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That their stories might live on: Local foundation preserves memories of Holocaust survivors on film

May 7, 2020

When producer Ron Small interviewed Holocaust survivor Joe Engel in 2017, he didn’t realize the experience would become the catalyst for a groundbreaking Holocaust film project. He didn’t know To Auschwitz and Back: The Joe Engel Story would be the first of many more transformative documentaries. Ron first met Engel through his dentist, Michael Engel, Joe’s nephew. That summer, Ron raised the possibility of filming Joe, having heard his survival story around town. The project took off quickly. Ron’s Anchor Media Group filmed during two days, then spent the next two months editing and completed the documentary that October.

 

Joe Engel was taken by the Nazis at 14 years old; he never saw his parents again. At the time of filming he was 90 years old. In the film, he personally leads us on a journey through his captivating story. Forced from the Warsaw ghetto in Poland and sent to Birkenau and Auschwitz, he escaped at 17 years old from a death train, after which he worked as a freedom fighter combatting the Nazis. A few years later, he emigrated to the United States and settled in Charleston in 1949, where he opened a dry cleaning shop on King Street. During his years in Charleston, Joe has become a community leader, teacher and philanthropist — as well as a treasured citizen.

 

With the assistance of The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s film and photographic archives, Ron Small brought Joe Engel’s incredible story to life through Joe’s words only.

 

Ron Small began his television career in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1980 while studying pre-med at Tulane University. He found national front-page coverage when marketing jars of contaminated river water as “Authentic N’awlins Mississippi River Water” in local gift shops. This non-traditional taste of publicity drew him towards an extensive career in media. Beginning with commercials, Ron transitioned to longer form programming of documentaries and entertainment specials. After spending some time on the West Coast, he moved back to New Orleans and, in 1997, to Charleston. He has since worked with a number of local and regional groups, like From Darkness to Light, Engaging Creative Minds, Mason Preparatory School, Porter-Gaud School, Charleston Southern University and many more.

 

Creating the foundation

 

Ron found the experience of working with Holocaust survivor Joe Engel so moving that he hoped it would not be the last of its kind. During a discussion with his distribution representative, Dan Gurlitz of Soundview Media Partners, Gurlitz suggested a foundation as an avenue for making more programs with individual survivors. Thus Ron had the vision and the motivation and he immediately called longtime friend and Olympic swimming legend, Mark Spitz, to serve as the national spokesperson. He and Spitz first worked together for a client in Australia some 25 years ago and they became fast friends. A Jewish-American athletic icon, Spitz already possessed a strong desire to keep these stories alive and after watching the Joe Engel documentary with his wife, Suzy, he was absolutely on board.

 

Ron proceeded to gather support for this organization dedicated to sharing stories like Joe Engel’s, through films unframed by interview questions or third-party narration, but carried solely by the survivors’ spoken words. He started calling well-connected friends in major cities and formed a board of advisors. Next primarily local, close and trusted friends were assembled to form a board of directors. That group is currently Dr. Michael Engel; Anne Ellington, a dear friend and brilliant CFO; highly respected local attorney Paul Schwartz; Mark Spitz; Billy Keyserling, mayor of Beaufort, South Carolina; and Ron Small, founder and president. Surrounded by a tremendous group of people, Ron established the Holocaust Education Film Foundation. 

 

The purpose of these film projects aims to battle hate and anti-Semitism by increasing awareness of these issues in the coming generations. By providing a conduit for survivors to tell their extraordinary stories, the Holocaust Education Film Foundation can ensure their words will live on and not be forgotten.

 

Anchor Media Group facilitates the production side of the operation, including all filming and editing. Post-production supervisor David Jones has worked on film and television for more than 30 years and edits all of the Holocaust documentaries.

 

Mark Spitz has since appeared on television and online interviews in support of these Holocaust documentary projects. He says, “Anything that can shine a light on our past is a positive thing and a lesson for generations to come, so they don’t forget.”

 

The next documentary following Joe Engel and the creation of the Holocaust Education Film Foundation tells the story of Dr. Susan Spatz, a survivor of Birkenau. Talli Dippold of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University introduced Ron to Dr. Spatz and the interview blossomed from there.

 

Susan Cernyak-Spatz (formerly Eckstein) was born in Vienna in 1922. She watched the beginning of Nazi oppression in Berlin and growing anti-Semitism towards her fellow European Jews. She was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942, before arriving in Birkenau in January 1943. There she survived for two years. After a final “death march” and incarceration in Ravensbrück, she and a group of fellow inmates walked away to freedom. As you watch and listen to her speak, her experience feels almost palpable through her haunting detail and honest emotion, from the smoking chimney to the number tattooed on her arm.

 

The Choice

 

In 2019, Ron received a book called The Choice written by Dr. Edith Eger and he devoured every word of what he calls “one of the best Holocaust books ever written.” He immediately started making calls. A still-practicing psychologist, Dr. Eger has been interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and her book is a New York Times bestseller. Ron was able to speak with the acclaimed author on the west coast in early December to hear her story.

 

Thus Ron spent two days in California with arguably the most famous Holocaust survivor in the world. He recalls her as an exceptionally warm and inviting woman, who shows a genuine interest in the person across from her. And by the end of their time together, exchanging questions and discussing her experience, Ron reflected that perhaps he became the interviewee.

 

Felix Arceneaux, the foundation’s West Coast director of photography, filmed the entire interview, then Ron categorized different parts and pieced them together into a story. Dr. Eger’s documentary was planned to premiere at the end of April in conjunction with a speaking event in Charleston, though that has been postponed until further notice. 

 

Dr. Eger’s will be the first of the foundation’s films to have accompanying learning tools and lesson plan to assist in students’ education. Moving forward, the Foundation has contracted with the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice, where Associate Director Talli Dippold heads a team developing such tools for each documentary. A group at Mason Preparatory School is on the content development team as well. In maintaining the Foundation’s mission, these additions will bolster the documentaries’ function to serve as part of an educational program.

 

Dr. Eger’s story is the fourth completed documentary, following productions with Engel, Spatz and Robert Clary — who played LeBeau in “Hogan’s Heroes.” The foundation plans to interview many more survivors, with a number of stories already in preparation. This is a growing body of material designed for access by anyone. Through a partnership with Dreamscape, films will be available on Amazon Prime in streaming or disc format; the foundation hopes to partner with a museum as well, integrating the documentaries into their educational programs.

 

The Holocaust Education Film Foundation Fund has been established in partnership with the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, a 501(c)(3) organization. As these film projects rely heavily on donations, fundraising is critical to the preservation of Holocaust voices. You may make a donation online at holocausteducationfilmfoundation.com, fully tax deductible.

 

These stories are not for the Jewish community alone. They are incredibly valuable to all minds — young and old, of all races and religions — in the battle against hate that persists in our world today. Through the help of local friends, Ron has been able to connect with many enthusiastic partners in the Charleston community while still looking outward for increasing support — these projects require both vocal support and financial backing. Let us stand behind Holocaust survivors and storytellers as they relate  moving journeys through horrific events that should never happen again.

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