Child’s story of survival premieres at Jewish film festival

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Holocaust survivor Julius Maslovat likens the process of uncovering his past to pulling a thread.

Maslovat was four months old when his mother made the heart-wrenching decision to throw her child over a barbed-wire fence in the Piotrkow ghetto to her husband. Minutes later, she boarded a train with other Polish Jews. Maslovat’s young mother, Sala, died hours later in the gas chambers of Treblinka. Her choice saved her child’s life. 

He spent 17 years travelling to Poland, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Britain and the United States to research how he was able to survive internment in labour and concentration camps. He was separated from his father, David, at age two, and became the youngest prisoner on record at Germany’s Buchenwald concentration camp.

“I was so young, I had no control over what happened,” Maslovat says. “I survived because of other people, people who were concerned enough, despite their own condition, to help someone else.”

The Victoria resident discovered photographs, historical records, birth certificates and even an unknown relative, his father’s brother, over the course of his research, each clue leading to another.

“The information was there. You find a thread and pull and everything comes with it,” Maslovat says.

His triumphant effort to create a narrative of events he hardly remembers has been captured in a powerful documentary, Why Am I Here?, which will premiere on Nov. 5 at the Victoria International Jewish Film Festival. Directed by UVic Germanic and Slavic Studies alumna Chorong Kim, the documentary follows Maslovat’s journey to learn the truth about his own past and to discover the people who kept him alive.

The documentary includes a three-second black and white clip of Maslovat as a little boy. He stumbled across the clip, filmed when British soldiers liberated Buchenwald, at the Imperial War Museum in the UK.

Associate Professor Helga Thorson, who served as the documentary’s executive producer, says all Holocaust stories are unique, but what makes Maslovat’s distinctive is his young age at the time.

“I decided to help produce this film in order to keep memories of the past alive—especially in the world today that continues to struggle with the forces of nationalism, genocide, hatred and discrimination,” she says.

Kim, whose short film Readers of the Holocaust won best student documentary at the 2016 Montreal World Film Festival, says she has seen first-hand the effect survivors’ stories have on audiences, particularly young people.

“This film aims to not simply document the tragic incident but to deliver the lessons, encouraging people to be involved in learning about the injustices in our current world and do what is possible, starting from preventing bullying,” she says.

“Julius tells his story of ‘Why am I here?’ in which the audience is confronted with the same question, ‘Why am I here?’”

After the war, Maslovat was adopted by Jewish parents in Finland before eventually immigrating to Canada.

A dedicated cyclist who hasn’t owned a car in 20 years, he has been heartened by environmental activist Greta Thurnburg’s efforts to raise awareness of climate change. He hopes his story will encourage others to become engaged with the world.

“It’s an overall issue for humanity,” he says. “When you see people in need, your first obligation is to help them regardless of who they are, what age, their race, their colour. We can’t turn away.”

Tickets for Why Am I Here?, screening on Nov. 5, 4 pm, at the Vic Theatre, are available through the Victoria International Jewish Film Festival. Thorson will lead a Q&A with Maslovat after the screening.