Interview with Serena Dykman: The Holocaust Though a Millennial's Lens
Studies tell us that Millennials are more religiously liberal and universal in outlook than their parents, but for whom the Holocaust remains a major pillar of identity. Yet there are few other issues so difficult to broach. Maybe it’s Israel or “Jewish continuity” or other politics. Identity is changing among young Jews, but our generation’s unique retelling of the Shoah has yet to be really heard.
That’s why I was excited when I learned about young filmmaker Serena Dykman’s “transgenerational” documentary about the Holocaust. What is a Holocaust film though a Millennial’s lens? When the last Holocaust survivor passes away, how will our generation carry on the community memory?
She answered Jewschool.com’s questions below and — should you value her artistic efforts — you can support her generously on Kickstarter.
Jewschool: Why did you choose to make a film about your grandmother’s Holocaust story?
[pullquote align=right] My grandmother’s message was universal. She made that very clear.
[/pullquote]Serena Dykman: I went to a liberal Jewish elementary school in Brussels when I was growing up. I learned too much about the Holocaust too young, and instinctively had to separate myself from that part of my family history. (My other grandparents were hidden during the war.) In May 2014, I flew to Brussels where my entire family resides, the day of the terrorist attacks in the Jewish museum. In January 2015, I arrived in Paris, my birthtown, the day of the Charlie attacks.
I had been traveling for about two years with my grandmother’s memoir in my suitcase, but never had had the courage to open it. When I flew back to New York, after the Paris attacks [at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015], I finally opened her book. After reading the 188 pages, I understood who my grandmother was; more than a survivor, more than a hero, more than a Polish Jew, she was a real advocate for tolerance and peace. In her memoir, she speaks of her childhood and adolescence in pre-war Poland, where anti-semitism was growing. The parallels between what was happening then, and what I had just witnessed in Paris and Brussels were frightening.
[pullquote align=left] We are focusing on how the third generation perceives this part of their heritage.
[/pullquote]As a filmmaker, and my grandmother’s granddaughter, I realized that it was my duty to keep her memory and message of tolerance alive through film. Film has the power to reach mass audiences, and is such a great educational tool. Additionally, we are living in a time where the last survivors are leaving us, and Holocaust deniers are getting stronger, so we need to find a way to keep their memories and message alive. Film is one of the ways to make that happen.
J: What does it mean to make an intergenerational film — do other films speak only to one generation?
SD: I call NANA a transgenerational film, as it tells the story of three women of three generations in three countries; my grandmother in Poland, my mother in Brussels, and myself in New York.
J: There seems no shortage of Holocaust related arts and culture — in fact there isn’t a week without another press release in our inbox about another book, film, or performance. Why do we need another one?
[pullquote align=right] The Holocaust is not just about the Jewish people, but of millions getting killed for who they are.
[/pullquote]SD: What sets NANA apart from other films that revolve around the Shoah is the fact that it personal and relatable. Instead of making a historical documentary, we are focusing on how the third generation perceives this part of their heritage, and how they can continue passing on the history and message now that survivors are leaving us. Now that we barely have survivors left to tell their stories, we have to rethink the whole process of educating young students about history and tolerance. Rather than just showing testimonies and interviews of survivors, a film like NANA may not only be more entertaining and appealing, but also more relatable, as it is from the point of view of a millennial.
J: I know a 90-year-old survivor who was a particular community’s annual speaker on Yom HaShoah for years. But secretly, she made it known that she’s sick of talking about the Holocaust. Does American Jewry talk about the Holocaust too much?
SD: Survivors have every right to speak or not to speak. I think that the way that a 90-year-old survivor speaks and thinks of the Holocaust is, of course, very different than the way we — Millenials — need to think about it. First of all, we need to remember and teach to Jews and non-Jews that being Jewish is not only about the Holocaust. Additionally, we need to understand that teaching the Shoah is so people — everyone — understand the danger of intolerance, and where it can lead to. It is a lot more than a history lesson.
[pullquote align=left] I hope that our grandparents’ memories won’t die with them.
[/pullquote]J: Our generation tends to interpret history in more universal terms than our parents. What is your balance between the Holocaust being an exclusively Jewish event and otherwise?
SD: I interviewed quite a lot of teachers and education specialists while shooting NANA. One of them told me that teaching the Holocaust is not a way to prevent anti-semitism, but rather, to prevent intolerance. Her program taught young students three genocides – the Holocaust, the Rwanda Genocide, and Armenian Genocide — and taught them how to react on a day-to-day basis to intolerance and hatred.
My grandmother’s message was universal. She made that very clear. She spent her entire post-war life giving testimonies of her Auschwitz survival story so new generations would know what can happen in a world without tolerance. It is both a Jewish and a universal story.
J: If you could change how the Holocaust is taught and discussed, what’s the most important element you’d change?
Exactly that. Making people understand that learning about the Holocaust is crucial because it is a crime that was committed against millions of people because they were who they were. It is about respecting the other, and about humanity, more than about religion or traditions. That’s what people need to understand.
I would also be careful about the age at which students are taught the Shoah. I know that personally, I learned about it way too young, and saw images and footage that were almost impossible to handle for a child, particularly as a grandchild of survivors.
J: Do you hope our generation will deal with the Holocaust differently? How?
[pullquote align=right] It is both a Jewish and a universal story.
[/pullquote]SD: I hope that our generation and the next will keep teaching the darkest time of our History so it doesn’t happen again. I hope that our grandparents’ memories won’t die with them.
J: What do you hope people learn or take away from the film and your grandmother’s story?
SD: I hope people understand how crucial it is to respect one another. I hope people understand the danger of intolerance, even when it is just an “innocent” comment. I hope people understand that the Holocaust is not just about the Jewish people, but the story of millions of people getting killed for who they are.
I hope that because I, a Millennial, put myself in front of the camera, people my age and younger will be able to relate to this film, and continue my grandmother’s fight against intolerance.
J: What else would you like our readers to know?
SD: I am at the beginning of a very expensive post-production process and we will not be able to finish this movie if our Kickstarter campaign is not successful. http://www.
Watch the trailer here