Uruguayan Jews recall the horror that was Treblinka

The painter Shmuel Willenberg, who survived Treblinka, remembers one particular day when he was sorting clothes in the camp.

An SS officer named Lalka climbed to the top of the pile and, in a kind of hideous sport, began randomly shooting Jewish workers. Willenberg continued working without looking up, even when someone next to him was felled by a bullet.

Willenberg is one of several survivors in their 70s and 80s who relate their horrific experiences in the moving though disjointed Uruguayan documentary “Despite Treblinka” (“A Pesar de Treblinka”).

A valuable and often touching addition to the accumulated oral history of the Holocaust, “Despite Treblinka” gains additional resonance as likely the final record of these emissaries of a dying generation.

“Despite Treblinka” screens three times in the Latino Film Festival, in a co-presentation with the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. It is one of the three films sponsored by the Alexander and June L. Maisin Foundation of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund.

One expects that this feature-length documentary, in the vein of numerous other portraits of survivors who fled Europe after the war and began lives elsewhere, will provide some history of how the Jews came to Uruguay.

But director Gerardo Stawsky offers almost no ancillary details of the Jewish community in Montevideo. His focus is the war years, and he relies on old and quite rare archival footage and the recollections he obtains from a hardy group of survivors.

The film is confusingly organized and assembled — Stawsky cuts between present-day interviews and footage of his subjects watching themselves reminiscing at a get-together a few years ago — and takes a while to coalesce. So instead of trying to decipher the film’s structure, the best approach is simply to listen to the testimonies of these remarkable people.

A striking man named Kalman Teigman, for example, matter-of-factly relates a typical day at the crematorium.

“A Ukrainian guard was sitting there playing the flute,” Teigman recalls. “As if he were a shepherd. And when they brought people in, he would shoot them.”

The writer Mauricio Rosencoff recalls after the war how his father, refusing to accept that Rosencoff’s mother hadn’t survived the camp, waited every day for the mailman to bring a letter from her.

The evocative and well-chosen soundtrack, which includes John Zorn’s “Circle Maker,” lends “Despite Treblinka” a certain grace and beauty. So do people like Willenberg, who lives in Tel Aviv with his equally strong-willed wife.

With his mustache and remarkable tale of escaping Treblinka, he resembles Jan Weiner, the trim Czech who recounted his wartime travails and escapades in the excellent 2001 documentary, “Fighter.”

Willenberg describes the 1943 uprising at Treblinka, when Jews destroyed the crematoria and a few managed to escape. In the chaos, he came across a friend who had been shot by a guard and who asked to be put out of his misery.

Willenberg describes using the gun he had and then, fearless and level-headed, fleeing into the woods. Willenberg now lives in Tel Aviv, and Gerardo Stawsky has done a great service capturing him — and the others — on tape?

“Despite Treblinka” screens at 2:20 p.m. Nov. 8 at Rafael Film Center,1118 Fourth St., San Rafael, $6 in advance, $7 at door; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13 at Hillel of Silicon Valley, 336 East William St., Santa Clara University, $5; and 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 16 at Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley, $5. Information: (925) 866-9559.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.