In NANA, Serena Dykman traces the life of her late grandmother, Maryla, who was sent to Auschwitz as a teenager and spent the rest of her life sharing her story of surviving the Holocaust. Serena and her mother, Alice, embark on a journey through Europe to do so, visiting Maryla’s hometown in Poland, meeting with her students, friends and interviewers, and ultimately visiting Auschwitz. The film is not simply a retelling of the horrors of the Holocaust, but a story of a mother and daughter navigating intergenerational trauma and a reminder of why the need to tell these stories is as urgent as ever.
Maryla Dyamant was born in Poland and was a teenager when she and her family were captured and sent to concentration camps. She survived in Auschwitz for a year and a half after becoming the translator for Joseph Mengele, known as “The Angel Of Death” by people in Auschwitz because of his role as the man who sent them to the gas chambers. In all of her interviews, Maryla is adamant in the fact that she survived out of pure luck, and that she is no better, smarter or more worthy of life than the millions of people who perished. She dedicated the rest of her life to sharing her story and educating others about the importance of preventing another tragedy like the Holocaust from happening.
A major theme of the film is Serena and Alice’s path to understanding Maryla’s life and legacy, and how the trauma of the Holocaust has been transmitted to them. In a tearful interview, Alice says that as a young child, she would scream out in the night not because she was scared of monsters or the dark, but because she could physically feel the pain and the fear that her mother and her ancestors who perished felt. When asked if there was one moment when Alice found out that her mother was a Holocaust survivor, she says no, that she had known since she was in the womb, and that the memory of the trauma was transmitted through her mother’s breast milk. Later in the film, Serena and her mother visit a synagogue in Warsaw, Poland at the end of their journey, and Serena says that there’s a difference between understanding and knowing—that she knew about the Holocaust her whole life but only began to understand it through her journey to understand Maryla.
I saw a lot of myself in Serena’s story, and I think other Jewish people and people who identify with the various ethnic, religious and sexual orientation groups targeted in the Holocaust will feel the same way. My sister and I spent six weeks backpacking in Europe last summer and visited Auschwitz at the end of our trip. For reasons I couldn’t explain, I was dreading visiting Auschwitz in the weeks leading up to it. When the day finally came, my heart sat in my throat on the bus ride there. When we arrived at Auschwitz, my chest tightened and remained that way for entire time I was there. My sister and I walked around the remains of the concentration camp for more than four hours, looking bleakly at the portraits of thousands of people who had perished in the Holocaust, walking slowly through the blocks where Jewish women had been strapped down and forcefully “experimented” on by faux gynecologists, and I felt a kind of heavy, penetrating sadness that I couldn’t shake. It was there, at Auschwitz, that I finally understood what the Holocaust was. Like Serena, I’d grown up hearing about it at Hebrew school and from my family, but I hadn’t quite understood—felt—how painful the Holocaust was and is until I embarked on my own personal journey.
Often when we talk about the Holocaust, we mention the six million Jews who perished and forget about the millions of people who were targeted and killed for their sexual orientation, ethnicity or political beliefs. NANA, however, does not make that mistake. As a Jewish woman, Maryla was in the position to share only Jewish perspectives and experiences—but throughout her years of work, she reminds us constantly that the story of the Holocaust, and of genocide in general, is not just about Jewish people. Serena makes that a focus of her film, showing viewers that though the Holocaust is in our past, we must continue to work every day to prevent one from happening in our future. For example, the film includes a poignant interview with Belgian historian Ina Van Looy, in which she says:
“What I often say to my classes is that this story doesn’t concern only Jews, it concerns every human being. It’s the story of the Shoah as well as the story of the Armenian genocide, like the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda. It’s a story that belongs to humanity, because if we look clearly at this story, we find ourselves at the edge of an abyss, an abyss from which emerges thousands of questions. And if we want to live in a world where we can co-exist, it’s essential that we try to find answers to those questions.”
Now more than ever we need films like NANA to remind us of what can happen when we let prejudice cloud judgment, and the amount of work that still has to be done to prevent that from happening in the future. NANA premieres at Cinema Village in New York City on April 13th, the day after Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), and will run until April 19th. For more information on where to see the film, click here.
photos via Nana
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Elizabeth F. Olson is an editorial intern at BUST. She mostly writes about her experience with mental illness through a feminist lens, and sometimes she writes fiction. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.