When asked about the reasoning behind the Holocaust, survivor Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant’s answer remains consistent and assured. “It’s inexplicable” she says, looking to dismiss the too-often-asked question. In following with Maryla’s sentiments, Nana (the debut documentary directed by her granddaughter Serena Dykman) skips past the tiring search for the why and the how of the Holocaust and chooses not to drown itself in the historical or the political. Rather, it raises awareness of the horrors of these events and the dangers of intolerance by remembering the past in an intimately human manner–through the haunting memories of an exceptional woman and their lingering trans-generational impacts.
Drawing on over 100 hours of archival footage, Nana chronicles Maryla’s life not only as a Ravensbruck, Malchow, and Auschwitz survivor, but also as a postwar educator and public speaker. In addition, it follows Serena’s journey in creating the documentary where she physically retraces her grandmother’s experiences with her mother, Alice Michalowski. The film primarily consists of previously recorded interviews with Maryla, which are shown alongside present-day discussions with academics, historians, and those who had known her.
Through the careful curating and editing of interview footage, Dykman has done an excellent job of providing a platform for Maryla’s magnetism. Maryla is strong, sincere, witty, and passionate. It is her inspiring energy that carries the film, even through its more cluttered moments.
Maryla walks us through her journey, providing vivid imagery of the different events she endured during WWII and the time she spent in Auschwitz. She describes the way her family was captured from her Polish town, the silent and dreadful train ride to Auschwitz, the heartbreaking moment she lost her parents, her participation in the Death March trek between concentration camps, and her eventual escape. In an especially interesting segment, she discusses how working as a translator for the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele saved her from being sent to the gas chambers.
Each story works together to paint a very disturbing, personal, and emotionally painful picture of what life was like for the victims of the Holocaust. Despite the darkness of the subject matter, Maryla is able to tell her own stories with an almost objective detachment and a sobering bluntness. It’s this strength of character that makes her so inspiring.
At no point in the film is Maryla looking for our sympathy or seeking admiration, regarding her survival abilities. She constantly reminds her audience that she survived simply out of “luck” and that it would be a “betrayal” to the victims for her not to share her experiences. Her answers to questions about Hitler’s motives, forgiving the Germans, and the rise of neo-Nazism are frank and insightful. She even makes an effort to find humour in some of the most hard-to-reach places. While leading a group through her cellblock in Birkenau, she jokes, “How do you like my apartment?”
Underlying Maryla’s story is a theme within the film regarding the trans-generational impacts and perceptions of the Holocaust. Serena and her mother touch on their own experiences in reconciling with the passing on of Maryla’s trauma. In doing so, the film takes on a very intimate and self-referential element as Serena details the emotional process in creating the documentary, which involved physically retracing Maryla’s steps through Poland, Belgium, and eventually Auschwitz itself.
This aspect of the film serves to highlight the degree of suffering felt by those whose ancestors lived through the Holocaust. In a highly emotional interview, Alice describes the difficulties of being Maryla’s daughter, carrying the burden of her suffering and feeling a terrible sense of “unfathomable anguish,” which would manifest as horrible night terrors. From her description, it becomes clear that the pain and torment associated with the Holocaust are inescapable. The suffering has simply been passed down and internalized into the psyches of Alice, Serena, and anyone else tied closely to these tragic events. This is something Serena chooses to emphasize stylistically as well, by jump-cutting from Maryla to Alice to herself, all reading the same excerpt or repeating the same sentence directly to the camera.
Although the trans-generational theme in the film provides a powerful perspective on the present-day influence of the Holocaust, it doesn’t run entirely smoothly alongside Maryla’s story. In certain moments, Nana’s structure and overarching goal can feel a bit jumbled. It jumps loosely from interview to interview, some being more relevant than others, and at times tries too hard to work in its making-of-the-documentary narrative. Rather than allowing Maryla’s story to speak for itself, Dykman chooses to intertwine her own journey in creating the film and to comment on what she has learned from it. Although this adds an interesting element to the film, its execution becomes a tad repetitive, almost as if Dykman feels a need to constantly remind us that films such as hers are important. As a result, this aspect of the film can actually dilute the potency of what is otherwise a powerful message being shared by Maryla.
That being said, Nana is truly an important film, so these small hiccups can be forgiven. Where the documentary is at its best is in its most harrowing message. “We can make killers out of any people,” says Maryla–her most poignant lesson from the Holocaust. The film reminds us that, despite the horrific past outcomes of intolerance, anti-Semitism, racism, prejudice and genocide, they have never slipped from contemporary relevancy. It is a truly terrifying notion, and one that echoes well beyond the boundaries of the film, particularly considering today’s political climate.
Nana is two things at once: an intimate and heartfelt tribute to Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant and to all those who were lost in the Holocaust, as well as an assertion regarding the horrific dangers of intolerance and a reminder to never forget the capabilities of man. This is why Maryla is set at center stage of the documentary. Her story and the telling of her experiences as a Holocaust survivor are not only exceptionally gripping, but also feel as if they should be of mandatory concern to every human being. We must remember the past to fight intolerance today. We must share the stories of those who suffered to prevent future atrocities. And, as Maryla says, “We must start right away.”