Ace Up Our Sleeve
ARTS IN AMERICA; World War II Refugees Who Shared Little but Pain
When Nandor Andrasovits, a Hungarian riverboat captain, took home movies on his vessel of refugees fleeing the horrors of World War II, he could never have guessed the future of the films. Discovered 12 years ago by Peter Forgacs, a Hungarian media artist, those movies are at the core of an exhibition at the Getty Center here recreating the terrors, the starvation and, yes, the joys of Jews fleeing Slovakia to the Black Sea and then to Palestine.
If Anne Frank had taken home movies instead of keeping a diary, these are the types of images she might have captured. But Mr. Forgacs, 51, was interested in making more than just another Holocaust film. Therefore he juxtaposed 1939 scenes of Jews fleeing east along the Danube with 1940 scenes of Bessarabian German farmers fleeing the Soviet invasion of Bessarabia (now part of Ukraine) and traveling west to Germany, also on Captain Andrasovits's boat.
As the Nazis later resettled the German refugees in confiscated Polish homes, many resisted, some even committing suicide. Mr. Forgacs, whose family included many members killed at Auschwitz, does not argue that the plight of the two peoples was the same. But, he said, ''suffering on a basic level is very, very similar,'' rendering, in his opinion, both groups worthy of inclusion in the multimedia exhibition ''The Danube Exodus: The Rippling Currents of the River.''
Mr. Forgacs got the idea for the show 20 years ago when he began gathering old home movies of European families. He eventually collected more than 600 hours of them, mostly from the 1930's, 40's and 50's. From these he shaped 15 different histories of family life. He started exhibiting them four years ago, and those chronicles evolved into the current Getty exhibition, which runs through Sunday.
Putting together this project was not easy. After acquiring Andrasovits's film from his widow, he had to persuade the Dutch television network VPRO and the Getty Research Institute, a division of the Getty Center, to sponsor his show. Then Mr. Forgacs traveled to Israel, Germany and the United States, using newspaper advertisements and word of mouth to find 25 of Andrasovits's German and Jewish passengers.
Ultimately Mr. Forgacs highlighted the stories of two Jewish and two German refugee families. But the exhibition is much more than a collection of home movies. It pulses with the sights, the sounds and the feel of the times, elements often supplied by the Labyrinth Project, a five-year-old interactive program at the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California. For instance, the Labyrinth Project recently completed a history of the Ambassador Hotel here, where Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, combining newsreels, historic archives, shots of each room and ''films noirs'' taken there, said the project's director, Marsha Kinder. Similar techniques were used for Mr. Forgacs's film. They give viewers a feeling of ''you are there,'' Ms. Kinder said. For his show, students in the Labyrinth Project spent the last two years adding the sounds of engines, birds and the Danube and a lyrical score by the Hungarian composer Tibor Szemzo.
They also transformed eight-millimeter matchbook-size images into black-and-white films. Each film is projected on one of five screens, the whole totaling 45 feet by 6 feet. The exhibition creates ''an immersive experience,'' Ms. Kinder said, adding that instead of watching victims being taken off to death camps, ''you're watching vibrant people dancing on the deck and playing and going about their lives,'' not knowing what is happening off screen.
One sequence shows the riverboat stopped for weeks at a port near the Black Sea, each Jewish passenger eating a potato a day while a helmeted Bulgarian guard makes sure no one escapes to shore. Despite this, the captain goes sightseeing.
''All of which brings up the question of what kind of man the captain was,'' Ms. Kinder said. ''Was he willing to rent his boat out to just anyone? Was he just a witness to history? Or was he an idealist with a real commitment to what his riverboat could do?''
The presentation assembles the evidence but does not answer the question. ''The whole exhibit is about the selectiveness and faults of memory,'' Mr. Forgacs said. ''Layers of memory are revealed on a grid rather than linearly'' through time, he added; one set of personal memories often contradicts another. The exhibition is laid out as a collection of jigsawlike pieces, including maps of the Danube and entries from diaries of German and Jewish refugees, translated and read aloud on audiotapes in a clear but often conflicting welter of personal viewpoints.
All this leads to what Ms. Kinder calls a central ''poetic space,'' where viewers can see any of 18 home movies at the core of the exhibition. Operated by museumgoers using a touch screen, the different films ''may compete for space on the five screens here,'' Ms Kinder said. ''Or they may harmonize. You choose.''
Benny Goren-Grünhut, 74, flew in from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for the exhibition's opening. His father, a leader of the Jews in Bratislava, had sensed the coming Holocaust and sent his son to England; then he organized the rescue of more than 1,300 Jews on Andrasovits's boat and a second smaller one.
Mr. Goren-Grünhut watched wordlessly as his father came to life on the large screen. ''For years I've had trouble sleeping,'' he said afterward. ''Always, I saw my father'' to whom, he said, he felt he had never given proper respect.But at the exhibition, ''I felt that he was watching me,'' he said. ''I told him, 'Papa, the world is now recognizing what you did.' I'm sure my father heard me.'' Now, Mr. Goren-Grünhut added emotionally, ''I no longer have trouble sleeping.''
©2011 Ace Up Our Sleeve Public Relations