A filmmaker goes in search of her family's extraordinary past: seven siblings who all survived the Holocaust in a riveting documentary about the power of memory.
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The importance of history has oft been stated, though rarely observed. We repeat humanity’s greatest mistakes because we don’t learn from what came before — usually by not listening to the people who experienced it, and remembering.
Tragedy invariably befalls us when memory dies.
“UnBroken” is filmmaker Beth Lane’s personal journey to rediscover her own family’s extraordinary history: the Weber siblings, six sisters and one brother who somehow all survived the Holocaust and eventually found their way together to America.
It’s a tale of grief, despair, abuse, genocidal murder and xenophobia. But also hope, grace, love and luck.
The Webers were briefly famous in 1946 when they arrived by boat at the Statue of Liberty as orphaned refugees. It was rare for two or three Jewish siblings to all make it out, let alone seven. Their pictures were all over the newspapers in New York and later Chicago, where they were eventually resettled.
Among many other revelations, Lane is upfront about the biggest: their father was actually still alive and would live for decades more, even starting a new family. It became necessary for the children to hide out on a farm outside Berlin for the war years as the children of a Jewish mother.
Their dad, as a Catholic who converted for love and marriage, was forced to renounce his adopted faith while in prison, essentially turning the children over to family friends. His sacrifice, seemingly forsaking his offspring, is actually what allowed them to live.
Their mother was astonishing in her own right, hiding Jews from the authorities throughout the 1930s until eventually being sent to Auschwitz herself, dying of a heart attack according to the letter the family received from the German authorities.
The documentary, directed by Lane and written by her and Aaron Soffin, takes a two-pronged approach. She interviews her mother and surviving aunts and uncles, now in their 80s and 90s, who offer their memories and emotions from those times. Meanwhile, Lane herself travels to Germany and France to trace the steps of their journey, uncovering delightful evidence and insight along the way.
She actually manages to find the church where the children were baptized in an attempt to hide their Jewish identities from the Nazi regime — even locating their names in the church records. A video call to her mother, Gertrude, also reveals another amazing surprise that sends the old woman reeling.
The other children were Alfons, Judith, Ruth, Bela, Rene and Venta. Ruth cuts the most memorable figure among the survivors, a big woman with an even bigger personality. As the eldest daughter, she became the de facto mother hen of their little group after their own had passed.
The film tracks their survival trek from beginning to end. It started at the Schmidt farm where they stayed in the laundry house, hidden away from the Jew-hunters. Lane finds a descendant of their saviors still living in the area today, and it’s like old friends coming together again.
There are midnight truck rides, train hops, stops at a nunnery and various other temporary camps after the Germans surrendered. They were left in the Soviet controlled portion of Germany and the Jews there feared the Russians almost as much as the Germans — with great justification, as we will sadly see.
After all that, they and their father decided it was best if they left for America, as he was left a broken man by the war. He gave them only one instruction: stay together, always.
But upon finally making their way to Chicago, the Weber children were surprised at what befell them — an event that would require 40 years for the broken circle to finally be rejoined again.
There are those who say the story of World War II and the Holocaust is an ancient one now, and filmmakers and writers had best focus their creative efforts on concerns more urgent to today’s audience. But as “UnBroken” clearly proves, those terrible events of 80-90 years ago matter just as much today.
There will always be evil in the world, one of the Weber children says near the end. But we must remember that good will always be greater and win in the end, so long as we hold onto it and cherish what is most important: family, faith, community. This extraordinary film is an ode to the power of memory.