There are quiet conversations among the family about the weather and shouldn’t Ilana be wearing a hat, and there they are strolling through fields of wildflowers under springtime blue skies, along country roads, through old town squares, and pausing to place stones of remembrance on the monuments to those who died on the forced death marches out of Austrian concentration camps.
Award-winning filmmaker/director Austin de Besche, as unobtrusively as possible, filming in mini-DV format, follows along as holocaust survivor Michael Kraus, an architect who with his pediatrician wife Ilana, and their daughters, family physician Dana and graduate student Tamara, spend three days retracing the 37-mile death march from Mauthausen to a camp in Gunskirchen that he first made with a thousand others when he was 14. It was 1945, toward the end of World War II, when the Nazis began evacuating the concentration camps.
Cinematographer de Besche, a Boston University faculty member, met Michael Kraus in 1995 while working on the Emmy-winning “Voices of the Children.” He brings 34 years of experience to the project, having worked on feature films (“Return of the Secaucus Seven” and “Lianna” for John Sayles), documentaries (including “On Thin Ice”), television (“Cheers” and “St. Elsewhere”), and commercials. He and the Krauses were friends by the time he put portable microphones on them (they were never completely comfortable being filmed and recorded) and let everything happen naturally.
The result, the documentary “Pilgrimage into the Past,” (premiered at the 2002 Boston Jewish Film Festival) gently draws viewers into the circle of the overachieving, loving, but in many ways repressed Kraus family.
On Sunday, April 11, in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center will show “Pilgrimage into the Past,” and introduce both Mr. de Besche and Mr. Kraus, who will share their experiences.
As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that rather than centering on the horrors of the camps, the focus is the family’s attempt to confront Michael Kraus’s hardly spoken of past. His daughters seem to want to better understand their exacting, ambitious father, and identify how that which wasn’t spoken of has had such an influence on their lives. His wife, whom he clearly adores (“the luckiest thing to happen to me”), seems to want the opportunity for her husband to share what he can with the family.
But these are real people in a real family, and their revelations don’t come with drums and cymbals. They come in muttered fragments between causal conversations.
Mr. Kraus tries to explain his seeming detachment saying, “Can you remember when you were hungry five years ago?”
Ilana thinks it is all “a defense mechanism.”
Gradually, he offers bits and pieces, matter-of-factly describing how as a boy he was shipped in a crowded open train to Mauthausen, a harsh camp so overcrowded the children were pushed out of the tents to sleep in the mud.
And on they walk in their baseball caps, polo shirts, backpacks, and fanny packs, often pairing off to hold each other’s hands. They plan where to stop for lunch, “should we have dessert?” and show baby pictures.
Mr. Kraus, who bears a slight resemblance to the actor Alan Arkin in his manner, cadence and appearance, recalls, “Springtime didn’t make much of an impression because we were dealing with fatigue and hunger, and no shoes…” and he quietly adds, “The road was lined with death.”
Cars whiz past, maps are consulted, an elderly man who stops to give directions recounts his boyhood memory of a seeing the prisoners march past, and watching as a woman, too weak to walk, collapses against a fence and is shot in the head and left there.
“The steep hills were problematic for the weak when they were being urged to go faster,” Mr. Kraus says.
There are moments between the sisters, Dana and Tamara, when they talk about the way their father “radiates anxiety,” and worries so much about something happening to them. They describe their father as “a perfectionist,” and one says, “That’s why mother always sat on the edge of her chair…”
When the family finally reaches the site of the camp at Gunskirchen, Mr. Kraus recalls how disappointing it was to discover worse conditions there than existed at Mauthausen.
And he tells his loving family, “There is no closure. There never will be. We all have to live with the past.”
“Pilgrimage into the Past,” 3 pm, Sunday, April 11, M.V. Hebrew Center. Michael Kraus and Austin de Bresche will speak after the film. Donations welcomed. 508-693-0745.
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