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.
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.
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.