A Rare Glimpse of a Lost World
by Eileen Lavine
A teenager with a big smile grins at the camera. Another waves his hand and keeps moving to stay in the picture. A bearded man is helped down the stairs of a building as groups of young and old crowd the streets of a small town, all anxious to be a part of this remarkable movie.
These are scenes from Three Minutes in Poland, excerpts from amateur movies taken in August 1938 in Nasielsk, a small city about 35 miles north of Warsaw, by David Kurtz, a local boy who made good in America and was returning on a side trip as part of a six-week grand tour of Europe, bringing with him his new 16-millimeter movie camera. Seventy years later, his grandson Glenn discovered the film and set out to uncover the story of these Polish Jews, content in their hometown and unaware of the future that lay ahead.
For Glenn Kurtz the journey began in 2009 when a young woman in Detroit saw the three-minute film, which he had posted online, and recognized her grandfather as the smiling teenager. Fortunately he was still alive, and Kurtz traveled to Boca Raton, Florida to meet him. Born Moszek Tuchendler in Nasielsk, he was now Maurice Chandler. In response to Kurtz’s gentle but probing questions, he was able to identify many of his childhood friends and neighbors. Most important, he knew of other survivors, leading Kurtz to California, London, Canada and Tel Aviv. In each place, Kurtz found more names to connect to the faces in the film. And with each visit, he unearthed harrowing tales of how the survivors had escaped and come to America. Of about 3,000 Jews in Nasielsk in 1938, fewer than 100 made it through the war. Of those, eight were still alive in 2012.
Kurtz’s four-year search culminated in a book published in November: Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film. In it, he recounts his research, conducted with the assistance and guidance of experts at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), to which he donated the home movie. He also tells of how he followed in his grandfather’s footsteps, and visited Nasielsk. He was not universally welcomed by families who, in many cases, had moved into homes vacated by the Jews, but was taken in hand by a Polish historian and teacher, Zdzislaw Survinski, who was interested in the history of Nasielsk, including its former Jewish inhabitants. He guided Kurtz to the sites he could identify in the film, as well as to the local archives and cemetery. Kurtz even arranged for Survinski to talk by phone with Maurice Chandler. They spoke in Polish, comparing names and dates, and after the call, Chandler told Kurtz: “He knows about all the people I knew! I guess you can’t paint everyone with the same brush.”
Kurtz is currently traveling throughout the United States, showing and discussing the film and his book, under the auspices of the USHMM.