Reading Maus II with a class of college freshmen this fall, I was struck by how little interest they had in the elderly Vladek Speigelman. Much more interesting to them than the story of his survival, was the story of Vladek as victim. The 20-something camp inmate Vladek outsmarting the Gestapo was far more appealing to them than the 70-year old fussing and picking at his present day life. Indeed, a quick survey of Holocaust representations seems to confirm that, for our culture more generally, young victims in the midst of the horrors of the Holocaust have much more cachet than the elderly survivors they became.
Director Andrew Jacobs' award winning documentary focuses on those elderly survivors and invites us to celebrate the triumph of living on, rather than focusing on victimhood. The film follows the residents of the Four Seasons Lodge through the 2006 season of their Catskills "colony." It is also, [End Page 69] we soon learn, the last year that this colony will exist. After 26 years, the Four Seasons Lodge has been sold by the vote of the residents, and we are witness to this final season. As the summer proceeds, we see the rich and vital lives that these aging Holocaust survivors share, and we learn about the 26 summers they've spent together in this Catskills retreat. We learn about their experiences in the Holocaust as well, but just as it is for the residents themselves, so it is for the film: the emphasis is on living in the present, not on the past that they share.
The film is structured by the residents' season. Poignant voiceovers are framed against wintry scenes that dissolve into the gray rainy spring; these voiceovers give a small insight into the tremendous loss that the colony's residents experienced during the Holocaust—one speaker states that he is the sole survivor of a family that he estimates to have been 300 members in number. But the emphasis quickly shifts to the present as the two chairmen of the colony, President Carl Potok and Vice-President Hymie Abramowitz, open cottages, turn on water, and prepare for the early summer arrival of the residents. "We survivors, we stick to each other, like glue...we just want to be together" comments one resident. As the season progresses we see this amply demonstrated.
Community is paramount. Residents make their way through an untimely hailstorm for the first "casino" night of the season, hugging, kissing and greeting each other to the accompaniment of a jazz combo. The bawdy nightclub entertainment is met with enthusiastic dancing—these people love each other and their time together. Daily card games, Shabbos services and the preparation of the Shabbos supper are intertwined with walks, and visits to the pool, and conversations on the well-kept lawns.
Early in the film, the survivor stories surface incidentally. In the card room, a striking sequence focused on the tattooed forearms of the card players silently nods to the residents' shared past. It's here that we first hear the residents share their stories and their reflections on the camp experience. One resident, identified as a survivor of Mengele's experiments, offers that some people simply had a will to live on and to "be a witness;" another offers, "I was just lucky." Still another offers, "It would be easier not to remember all the time."
But remember all the time, they do: one resident suggests that despite the daily life—"the parties, the dancing"—the memories are always there. Surviving the Holocaust has shaped who these people are, but they try not to let it define them. And it seems that, for many years, they've managed that. Yet, as the film continues, the stories about the Holocaust seem increasingly hard to keep in abeyance. Perhaps, giving up the Lodge is too much, a final letting go that some—perhaps all—cannot bear. The colony has been a hedge against the memories "that no psychiatrist can heal you from...You live with this." [End Page 70...