Lessons from loss

Local filmmaker traces footsteps of grandmother killed by Nazis

Linden Hills filmmaker Rod Martel. Credit: By Michelle Bruch

Linden Hills resident Rod Martel grew up with an oil portrait of his Jewish grandmother Susette Liepmannssohn Freund on the wall. His family believed she died of typhus in a concentration camp in northern Germany. When Martel started investigating her life, however, he discovered the Nazis murdered her in an entirely different city.

Martel chronicles Susette’s story in a new documentary, which screened April 28 to a nearly sold out audience at the Sabes Jewish Community Center. He is one of several Linden Hills descendants of Jews who suffered during the Holocaust.

“It’s pretty moving,” Martel said. “It deals with themes of loss and how you deal with loss, how you move forward.”

Although Martel’s grandfather is Karl Freund — Freund directed more than 100 films, won an Oscar and served as head cinematographer for the “I Love Lucy” series — Martel doesn’t have a film background. He worked as a special-ed teacher in Minneapolis schools for 30 years. He currently runs a psychology practice specializing in rational-emotive behavior therapy.

In a speech at the film screening, Martel said he wrote the film for his children.

“It became obvious to me that just showing my children the ‘snapshots,’ so to speak, would not only lack historical context, but would trivialize the most pivotal event in their family’s history,” he said. “Not wanting to do that, I decided to devote approximately three years of emotional and financial resources to this project.”

Martel never met his grandmother. Her portrait was painted from a photo by a prisoner in a German POW camp at Ft. Lewis, Washington, where his father Egon worked as an interrogator for the U.S. Army. Egon fled Germany in 1938 with the help of Susette, who purchased his entry visa to Cuba by selling her father’s rare Bechstein piano. Martel’s mother and grandfather had already left for America a year earlier.

Susette stayed behind in Berlin.

“Originally, like so many Jews, [Susette] thought it would just kind of blow over,” Martel said.

To create the documentary, Martel compiled more than 800 sound effects, photos, artist sketches and video footage. He met long-lost relatives and a professional researcher who translated Susette’s postcards and found her records. To weave the story together, he enlisted editor Randall Johnson of Minneapolis Community & Technical College.

To learn more about Susette’s life, Martel traveled to Germany in 2010 with his wife Colleen and mother Gerda, who was age 93 at the time and continues to live in Uptown. The journey led Martel to the precise room where Susette died. (We’ll save the full story for the film.)

“Somehow understanding what has happened to you, Grandma, makes me even more grateful for the blessings in my life,” Martel says in the film.

“It’s one of the better Holocaust documentaries I have seen,” said Walter Elias, who has seen hundreds of them as co-chair of the Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival. “I’m taking it to Berlin, to the head of the Berlin Jewish film festival.” 

Local survival stories

Linden Hills happens to host an abundance of Holocaust expertise. Several residents are members of CHAIM: Children of Holocaust Survivors Association of Minnesota. Member Sylvia Fine said the group is bound together by their parents’ survival stories: some were hidden as children, some lived in the forest, some were refugees, and others survived concentration camps.

State Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-60B) is writing a book about his parents’ experiences. His mother grew up in Poland, and she was able to secure false papers and hide with friends and family in Warsaw. His father escaped from a forced labor camp and hid on a farm until 1945.

“It has been an enriching experience for me,” Hornstein said.

Like Martel, Hornstein said his project interjects his own experience as a child of Holocaust survivors.

“It’s nice to know I’m not reinventing the wheel,” Hornstein said.

Linden Hills producer Maxine Davis runs a film company called “Every Life is a Story,” and she received two Telly Awards for her documentaries on Holocaust survivors created for the Jewish Community Relations Council.

“Every story is shocking,” Davis said.

She profiled a Holocaust survivor who spoke out against laws that would limit the rights of the gay and lesbian community, testifying at the state Legislature in 2003. “She saw gay people put in ovens, just like Jews,” Davis said.

Another film tells the story of Esther Horowicz Latarus, the mother of Sylvia Fine of Linden Hills and Lili Chester of East Harriet.

Fine’s mother Esther lived for much of the war in Lodz, Poland, inside a Jewish ghetto surrounded by barbed wire.

“During the four years, it is hard to describe how much hunger we suffered,” Esther said in the film. “We got so little food that it was too much to die and too little to live.”

Esther left Lodz to embark on a two-and-a-half day journey, without any toilets or water, to Auschwitz. She was sent out on work details to dig ditches, wearing light clothing throughout the harsh winter.

On a day she was too sick to work, she braced herself to be shot by a soldier, as was routine for sick prisoners. A soldier threw her a piece of bread instead.

“I don’t know why, but you still you want to live,” Esther said. “Everything was so bleak. What was the purpose of living? But somehow people want to live, even in the worst circumstances.”

Esther died in 2006, and Fine has traveled in her stead to speak at schools and continue telling her story. The film they produced with Davis is now available in teaching kits.

“We get out in schools and teach about tolerance, discrimination and prejudice using the lessons of the Holocaust,” Fine said. “In 12 minutes you hear the whole story, and you understand this happened to people who are everyday people. … Any publicity we can get to keep people aware of the fact that these atrocities happened are really what the second generation’s goals are all about.”

FYI …

“The Heart of a Mother: Susette’s Story” may have an additional local screening in the future.

Davis’ films are available on the Jewish Community Relations Council’s website.