BOSTON — When he was 5 years old, Marian Marzynski’s parents hatched a plan to smuggle him out of the Warsaw Ghetto.
It was 1942, and Marzynski and his family were among the 40,000 Jews rounded up two years earlier by the Nazis, confined to the 1.3-square-mile ghetto in the heart of the city. To stay alive, Marzynski’s parents warned him, you must forget who you are.
That lesson in survival shepherded the young boy over the next three years as he hid from his tormentors, separated from his parents. He eventually became one of the few child survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Marzynski (born Marian Kuszner) would go on to become an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker in the United States. Now, 70 years later, after a career in which he made acclaimed films about Polish Jewry and the Holocaust, Marzynski has trained the camera on himself, telling his own story and those of other survivors in Never Forget to Lie, a film that will be broadcast on April 30 on the PBS series Frontline.
In the film, Marzynski retraces his early years, chronicling his parents’ secular lives in prewar Warsaw, their confinement in the ghetto, his escape to the Polish side of the wall, and his journey to the Catholic orphanage where he embraced life as a dutiful altar boy.
With an artful, empathetic hand, he tells the stories of other survivors as well, capturing their childhood memories as they grapple with the trauma and loss of their early lives. There are uplifting scenes, too, of Jewish culture and heritage being celebrated in Krakow.
“If there is news in this film, it’s about a new perception of the Holocaust,” said Marzynski in an interview in his suburban Boston home. “It’s basically a question of unfinished business. We are coming back to our childhood — a stolen childhood.”
Most Holocaust films have focused on the harsh realities of life in the concentration camps, not child survivors, so Marzynski views his film as a corrective of sorts, and a timely one at that. Child survivors are the last witnesses, and Marzynski says they have reached a point in their lives where they are ready to share their stories with the world.
After the war, Marzynski reunited with his mother. His father, who escaped a transport train to a death camp, was murdered in the forest outside of Warsaw. Unlike most survivors, Marzynski remained in Poland with his mother, who remarried another survivor, and took his stepfather’s name.
Marzynski became a journalist and a celebrated Polish radio and television personality. But in 1969, during a wave of politically motivated anti-Semitism in Poland, Marzynski fled to Denmark with his family — his wife, their young son and his mother and stepfather — before resettling in the U. S.
“We did not want our son to have to live the lie that I had to live,” he said.
In Never Forget to Lie, Marzynski ventures for the first time into the forest where his father was murdered. The camera lingers as he holds his father’s watch, saying that it is the first time he is wearing it. For a few moments, the usually voluble director can hardly speak.
Marzynski hopes the film reaches a wide audience, especially non-Jews. The survivor stories reflect the universal human experience, he says.
Marzynski got a taste of that broader resonance in January, when he and his wife were invited to join a group of 560 European high school students and 85 teachers on a trip from Tuscany to Poland on the Treno della Memoria (“train of memory”), an Italian Holocaust education project. After visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau and seeing his film, many students approached him, fascinated to meet a survivor. He says he was impressed by how eager they were to learn about this history, and how their perspectives seemed to have been completely changed.
“I want non-Jews to know the Holocaust in such a way that they can apply it to their own lives,” Marzynski said. “This is the job I am doing, transferring the Holocaust experience to a new audience.”
Never Forget to Lie will air on Tuesday, April 30, at 10 p.m. on PBS.