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Only A Number: A Q&A with Filmmaker Steven Besserman

By Michelle Michalos
Monday, September 17th, 2012
  • comments (20)

Steven Besserman (r) and Director of Photography Gerardo Puglia (l) filming in Atkar, Hungary. Photo courtesy of AriJoe Productions, LLC.

Inside Thirteen recently spoke with filmmaker Steven Besserman, whose documentary Only A Number tells the story of his mother’s experience as a Holocaust survivor through her own words. Initially a diary, Besserman was compelled to make the story into a film when his mother developed dementia and began to lose her memory.

Here, Besserman discusses visiting the sites where his parents grew up, first met and ultimately escaped, and the lasting impact the Holocaust continues to have on survivors’ families, generations later.

Only A Number premieres Sunday, September 23 at 7 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Mr. Besserman answered our questions via email.

Inside Thirteen: How old were you when you first made the connection between your family and the Holocaust?

Steven Besserman: I learned about the Holocaust at a very early age, probably beginning at age 5 or 6. My mother would tell my sister and I about her experiences growing up in Hungary, things that occurred following the Nazi invasion, and what happened to her and her family during the Holocaust. It was the explanation for many things about my family; why my parents had numbers tattooed on their arms, why I didn’t have grandparents like many of my friends did, why my mother had such horrible nightmares, often screaming herself awake and calling for her mother, and so on.

IT: Was there anything you were surprised by on your visit to Hungary, Poland, and Germany for the film? Were these places from your parents’ past what you expected?

SB: I had a lot of trepidations about going to these countries, particularly Germany, and making a film on this subject matter. I made contacts in each country, kept the crew very small and wanted to keep a very low profile about what I was doing. I think what surprised me the most was the degree of compassion, support and cooperation that I received from the people I was working with in each country, especially Germany.

In terms of the physical places from my parents’ past, I had hoped to find visuals that unearthed remnants of that past in the present, and I found more than I could have hoped for in almost every location.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fy2Pta2IxD4&w=560&h=315]

IT: What was the most challenging part of making Only A Number?

SB: I didn’t think I would be able to start production on this film. About two weeks before I was leaving for Poland, there was a plane crash in Russia that killed the Polish President, his wife and high-ranking military advisers, and the country went into a period of national mourning. Then, the volcano eruption in Iceland spewed ash into the skies, grounding all flights to and from Europe. And, one week before I was to leave home, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. I just looked up to the heavens and said, “Okay, I get it. I’m not supposed to go and do this.”

But, I would say the most challenging aspect was the emotional one. I had never been to Europe or any of these locations before. When I was literally walking in my parents’ footsteps with my mother’s words rolling around in my head, the rush of emotions was so intense, there were many times when I found it difficult to focus on making the film.

There were issues back home that added to the emotional challenges. My mother was at home beginning hospice care for colon cancer and, on the day that I was shooting in the area of the concentration camp where my parents met, my father had a heart attack and needed an emergency stent. My wife and sister rushed down to Florida to be with my parents, but it wasn’t until I spoke with my father on the phone following his surgery that I was able to continue and complete the filming in Germany.

Steven Besserman and Gerardo Puglia filming in Waldlager (a forest camp used during the Holocaust) in Germany. Photo courtesy of AriJoe Productions, LLC.

IT: Have you witnessed a difference in individual survivors’ willingness to speak about their experiences (even among your parents)? Why do you think your mother was so open to discussing her difficult past?

SB: I have known of many Holocaust survivors who did not want to talk about their experiences. My father was one of them. He had endured almost five years of hard labor, starvation and torture, lost his family and witnessed a lot of death and murder. He could not bring himself to talk about it. In fact, it wasn’t until I began pre-production research for the film that my dad began to open up and share some details of his story.

My mom was much more open about her experiences. I think part of the reason was her own need to tell the truth about what happened to her, even to us as young children. The diary that she wrote 35 years ago was the result of a writing exercise she created for herself to improve her English vocabulary. I encouraged her to capture her memories of growing up in Hungary, what happened to her during the Holocaust, and how she met my father and came to America. I think it was a cathartic experience for her, and she was doing what her son asked her to do, knowing it was important to me. She filled four notebooks in about six weeks, and those became the manuscript and the inspiration for the documentary.

IT: What was your family’s reaction to your decision to make a film based on your parents’ story?

SB: My family was extremely supportive of my decision to make Only A Number into a documentary. I had typed the manuscript of my mother’s diary many years before and shared that with my extended family since, for many of them, it is their story, too. They knew that I had the professional experience and ambition, but I don’t think they realized the effort involved in making an independent documentary. When it was completed and they saw the film, they were overwhelmed with emotion and pride. And, I made sure that all of my cousins and their children have their own copy of Only A Number to pass on to future members of our family.

