An Auschwitz survivor tells his great-grandson about his happy childhood in Poland, the loss of his family and finding a new life in America in a new Holocaust documentary for kids.

It started when Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films, came across an old children’s book about the Holocaust. Nevins knew she wanted to use the idea for a short film. And Nevins, who recently retired at 78 from the position she’d held for 38 years, knew just the person to produce and direct it: award-winning documentarian Amy Schatz.

The film, The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm, will make its national television debut on Jan. 27, International Holocaust Memorial Day, on HBO.

Stills by Scher that were used in the film.

Schatz has created many documentaries and other films for children for HBO. Her projects, which often grapple with serious issues, include the Saving My Tomorrow series, An Apology to Elephants and Through a Child’s Eyes: September 11, 2001. She has won seven Emmy awards, five DGA (Directors Guild of America) awards and three Peabody awards.

Shatz and her team spent almost two years putting together the 19-minute The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm. The film is based on The Number on My Grandfather’s Arm, a children’s book of historical fiction by David A. Adler, published in 1987, said Schatz. But Nevins wanted to tell a true story.

In her search for subjects, Schatz found the perfect pair: 10-year-old Elliott Saiontz of Chappaqua, N.Y., and his beloved “great-poppy,” Jack Feldman, 90, an Auschwitz survivor who lives in Rochester, N.Y. Schatz and her team filmed their conversations over two days in the summer of 2016, then expertly edited them into the short film.

Narrated by Elliott, the film starts with photos of Jewish children in the days before the Nazi onslaught. Elliott talks to Jack, born Srulek, about his happy pre-war life in Sosnoweicz, Poland. Then, says Elliott, the Nazis came.

“Adolf Hitler made a big speech and said the Jews are causing all the problems and if we kill all the Jews then we’ll have no more problems,” he says, explaining Hitler’s Final Solution in terms a child can understand.

Stills by Scher that were used in the film.

Jack tells how he had to leave school, how all the Jews had to wear yellow stars on their clothing, and what it was like to live in the ghetto, with 15 or 20 people sharing a room.

When he was 14, Jack and some friends were picked up on the street and sent to a labor camp. His father, a hat maker, got a friend to smuggle in a cap for him with money sewn into the band. Jack gave it to a German in return for extra food; he thinks that may have saved his life.

Jack ended up at Auschwitz in 1944, where he got the number A17606 tattooed on his arm. “Your number was your name,” says Elliott. “That was all he was to them.”

Elliott learns how hard life was in the camps and how little there was to eat. “Were you skinny?” he asks. Jack replies, “My whole body was skinny!”

When the Germans abandoned Auschwitz, Jack joined the inmates forced to walk through Europe for several months. He was liberated on May 5, 1945, by the Russians and eventually made his way to the United States.

Artist Jeff Scher with filmmaker Amy Schatz.

Schatz says The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm is aimed at children about age 9 and up. Even though it avoids Holocaust horror scenes, younger children might be upset to learn that the Nazis wanted to kill every Jew and to hear Jack say he never saw his parents again after he was picked up by the Nazis.

Many of the scenes, making up eight minutes of the film, start with black-and-white archival photos that morph into colorful animations. Artist Jeff Sher did the animation using a Rotoscope, a tool created more than 100 years ago by animation pioneer Max Fleischer, creator of the Betty Boop cartoons.

“We were looking for a way to unify the story and provide animation to the stock footage,” said Sher, whose work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Hirschhorn Museum, Pompidou Centre and other sites. It’s a labor-intensive process; Sher needed more than a year to complete the paintings.

The producers of the film felt the pressure of time, wanting to preserve stories for younger generations while knowing that the ranks of survivors are quickly dwindling.

Young Elliott understood this as well. As he says of Jack’s story, “You need to know it to understand and stop it from happening in future generations.”

 

The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm debuts Saturday,
Jan. 27, on HBO and will be available on HBO On Demand,
HBO NOW, HBO GO and affiliate portals.

It will be included in an educational program offered
by the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City. Companion segments featuring other children in conversation with survivors will be available on HBO’s digital platforms.