Back to IndieWire

The Early Life of Ben Barenholtz in Europe

The Early Life of Ben Barenholtz in Europe

Ben Barenholtz’ birthday is this week.
This is the second part of a 2 part blog about his career in film and his early life when, as a child, he barely escaped murder by the Fascists.
Ben recently published the following which needs no description except to say it is a very moving and evocative piece. Quite unbelievable actually except
that Ben bears witness, his amazing life, to the truth of his words. I have always liked Ben so very much in the years I have known him but now he appears
to me as an heroic figure as well.
Nekiya Journey by Ben Barenholtz


The following is not intended to provoke or to elicit any kind of response or argument. It is not intended to offend. If it does, I hope, as a Human being
you can forgive me.

What I am attempting to do is to share with the people I loved; those who have endured my moods and silences, my Friends who thought they knew me and my
acquaintances, a dialogue that I realized I’ve been carrying on with my father and with my contemporaries who died over sixty five years ago. This dialogue
consists of my personal observations, opinions, and mainly the questions that I have been unable to answer in trying to make some sense of what has
happened since they all, “got out of here.”

This may also be my way of trying to leave a mark in the sand before the next wave comes to wash it away.

I am what is commonly called a, “holocaust survivor.” If I live long enough I will probably be part of the last generation with direct memory of that

I was born in 1935 in the small city of Kovel in Eastern Poland, now part of Western Ukraine. We lived in the nearby village of Kupichev. Being in a
“border area” it was populated by Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians, some Germans, and about nine hundred Jews. The area became part of Russia in 1939 and in 1941
the Germans came. When the “final solution” took shape about two-dozen Jews escaped to the forest. Hunted like animals by Ukrainian Nationalists but helped
by simple Ukrainian, Czech, and Polish peasants; twelve of us including my mother, my older brother, and myself, the youngest – managed to survive in the
forest for 22 months until we were liberated by the Russians.

The Ukrainian Nationalists, who at that time collaborated with the Germans, killed my father on one of their raids. He taught us all how to Survive and how
to Live.

I am not a writer, historian, philosopher, or any kind of academic. I had four years of formal schooling, but even those years were spent in movie theaters
whenever I could earn or steal the money. I have lived in New York City since 1947 and mostly, like some other survivors, I’ve been silent.

There are survivors who bear witness and others who write books, plays, or make films. However most, even with each other, remained silent. Even the ones
who talked got tired of the tears, or that glazed look in the listener’s eyes, “God, another Holocaust story…”

Everyone had their own horror stories but mainly they kept them to themselves. To try to make sense of it was too painful, only survival and whatever could
be conjured up about the future is what mattered. They did not understand explanations. For some, God was the least helpful. He was, “The Unmentionable,”
and therefore was not mentioned. As long as he was silent, they would remain silent. All excuses from whatever source were irrelevant. They had to hide
from their own shadows.

Whole industries have been created trying to explain what happened through: books, films, plays, lectures, philosophical excuses, and banal explanations by
intellectual giants making their reputations with their theories and analysis.

Of course museums, memorials, and monuments abound.

They have fixated on a precocious girl in Amsterdam, representing the lost children. Of course my contemporaries with whom I could not grow old with, did
not have the time to write or paint like her or the children of Terezin and some other places. They were liquidated in two days.

I’ve stopped believing in a grand plan that let me survive for some greater purpose- delusions of grandeur- contrary to some of my religious brethren and
other believers, I am truly convinced that my survival or anyone else’s survival was arbitrary and had no purpose whatsoever. In one way or another we are
all survivors, and my survival is not more important than any other.

But, the guilt can linger. 

The above photo was taken in 1939 or 1940 at a Purim party. I am the
sullen one in the front row on the right with my friends, my
contemporaries. My
brother is in the second row, third from the right. As far as can be
determined we are the only survivors.
It looks like I am not sure about what is going on, trying to make
sense of it all. I still have not succeeded.

The above photo was taken in 1992 across the road from a thriving farm
in the lush Ukrainian countryside. A simple stone carved with the date
and the
number of Jews (seven hundred and fifty-two) shot and buried on that
spot. Among them were my aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, and my

Near the slight mound that is still discernible, a young boy and
girl were chasing one another and laughing, as if they were dancing on
the grave. At first
it was upsetting but than I realized how fitting that was. I hope
that someday children will dance on my grave, and everyone else’s as

In the meantime their father, the farmer from across the road,
recounted the grisly details of those two days in the summer of 1942
methodically. Obviously
he had done this many times before and expected the $20 dollars he
was given.

