Ella Blumenthal was a young woman when the Nazis invaded her native Poland. Over the next few years she was bounced around Europe by Hitler’s forces, experiencing firs-thand the horrors of Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. She even participated in the failed Warsaw Uprising in 1943, to which the Nazis responded with a horrific crackdown that would all but level the ancient city.
Blumenthal and her niece, Roma, were fortunate to escape the Holocaust with their lives, even as friends and family members perished amid the horror of the Third Reich’s vile schemes. After the war, Blumenthal left Poland, first for Paris and then Tel Aviv, where she met a South African man who would become her husband.
Blumenthal, who will turn 100 this summer, still lives in South Africa, where she enjoys a pleasant life with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The story of her harrowing young life, and the gentility of her present, is told in the fascinating documentary, “I Am Here,” which premiered at the recent Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.
During a recent video call from Johannesburg, “I Am Here” director Jordy Sank and producer Gabriella Blumberg told me that it was important to get Blumenthal, an amazingly gifted storyteller, to record her recollections for posterity.
“When she stood up at the shabbat table [to tell] some of her stories, everybody was really moved and was crying,” said Sank, who first encountered Blumenthal when he was a teenager. “[But] a few moments later, she was dancing with the kids, she was singing, she was joking around. She had such a vibrant personality.”
Sank said he had met other Holocaust survivors prior to Blumenthal, but none with her spirited, gracious approach to life. Although Blumenthal had already given various testimonies to various historical projects, Sank and Blumberg approached her about making a documentary about her extraordinary life.
“We wanted this film to be not just a survivor’s testimony but to take her spirit and spread that to the world,” said Sank. “There really was this trust from the get go from her.”
“Jordy is being modest: She wouldn’t have been happy if Jordy wasn’t the director,” added Blumberg, the producer. “She’s spoken at schools but she’s never opened up in this way, and […] her family said that they found this experience very cathartic because they had never really sat with her for a weekend and heard her story in chronological order.
The fact that Blumenthal maintains such a sunny disposition is extraordinary given the inhuman awfulness she witnessed and endured during the war. Because Blumenthal had been a young woman at the time—and rather than rely on stock footage—the filmmakers chose to illustrate several episodes of her wartime experiences through animations, which were supervised by Greg Bakker.
“We wanted the audience to be there with Ella and almost experience [the Holocaust] through her eyes,” Sank said. “It was very difficult because our first cut was three hours with all these amazing stories, and we had to whittle that down and choose which stories were going to work [with] animation.”
Sadly, nearly eighty years after Blumenthal first endured the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, she continues to face down the stigma of anti-Semitism. Last year, a South African model named Simone Kriel posted on social media various vitriol not only sympathizing with Hitler but intimating that it was the Jews who were the aggressors against the Germans.
Incredibly, as seen in the film, Blumenthal not only didn’t let Kriel’s comments get under her skin, she even offered to meet with the peddler of the false narrative in an effort to both lower the temperature and educate.
“You’d expect a response, especially from someone who [experienced the Holocaust] to be quite harsh, but Ella sent out an open letter to the community, and to the model,” Sank said. “I think that goes to show Ella’s unbelievable character. She’s really a bastion of hope and positivity.”
(Kriel never responded to Blumenthal’s invitation, and has since deleted the offending social media rants and retreated from public life.)
Blumberg and Sank won some grant money from the Claims Conference, which steers funding to Holocaust survivors. They also nudged friends and family to donate to their film, but the rest they had to “beg, borrow and steal,” Blumberg said with a knowing laugh.
Fortunately for the filmmakers, the UK-based agency Metro International Entertainment recently picked up the worldwide distribution rights for “I Am Here,” which will greatly expand its audience after its premiere in Georgia. Screen Daily reports that the company will begin shopping for outlets at the European Film Market this week.
Given Blumenthal’s advanced age, the pandemic turned out to be a blessing in disguise as she, alongside Sank, was able to virtually participate in an audience interaction at the recent Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.
“We must follow in Ella’s lead and look on the bright side of the situation,” said Blumberg, who then shared some words that Blumenthal had written down prior to the film’s recent premiere.
“We should not know of any hate. We should live in a better world—that’s my blessing, to live in a world [in which] everyone lives without fear,” Blumberg said, reading Blumenthal’s words aloud to me. “There should be freedom for everyone.”
Blumberg said that “I Am Here” will almost certainly strike a chord in their native South African when it eventually opens in their home country, where Blumenthal’s message of tolerance in the face of discrimination will likely resonate there given the nation’s shameful history of apartheid.
“We really want to use this film as a catalyst not just to speak about the Holocaust but all other forms of ‘othering,’ xenophobia and racism,” Blumberg said.