnessed there was just unbearable, the brutality that the Germans did to innocent people … I was just traumatized by the inhumanity to humanity. I’ll never forgive, and I’ll never forget.”

    Cooper, like Simon, was talking to students about what he saw. The duo chatted. They kept in touch. They fell in love.

    Fischer wanted to preserve Cooper’s legacy, too, and he is featured in “Henny: A Legacy of Hope.” Cooper, 102 and now living in West Hartford, is planning to attend the movie’s premiere at the Garde.

    “Henny: A Legacy of Hope” shows how Simon, nee Rosenbaum, was living a fairly normal life in Germany. But then antisemitism kept growing in the country, with increasing rules and restrictions on Jews. When Hitler came to power, things became drastically and horrifically worse.

    In 1941, Simon and her mother were confined to the Ghetto in Riga, Latvia, and then the Strasdenhof Work Camp in Riga. From November 1943 to January 1945, Simon was imprisoned in the Stutthof Concentration Camp near Gdanzk and Korben Work Camp.

    In the documentary, Simon talks about how, in the ghetto, they had no food and would be shot if they were caught looking for sustenance in an empty house. In a forced march later on, if someone couldn’t keep up, the Nazis shot them on the spot.

    In a camp, Simon’s mother was injured, and the doctor said she should go to the hospital in the main camp to get help. Instead, the Nazis killed her, and Simon never saw her mother again.

    In 1945, the camp where Simon was being held was liberated by the Russians. With the burden of this horrible history, she had to go on with life.

    After the war

    After the war while living in Poland, Simon married Abram Markiewicz, a survivor of Auschwitz. They later moved to Colchester; he died in 1976.

    Simon’s second husband, Robert Simon, who was retired from the U.S. military, encouraged her to speak out about her experiences in the Holocaust. That helped inspire her, and so did the growing number of Holocaust deniers.

    “She said, ‘I’m going to talk. They’re not going to say this didn’t happen to me,’” Fischer recalled.

    Fischer often accompanied Simon to in-school assemblies where she was featured. Usually, she could maintain her composure, but sometimes the memories were too much. Fischer recalled one particular event at a high school in Middletown. She finished, walked off stage “and she just broke down in tears. (I said) ‘Why the hell do you do this to yourself?’ But she did it,” he said.

    Putting it together

    Fischer, who lives in Waterford and is retired from being the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern CT, said the film team for “Henny: A Legacy of Hope” is “just wonderful.” He described Gipstein as “the real genius behind what you’re going to see.”

    Gipstein, a Groton resident who co-directed and served as cinematographer on the project, has been a National Geographic photographer and filmmaker, writer and producer for decades.

    Fischer knew Gipstein because they were members of the same Rotary Club. He asked Gipstein to co-direct the Simon project, and Gipstein said yes.

    “I was thrilled … I was very lucky that he agreed to do it,” Fischer said.

    Gipstein had never met Simon and didn’t know her story, but he recalled that, “as Jerry filled me in, it seemed an interesting documentary to make and a worthwhile one, more so every day, unfortunately, as world events unfold.”

    It was, he noted, a very complex story that spanned almost 100 years and was sprawling in space, time and emotion. “So it was a lot to wrestle to the ground and keep interesting and keep on target,” he said.

    Fischer kept giving Gipstein new material over the three years of working on the film, and Gipstein also did months of research. Gipstein said the sheer volume of information was overwhelming at times.

    “I was the one putting it all together, weaving a tapestry of ideas, images and sound into an evocative story. Jerry left me alone to produce the film, never micromanaging and always available to see a rough cut and give feedback and ideas. He was the hunter-gatherer, I was the chef, and the collaboration worked well,” Gipstein said.

    Gipstein thinks of the film, which runs just under an hour, in terms of small movies strung together — a three-minute film about how Simon got from the concentration camp to Colchester, another three minutes about her life on the farm, and so on.