My friends, I am compelled to continue on my quest to ask questions that
will not get answered. The river of blood that divides us cannot be
breached; but
I will still ask and share my observations and opinions with you my
lost friends, who are in the front row with me in the photo and share
that grave with
all the others.


I can imagine talking to you and you are as old as I am, but have been away…

There is so much to tell you, to discuss with you. So many wondrous
things have happened, many discoveries, scientific and technological
advances that
boggle the mind. But, essentially Humans haven’t changed very much. I
want to tell you that there is less hatred, there is kindness, and
compassion. That
you did not die in vain. I am sorry, it seems that very little has
been learned. Many “isms” have been added to be used as excuses for
intolerance and
barbarism. Stupidity and hatred has not abated, only changed forms.

They have gone to the moon with the help of Nazis but cannot manage to feed a hungry child.

There was a time right after the war when Jews created their own
country and became strong. Maybe had it existed earlier we would not
have had to go
through the nightmare. No one wanted to take us in and in that way
they all participated in the “final solution” including the Jews in
powerful positions
who were afraid to make waves.

There was a moment, after the war, when there was hope. “Never
again,” became a rallying cry. Never again will Jews be led to the
slaughter like sheep.
“Never again,” also became the world’s rallying cry.

The original meaning has been long forgotten. It has become over and
over again in: Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, the Congo, and numerous other
places. Power
seekers rise all the time steeped in old hatreds, traditions and
prejudice, and it is all repeated again and again.


The sound of the machine gun that was killing you still echoes.

My father, mother, brother, and I sat in silence under a large tree
hidden in the forest listening to the RAT-TET-TET of the machine gun
every fifteen
minutes or so. It lasted all morning. Into the afternoon. A

What sins did you commit my friends, to die that way? Where you
being punished for the sins of your parents? Your ancestors? Did you
pray before the
bullets cut you down? Did you say the, “shema?” Was God working in
his mysterious ways?

Was God’s answer to your prayer, RAT-TET-TET? The same as in Babi
Yar and hundreds of other places? Was his voice in the hiss of gas in
the showers before
the crematorium in the concentration camps?

“Got mitt unz,” was etched on the belt buckles of the German soldiers. Is that where God was?

Thankfully you only went through one day and night of hell. Standing
in that building, nude and shivering, packed in like sardines. At least
you were
spared the indignity of the concentration camp.

Did you see my uncle charge the machine gun with the shovel they
gave him to dig his families grave? At least he made them use some extra

Mainly you went silently. There was no one listening anywhere. Your parents couldn’t even comfort you in those last moments.

There are still debates about what happened to you, some are even
denying that you ever existed. Sometimes I wonder myself, maybe it was
all a dream.

I’ve learned to understand every kind of evil mankind can inflict,
but I can’t get my mind to comprehend the ability to kill a child. How
is that

Was that what made it so difficult for you to continue, Paul, Jerzy, Carlo, and the thousands of others?


Great Chasidic sages, some of them survivors, said that, “You were
punished because the Jews did not keep the commandments.” Doesn’t that
mean that you
can’t blame the perpetrators? They were only God’s Instrument. The
same Sages and many of their followers maintained that it was God that
saved them. I
guess you were not worthy, no divine intervention for you.

He and other “sages” just like them must have been true descendents
of, The Wise Men of Chelm, the clever residents who thought that they
captured the moon
in a barrel of water. I am sure you heard those stories from your
parents. Their descendents captured God in the their own barrel. They
now have the
answers, but if you question them it is always, “Who are you to
question God’s work? His mystery is forever, beyond our ability to

They maintain nostalgia for a time, place, and traditions that could have only flourished under oppressive conditions.

A Nobel laureate, a renowned witness bearer, tried to instruct me on
the correct way to sit shiva. He should have been sitting shiva for his

Some pious Jews are now fusing their fundamentalism with the same
people who began their persecution a long time ago; who are only waiting
for the “The
Rapture,” the second coming, so that the Jews can be “perfected.” In
the old country in the “stetel” they didn’t want to wait for “The
Rapture” so they
sped things up a bit. Of course the great sages think they are
smarter and the Messiah will come before the next inquisition.

Aren’t they helping to perpetuate the same kind of tribalism and
racism that started this entire problem to begin with? It seems they
have not learned a
thing. Power seekers will arise and repeat the horrors. And God will
be with whom?

My friends, don’t you think that as long as children are being
slaughtered, starved, and maimed anywhere in the world, that no one is
safe anywhere? As
long as intolerance exists no one is safe. Will they ever learn
what, “never again,” really means? Don’t you agree that steeped in old
hatreds, traditions
and prejudices, we are doomed to repeat history? That instead of,
“never again,” it will happen over and over again?