IT: You produced Only A Number to preserve your mother’s memories for future generations. With so few survivors alive today, is there a side of the Holocaust or voice associated with it that you think has yet to be heard/seen?

SB: There have been a number of studies and writings on the impact of the Holocaust on second generation survivors and the psychological effects that has had on them. I always felt the need and obligation to help tell my parents’ story, and my journey in making this documentary brought me much closer to that and allowed me to share some of my own thoughts and feelings. I see more and more coming from other second generation survivors, and now even third generation survivors who are curious about their families’ pasts and how that helped shape who they are. I think those are the voices we will continue to hear and see and make contributions to fighting hatred wherever and whenever it occurs.

  • Chana Goodfriend

    Will tis program be televised on PBS sometime soon?

  • carol

    i thank you for the many mothers who want their children to know and the world to remember.

  • Annette Berger-Machac

    My parents’ story sems to parallel your parents’ story. My family is from Transylvania and they followed the same trajectory. I’m glad yu’re telling this story that so many of us have heard in our own families. Thank you.

  • Steve Stroiman

    Have you considered submitting your film to Jewish film festivals, such as the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival and the one in San Francisco, both of which are the oldest ongoing festivals of their kind in the country?

  • Michelle

    Chana, “Only A Number” will air Sunday, September 23 at 7 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

  • nancy dukker

    thank you. when i was a child my family spoke only.. in whispers in front of me It was tgheir families still in europe

  • nancy dukker

    thank you. i was on a business trip i germany 26 years when i saw for the first ans only time SHOAH i was flabgasted to see this film which i never4 saw before or since, in Germany. How come thishas not been sween to my knowledge in this country?

  • Elizabeth Merlie

    Steve, I am so proud of you and this wonderful labor of love to honor your parents. I can’t wait to see it.

  • Diane Raver

    All of us at The Garden State Film Festival are thrilled that so many more people will now get to see this important film we screened at our festival. Bravo to Steve and his crew for such an informative and quality film about one of mankind’s darkest times.

  • Jamie Watson

    Steve is an exceptionally gifted filmmaker and writer. I am greatly looking to seeing this film.

  • RP Schwartz

    Without clear and compelling illustrations of the horrors, spoken by those who lived through them, our childrens’ children will never fully understand this tragedy. Steve – you have honored your mother and done a wonderful thing for generations to come.

  • Joe Isaacs

    Thanks Steve for all the sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors for making this documentary. As more of our parents and others who have survived pass on, I pray that efforts such as yours will help us to “never forget.” Congratulations to both you and Gerardo on the upcoming PBS broadcast. Happy New Year!

  • Steve Besserman

    Thank you all for your wonderful comments and support for “Only A Number.” The thoughts and feelings you express are greatly appreciated. I join you in looking forward to the premiere on THIRTEEN.

    Steve Stroiman, in answer to your question, “Only A Number” was submitted to several Jewish Film Festivals, including the two that you mentioned. Although it was not a selection of those, “Only A Number” was an official selection at five other film festivals and has won several special jury awards.

  • Paul

    Thank you so much for doing this, Steve. I didn’t know about the program and was flipping channels on television tonight in time to see this.

  • Paul

    My family is also from Hungary and this was very special to me. (Hamilton, NJ)

  • Edith

    It was a fascinating movie; very similar to the stories my Mother is telling me. She always wanted to make a diary and tell the world the hell she lived thru. Thank you for fulfilling this wish. I could not have imagined anyone telling the story so vividly. You did an amazing job! People that come in contact with my Mother are always curious
    to find out what that number represents on her arm. It tells a story, and You certainly gave an excelent history what it meant to have one. She always keep telling her children NEVER FORGET THE HOLOCAUST, and I hope that this movie will never stop showing. My Mother was also in Auschwitz – Birkenau with her sister. She is from
    Hungary. Thank you for making such a memorable documentary.

  • Sam F. Secretario

    Steven, if you ever plan on a sequel to this heart wrenching story, please let us know about it. I was glued to the TV for the whole hour and was hoping the story would not end! Props to you for presenting this sensitive journey in such a professional and moving way. I especially was brought to tears at the very end of the show when your parents displayed the true love they had for each other. Another moment that keeps playing in my mind was when your mom showed her love and devotion to her sisters and brother, talk about family? You were blessed to have such a family. May your parents souls rest in eternal peace and may perpetual light shine upon them.

  • Gillian Hurt

    Congratulations Steve for completing your labor of love. Gillian

  • Harry Lebowitz

    Cuz, It is a story that can never stop being told. Thank you.

  • Steve Besserman

    The broadcast premiere of Only A Number was extremely well received. We’re thrilled that the documentary was viewed by so many. Thanks to all who sent their kind words and heartfelt reactions. For those who may have missed the opportunity to view the broadcast, WNET/THIRTEEN will have two rebroadcasts this Saturday, September 29th at 5AM and 3PM.