    The music he chose, by John Kusiak, helped to structure the movie. He often starts with a soundtrack and sees how it plays out as a progression of moods, themes and motifts.

    Gipstein said he hopes that audiences will leave the movie with an understanding of a remarkable woman and the journey she took through life and how she ultimately spoke about her story.

    But he’d also like them to receive “this message that hatred and intolerance can start small and cascade, and before you know it, you can get involved in very horrific, inhumane things that you would not think could happen. We see it happening in our world today. That’s why it is a very relevant film. … If I can open up one set of eyes and touch one heart, maybe change one dining table conversation, maybe that’s all I can hope for — that that will then trickle on to other people in a good way. If something bad can trickle, so can hope and positivity and the idea that we need to stand up and speak.”

    A vital theme of the film is reckoning. “Henny reckoned with her past. Germany with its past. Henny and Ben reckoned with the forces of history they had witnessed and saw unfolding in the contemporary world. Indeed, we must all reckon with the hatred and intolerance we encounter today,” he said.

    More of the team

    The “Henny” movie team includes other area folks with impressive backgrounds.

    Andreas Mink, a Stonington resident, is the editor of the American German-Jewish publication Aufbau.

    Dana Kline, of Waterford, interviewed people for the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale. (Simon recorded her story for that archive.)

    Susan Schwartz, who lives in New London, is a film clip editor for ABC News.

    Beyond here

    Fischer is contemplating doing a book or a longer edition of the film.

    For the latter, he has applied for a grant to create versions of the movie in German and Hebrew. If he gets the grant, he will go back to Germany and Israel to do more interviews, in German and Hebrew.

    Music in celebration of Henny

    The premiere of “Henny: A Legacy of Hope” at the Garde has a renowned guest: World-famous pianist Emanuel Ax will perform with members of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

    “The whole event came together — there’s a Yiddish word called ‘beshert,’ which means meant to be,” Fischer said.

    As a graduate student at Harvard from 1975 to ‘78, Fischer taught a required humanities course whose students included Yo-Yo Ma, who late became a famed cellist.

    When Fischer started making this documentary, he recalled, “I said to myself, ‘This woman, Henny Simon, deserves something really special.’”

    When he had accompanied Simon to her hometown of Hanover, Germany, in 2016, the city had concerts on the opening and closing days of the event commemorating a dark time in the city’s past: the expulsion of Jewish families, including Simon’s, in 1941.

    “So I said to myself, ‘We’re going to premiere this film … and I’m going to have a concert. I want it to feel like what I experienced with her (at Hanover),’” Fischer said.

    He reached out to Ma through the musician’s Silkroad Ensemble. (Fischer said this brings to mind another Yiddish word: chutzpah.) He got a nice note back, saying Ma was going to consider it. A follow-up message, though, said he couldn’t do it but suggested asking Emanuel Ax, who has performed often with Ma.

    So Fischer did.

    “Everybody at the Garde said, ‘You’re not going to get Emanuel Ax.’ Everybody at ECSO said, ‘You’re not going to get Emanuel Ax.’ ‘Hey, guys, guess what? I got Emanuel Ax,’” Fischer said with a laugh. “Then everything snowballed.”

    Ax agreed to play two pieces, Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique and Schoenberg’s Three Pieces for Piano, Opus 11, which clock in around 37 minutes total.

    Fischer wanted an hour or so of music, and ECSO Music Director and Conductor Toshi Shimada suggested including Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy. Shimada’s wife, Eva Virsik, is an acclaimed pianist who lost family in the Holocaust, and she will join for that piece.

    If you go

    What: “Henny: A Legacy of Hope”

    Featuring: Film premiere and performance by piano virtuoso Emanuel Ax

    When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 29

    Where: Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London

    Tickets: $26 to $125 plus fees; $125 tickets include a tax-deductible donation & acknowledgment

    Contact: gardearts.org, (860) 444-7373

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