Local survivor views film on her life as legacy, tool

It took 12 years, two directors and three trips to Europe, but "When I Was 14: A Survivor Remembers" — a film about Holocaust survivor and educator Gloria Lyon — has finally wrapped up.

Bay Area residents can first see the documentary at noon Sunday, Nov. 5 at San Francisco's Roxie Cinema, where it appears as part of the Film Arts Foundation Festival. After traveling to Boston in November and San Diego in January for those cities' Jewish film festivals, "When I Was 14" returns to San Francisco in January for a screening at Congregation Beth Sholom.

Lyon calls the film "a legacy…a tool … against the doubters [of the Holocaust]" and a way to "expose the story to larger audiences."

The story is Lyon's own tale of survival, which she has told to some 450 school-age audiences both in California and Germany.

Those youngsters heard about the 13 months Lyon, then a teenager, spent in seven concentration camps, performing forced labor. The youngsters watched with both fascination and terror as the 64-year-old Diamond Heights resident rolled up her sleeve to expose the A6474 tattooed on her arm.

And yet simple logistics dictated that many would never hear her story. That troubled Lyon.

It also bothered Jim Goldner, a professor of cinema at San Francisco State University. When he heard about Lyon, who has been telling youngsters her story since 1977, he asked if he might film her — in the schools, at home and in Germany.

"Anything that is left [of the Holocaust] is essential to record," Goldner said.

"Gloria's contact with young people seemed so important. She comes out without the recrimination, bitterness and anger that [has] understandably colored so many other stories," he added.

"I wanted to capture and convey that and the dynamic of what went on between Gloria and the students," he said, envisioning future audiences who would learn from these interactions when Lyon "could no longer tell her own story."

In the fall of 1987, Lyon — along with her husband, Karl, and Jim Goldner, a camera operator and a sound engineer — readied themselves for a working trip to Europe.

Just days before the team was scheduled to leave for Germany — passports, tickets and grant money in hand — Goldner suffered a stroke. Unable to travel, he suggested that camera operator Richard Schatzman act as director.

Nevertheless, when the group returned from Germany, the project was shelved. Fund-raising proved difficult, and Goldner couldn't return to work full-time.

Instead, he began editing the 16-millimeter footage, which captured Lyon walking through Bergen-Belsen, Lyon at the Continental factory in Hanover where she worked as a slave laborer, a reunion between Lyon and her "adoptive" family in Sweden, and Lyon and students.

Four years passed. Finally, Lyon said, "We mutually agreed the film should continue. And with Jim's blessing we hired another crew who completed the film."

They raised $165,000 — almost half of which came from German foundations — and hired independent filmmaker Marlene Booth of Cambridge, Mass., to finish the project.

In 1991 the Lyons returned to Auschwitz and to Gloria's childhood home in what was then Hungary but is currently in Ukraine. In 1994 they visited Beendorf and the Braunschweig salt mines in Germany, where Lyon was a slave laborer.

Low on funds, Karl Lyon filmed these sections with a high-end video camera. The images were later transferred to 16-millimeter film.

"He pulled off some magnificent footage," Goldner said. "The film, the search — it all merges into one."

The final step was matching Lyon's, Schatzman's and Goldner's footage and editing with Marlene Booth's final filming and vision.

"It's tricky to pick up where someone else left off," Booth said. She and editor Michele Chalufour "decided we had to pull it apart and find the story ourselves."

Booth and Chalufour added old photographs as well as new sequences of Lyon clipping roses in her garden and speaking with her sister in Hungarian. They included home movies of Lyon in her 20s as a mother of two.

Booth, herself a mother of teenagers, was moved by these images. She remembers marveling at Lyon's apparent ability to "be herself" less than 10 years after her tragic Holocaust experiences and to live day to day as "a mother in the playground making chitchat.

"She knew what was required. I find that spirit and resilience and zest for life inspiring."

Lyon still blushes a bit at hearing such things. She was self-conscious and shy about being the subject of a movie when the project began 12 years ago.

But she agreed to the film, "so it will be around long after I am."

"Knowing that gives me great peace of mind. Ever since I began doing Holocaust education I've been tormented" by the fact that neo-Nazis and revisionists are spreading their message to the world.

"What happens when we are no longer?" Lyon said. "This film, I think, will teach many lessons."