There are still arguments particularly by the great scholars of the
Torah, about who is considered a Jew. I had always assumed that it was
defined by them
putting a bullet in you and then dumping you into the pit they had
your parents dig, my friends.

I am sure they didn’t ask you if you were a Hasid, a Socialist, a
Zionist, what class or group your family belonged to, assimilated, name
changed, or if
your mother was Jewish. Do we need other definitions? Maybe any
innocent child who is shot, starved, or maimed should be considered a

It seems that all religions, spiritual movements, and other “isms”
have captured their Gods in their own barrel of water. Some will even
kill you if you
don’t believe that their barrel contains the, “True God.” And the
assimilated, with their name changes, nose jobs and political
correctness, are they not
also descendents of The Wise Men of Chelm?


I have taken many trips to Germany and other parts of Europe. I’ve
seen many memorials, monuments, and museums to the six million dead
(some say five, but
what’s a million between friends?)

On a recent trip to Munich, I happened upon a Jewish Museum in the
final stages of construction. Of course it was being made bomb proof, to
be guarded day
and night. A monument to the Jews of Munich, not too far from where
the Fuhrer made his plans, close to where, “the good soldiers,” gather
every year to
assure themselves of their righteousness.

Normally I don’t visit those places. What can they really show me that I don’t already know?

It did, however, cause me to start thinking about the purpose of all
those monuments, museums, and other forms of remembrance. What are they
for? What
purpose do they serve? Who goes to them? Are they survivors? Are
they relatives who have a good cry and then go on their way? School
children who are
forced to go and are only happy when they escape to daylight? Are
they people who go to salve their conscience because they acquiesced by
doing nothing?

I realized that quite a few of those visitors were the innocent
children and grandchildren of the perpetrators. They were there trying
to make sense of
their elder’s silence. You see, the people who committed the
atrocities were silent and never spoke about what happened or they just
rationalized it away,
leaving the next generation to shoulder the guilt. What will another
museum, another monument, another sermon really do?

But of course, “the good soldiers,” and the Germans at home didn’t know anything about what was happening to you.

The ones who came to watch the executions for entertainment forgot about it. The
brave Germans who killed innocent people in order to relieve the tension of battle, became heroes.
Ironically, mostly, German soldiers who refused to participate in the killings were not punished.

Resistance was suddenly remembered, collaboration and acquiescence
was conveniently forgotten. “But what could we have done?” Echoed across
a continent,
“Look what was done to us.”

They died peacefully in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, the United
States, and in their own countries complaining that they too were just
as victimized as the
Jews were.

There was some sort of de-nazification process, which in reality was
used by the conquering powers to absorb and control the people who were
useful to

Do the museums, the monuments, or the restitution money exonerate them and make them feel better about their deeds?

They denied their Humanity to follow orders and indulge in their hatreds and prejudices.

Instead of monuments to make them feel less guilty for their
participation, or for just standing by. What about a tent, or a well, or
a shelter for lost
children? Wouldn’t that be a more fitting monument to you, my

At Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, “the righteous gentiles,” who helped
people survive, risking their lives are honored. But, in their own
particularly in Eastern Europe these brave souls are ostracized.
They can’t even talk about their deeds since they are considered

When asked why they risked their lives to help, invariably the
answer was, “I am a Human being just helping another Human being.” Some
were religious, some
agnostics some communists, they never thought of themselves as being
heroic only, “Human.”

And you, my father, lying in an unmarked grave in Litin Forest; we,
your two sons, are alive today because you never forgot your Humanity.
Whenever someone
needed help- a farmer, a peasant, anyone- you always did what you
could. Never did you ask of their religion, nationality, or political
belief. They
remembered; they only had to hear, “I am Aaron’s son,” whispered at a
door or window on those dark nights and whatever food they had was


My friends, there was another part of Chelm that even your parents
did not hear about; and that was ruled by the hidden society of seeker,
mystics, and
hole diggers. This society still exists worldwide. They dig holes
since the water barrels are now full to: Tibet, India, China, Japan,
Egypt, South
America, and Atlantis. They seek the lost knowledge and magic
formulas of the ancients and the remarkable men that they are sure
exited in a past golden
age. They continue digging embracing all kinds of mantras, magic
potions, crystals, aromas, astrology, numerology, and many sacred
traditions that they
fight to preserve. 

Traditions, which with all their beauty perpetuate an inordinate
amount of evil, racism, and hatreds that probably, kill more women and
children than any
disease. Embraced by the “enlightened” and their “Panglossian”
brethren with their well-meaning blindness and new age pieties, they
romanticize a past that
never existed.

