Communication professor takes fresh approach to create Holocaust documentary
TAMPA, Fla. — Jerry Rawicki, 86, left his hometown of Treblinka, Poland when he was 14 years old, after fighting in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and losing his mother and sister to the gas chamber in a concentration camp.
After his wife passed away, Rawicki decided to revisit his roots, and returned to Poland last June, where he was faced with a very emotional walk down memory lane.
Carolyn Ellis, professor and chair of the department of communication, went along with Rawicki for the ride — and came back with much more than the experience.
While in Poland, Ellis filmed more than 20 hours of video from Rawicki’s trip, which she said she plans to make into a documentary about the impact of the Holocaust on end of life experiences by its survivors.
“(Jerry’s) gotten used to being filmed, because we filmed him in all the interviews,” Ellis said. “So he's like an old hen, and he took right to it and didn't mind at all. He got very emotional at times, he cried, and he didn't mind being videotaped during that time; You could tell he didn't.”
The visit to the Treblinka extermination camp made Ellis more cautious, she said.
“I thought that was going to be really emotional, and so I didn't want to take a videographer with me because I didn't want to make it into a spectacle,” Ellis said. “I didn't know how he would feel, and I didn't want that to change the experience. I wanted to make sure I was just with him to support him and not just recording.”
Ellis went without her filming crew that day to avoid altering the experience. She brought her small video camera, but was reluctant to film in the beginning. When Rawicki asked if she had filmed his arrival at the extermination site, and Ellis said Rawicki’s daughter-in-law was taking photos, she decided it was okay to press the record button.
“I stood back and I took video footage of him standing at the memorial and really grieving at that point,” Ellis said. “It was a long walk back to the car, and he was a little unstable, so I had to hold onto him. You can't video tape and hold on, so I turned the video tape on and put it down at our feet, and I video taped our feet and what we were talking about. That was my adaptation at the moment.”
Ellis has been working with Holocaust survivors for many years. Before starting her current project, Ellis worked with 45 different Holocaust survivors in partnership with the Holocaust Museum and the Genocide Studies Center at USF, helping complete more than 50,000 interviews with survivors about their experiences.
She said she felt there was more to the survivors’ stories that wasn’t being told, and because of this, she sought to uncover the answers in less traditional ways, beyond the standard question-and-answer interview.
“I felt there were different ways to tell stories,” Ellis said. “Stories told in conversations with somebody that you know well, you elicit different kinds of stories in that situation than you do when you don't know the person, and it's a one-shot interview.”
Chris Patti, a USF alumnus and professor in the Department of Communication at Appalachian State University, worked with Ellis during her interviews with Holocaust survivors.
“She doesn't see the people that she works with as sources of information that she can take back to the scholarly community,” Patti said. “She sees these people as collaborators in the process, and that's why it's so meaningful, because it's meaningful for those people's lives, and we've seen the changes in the people's lives that we've worked with.”
Patti said what makes Ellis’s work different is that she doesn’t limit herself to the traditional journalistic type of interviewing.
“She, in a really radical way, abandoned all of those and just tried to be as human as possible and as engaged as possible,” Patti said. “Because of that conversational and naturalness to it, that's why different stories get sparked and different things get told in ways that they haven't been told before. Different memories come up and then different kinds of relationships. It's not the traditional kind of researcher-subject relationship at all; It's really more radically diverse than that.”
Ellis said the approach in her interview style is more in line with her personality, and that she would rather get to know the people she talks to and work equally with them, piecing the story together to draw conclusions, together.
“I don't set myself up as I'm the expert — you're going to tell me the story and I'm going to tell you what it means,” Ellis said. “I think survivors know what their stories mean and that's what stimulated me to do that kind of interview. That's also why I enjoy it. I enjoy deep relationships with people instead of having superficial relationships with a lot of people.”
Ellis said it takes this kind of personal approach to discover the real story.
“If somebody asks you about your life and you're telling the story for the first time, you're only hitting the surface of it,” Ellis said. “But if you're with a good friend and you keep talking about it, you get deeply involved in it and other layers start to appear. That's what I wanted to do with survivors, I want to give them a chance to tell it, think about it, tell it differently, examine it and ask questions about it, because that's what we do with people who are close to us.”
Patti said becoming connected to the survivors helped reveal stories that would not have otherwise been told.
“We still have these ongoing relationships that are kind of familial in some ways, and I think this process of storytelling and really listening deeply to somebody's experiences is what Carolyn's all about, and it's what I'm all about,” Patti said. “I think through connecting with people in this kind of storied way and in a way that you try to get as much detail as you can, it creates these kind of familial bonds between us.”
Before their work, Patti said the survivors had only had a chance during interviews to tell their stories for historical purposes. Their perspectives would be acknowledged and put on the record, but they had never been listened to on the level that Patti said he and Ellis listened to them.
"The Holocaust is such a huge, unknowable, historical event, and it's one of the most textually documented events in all of western history,” Patti said. “For me, there was no way for me to approach the vastness of the unknown of the Holocaust except to go to individual experience, personal experience, and just the profoundness of listening to one person's experience. The best way for me to enter into trying to understand or represent the Holocaust and what that would mean, it was through just engaging one individual's story at a time.”
Ellis is skilled in interviewing, but the real challenge with creating the next film will be in editing and compiling the footage. She said she is working to seek private funding for her next documentary.
The funding, Ellis said, will go toward a grant for a videographer, who will work with her to create the piece.
“I have all this footage, but I have no experience in doing videotapes,” Ellis said. “I'm a writer. I haven't done the visual aspect of it, but I knew I had a goal in mind.”
One of the main differences, Ellis said, between filming an emotional experience like Rawicki’s, rather than just writing about it, was evaluating when it was appropriate to have the record button on the camera turned on.
“Before I went, I thought 'How am I going to handle this?’” she said. “I felt like I needed to sit down and read books that videographers have written, and then I thought 'No you don't, you just need to feel out the situation, figure out what to do in the situation,' and so that's what I did. I tried to air on the side of being cautious.”
Ellis said that while building these emotional connections with the people she interviewed about the Holocaust, she was constantly thinking about the relationship and the emotional state of the person she was talking to, no matter how casual the conversation between them was.
“It was a challenge in that you ask questions and you bring back memories, and you don't want to upset people. On the other hand, it is a very upsetting experience and so they're going to be emotional, but you're kind of trying to feel out when your question might be harmful to them or therapeutic for them to tell that part of the story.”
While not of Jewish decent herself, Ellis said her husband is Jewish and because of this, she has been active in the Jewish community. She also said she has been interested in the Jewish community from a cultural perspective as well, and that curiosity is what has helped fuel her research.
“There's no deeper loss in grief than what was experienced by the Holocaust survivors,” Ellis said. “I was pulled to them because here are people who have lived 60 years with unbelievable, unspeakable loss and grief in their lives, and I wanted to talk with them. I felt I wanted to give them an opportunity to tell their story, but I also felt that I had a lot to learn from them, and that we, all of us, have a lot to learn from them.”
If Ellis finds the funding to create her documentary, Patti said the work would benefit researchers of the Holocaust, and the people that both Ellis and Patti have been working with for years.
“I think she's done an incredible amount of work that really speaks for itself,” Patti said. “I think she has the kind of insight and access to these scholarly discourses that anything the she does is going to be, for good or bad, it's going to start some really big conversations.”
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