They rationalize female circumcisions, honor killings, and numerous
other traditions. How do they serve Humanity? The ancient mysteries they
now crave and
believe in are blinding them: gurus, shamans, mystics, holy men are
the same in their hunger for power- pretenders to knowledge that never

There was never a golden age. 

There were, and still are good Humans and in a few places where
tolerance and learning are respected. There were once and still are
lawgivers who try to
civilize, but the power seekers quickly corrupts their teachings.
The visionaries are buried or sacrificed to appease unknown forces,
Gods, and traditions.

Belief in God, afterlife, the supernatural, reincarnation, Karma,
Satan, gurus, new age mantras, magic, and of course drugs. A pill, a
shot, a toke will
make you free and enlightened. Does all of that lead to more ethical
behavior or only to the destruction of the innocent and the extension
of power by the
self-promoters and so called leaders.

Anything but reality. Even the brave are afraid of the abyss.

The nothingness they fear exists in their own lives, it gets filled
with the most simplistic, fundamental nonsense increasing the fear of
reality. Which
you, my friends, know cannot be avoided and in the end will catch up
with all of us.


The memory of the children dancing on your grave, my friends, fills me with hope.

The priests, the imams, the rabbis, the gurus, the mystics, and the
assimilated. The children will dance on their graves too.

The children will dance on all the graves: victims, perpetrators, moguls, and leaders.

Their innocence, their joy and laughter echoing.

Wouldn’t you rather see them laugh, cavort, and dance while you’re still able to see and feel their joy?

What can I say to you my friends? Will you be remembered as victims,
martyrs? You will probably be forgotten. But forgetting you is not an
option for me.

You never got the chance to grow old. Who knows what you would have accomplished?

And you my little best friend, there are much more pleasant things
do to girls than to throw stones at them. You never got a chance to wake
up next to one
of those little girls now a grown woman, looking at you lovingly
with mischievous laughter. You never got a chance to greet the sunrise
on the ocean, or to
have cigarette with your morning coffee.

But we did feel the warm mud oozing between our toes and we did share that joy and how we laughed…

You shared the last moments with my little cousin who was handed
over to the killers by our neighbors. They did take in my dog and cared
for him, which
would please certain groups now.

There was a moment when I was facing the guns as a curious eight
year old. I wasn’t afraid, but was looking forward to joining you, my
friends, and my

And, father, your last word to me was, “run.” I have been a dutiful
runner ever since and when I come to rest, when my ashes are spread over
Litin Forest,
they will find your grave and join you. Maybe they will help a
flower to grow for a child to pluck, and that child will dance and
cavort over us. That will
be your – our monument.

I still have hope that one day the grandchildren of the survivors,
the perpetrators, and the enablers will join together, in memory of the
millions of
forsaken children worldwide. Together they will inspire everyone to
say, “never again,” as HUMANS not bound by their race, tribe, religion,
or tradition.
One day all will listen- and finally commit to real change.

As Paul Celan wrote, “There are still songs to be sung on the other side of mankind.”



1)- Nekyia: the evocation of the dead in order to know the future. Described in Book 11 of the Odyssey.

2)- The Ukraine Nationalists: Refers to a political movement that
was designed to protect the Ukrainian population. They frequently used
violence as a tool
and their actions were mostly directed towards the Poles, Jews and

3)- Purim: a Jewish holiday celebrated on the 14th of Adar in
commemoration of the deliverance of the Jews from the massacre plotted
by Haman.

4)- Shema: an affirmation or a declaration of faith in one God. Some
considerate it to be the most important prayer of the Jewish faith.

5)- Paul Celan.

6)- Jerzy Kosinski

7)- Carol Levi

8)- The Wise Men of Chelm: Jewish folklore and tales about
good-natured but misguided that date back to the 1500s. The “Moon and
Barrel” tale refers to a
story when the men thought that they could cover the moon’s
reflection and keep it locked inside of a barrel filled with water.

9)- “The Rapture”: A belief that Christ will return to gather all of the “true


10)- “Perfected”: Refers to the belief that 144,000 Jews will be chosen by Christ at

“The Rapture”.

11)- “The Good Soldiers”: reference to the book Those Were the Daysby Ernst Klee.

12)- Yad Vashem: Israel’s monument to the Jewish victim’s of the Holocaust.

13)- Panglossian: marked by the view that all is for the best in
this best of possible worlds or excessively optimistic. Voltaire.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: News and tagged , , , , , ,