He was all of five years old, maybe six, too young for any of it to make much sense. It still doesn’t. The words — pieces of a macabre jigsaw puzzle — would tumble from the old man’s mouth: “soldiers … guns … prison camps … gas chambers … mother and father dead … so many tears … .” Often, his grandfather would cry.
So would the other adults who gathered, usually on holidays, to hear Seymour Mayer tell of how his idyllic youth was transformed into a living hell by a madman with a comical mustache, his jackbooted minions and Seymour’s very own neighbors, who did nothing to stop it.
The craziest part of all, Brian thought, was the reason they did it — not because Seymour, his family and the millions of others they tortured and killed were guilty of some crime, but because they were Jews. While still a sophomore at the Hopkins School in New Haven, Brian, now eighteen, journeyed back to the old country in 2003 with his parents, Jeffrey Mayer and Nancy Diamond, his younger brother Marshall and his grandfather to come face to face with their shared history. That trip is the subject of the movie Full Circle, a powerful Holocaust documentary filmed, edited and produced entirely by Brian. Nearly three years in the making, it is a guided tour of the darkest reaches of the human soul.
Since its debut showing at the Westport Library earlier in the year, the film and Brian have been making the rounds. Full Circle has been shown at area schools, synagogues and churches, everywhere drawing praise from viewers, particularly teachers, for its stark portrayal of one man’s desperate struggle against insurmountable odds. Last month, he was honored by the Anti-Defamation League and given its award for Distinguished Community Leadership.
“It was a difficult movie to make for a lot of reasons,” admits the young Westporter, who plans to continue making movies, even as a student at the University of Chicago. “But, to be honest, the technical issues weren’t the greatest obstacle. Obviously, it’s a very emotional subject. I just wanted to keep looking away because it’s just so terrible. But I couldn’t look away. This is a story I had to tell. My grandfather’s story is literally my story. I’m here today because he survived. But why him, and not someone else? He wrestles with that question still, and I wish I could give him the answer. I’m not sure there is an answer.”
And there’s another question Brian wishes he could answer. Why, after so many years, is the kind of misery his grandfather experienced still going on in places like the Darfur region of Sudan. “That’s a kind of Holocaust, too,” he laments. “I hope that after seeing this film, people will understand that.”
While they’ve always been close, Brian says the bond between his grandfather and himself deepened during the making of Full Circle. Seymour, now eighty and living in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, was just seventeen when the Nazis invaded, almost the same age Brian is now. “Imagine yourself, eighteen, homeless, your life in ruins, your parents and everyone you ever loved or cared for dead — how can you make sense of that?” He adds, “I’ve always thought of my grandfather as a very dynamic person, which comes across in the film, I think, but he’s obviously very strong-willed, very tough. He survived something I’m not sure I could have.”
The idea of going back to his homeland to reconnect with his past was something Seymour had thought about doing for some time, but he was too busy cobbling together a new life for himself in America to make it happen.
Soon after World War II ended, he emigrated from the little town of Bistritz in northwest Romania (in the region known as Transylvania) to Brooklyn, New York, settling with family members who had moved to America many years earlier. There, he met Roslyn Komisar, the woman he would marry, and began working as a shoemaker and shoe designer, a trade he had learned from his father, Jacob.
When he retired, the idea of going returned to him more strongly than ever. This time, he couldn’t make any excuses. He and his son Jeffrey, president and CEO of the Stamford-based MxEnergy, Inc., and chairman of the Westport Board of Finance, had earlier discussed the possibility of bringing the family along, but decided against it. They worried the boys might be too young to handle the trauma. Now that Brian and Marshall were older, the issue wasn’t the boys, it was Seymour. Truth is, he wasn’t sure he was up to it. A little more coaxing from Nancy convinced Seymour that he should go.
“I told him that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him and the boys,” recalls Nancy, who produces the popular “Play With Your Food” series of comedies and dramatic readings. “It’s something Brian and Marshall will never forget.”
Weeks before he was to depart for Europe, Brian had an idea: Why not make a movie of the experience? “I love filmmaking, and history has always been my favorite subject in school — it seemed like the natural thing to do,” says Brian, a lanky kid who, when he’s not behind the lens of the video camera, competes on the school fencing team and enjoys playing the piano and writing short stories, plays and poetry. “My goal was to have my grandfather tell his story as only he could. I didn’t want my presence, or the presence of the camera, to get in the way.”
Although he was an experienced videographer, having filmed several music videos for friends, a school play and other special events, Brian knew that making a full-length documentary would be a far more difficult project than any he had previously undertaken. He didn’t realize just how difficult until after he returned home two weeks later with the twenty-nine hour-long tapes he had shot on his Sony video camcorder. All but an hour of footage ended up on the cutting-room floor.
Hard as it was to choose what material to leave in and leave out, one decision the Mayers made before boarding the plane was easy: They wouldn’t go to Auschwitz. Seymour’s mother, Rezi, and older sister, Rifka, were killed in there shortly after the Nazis had rounded up the Jews in Bistritz and surrounding towns. “I knew it would be very difficult emotionally for my father to visit there,” says Jeffrey Mayer. “We didn’t get much of an argument from him.”
With their bags packed and itinerary set, the Mayers set off on a journey whose length transcended any other they had made as a family, one impossible to measure in miles alone.
END OF THEIR INNOCENCE
Brian’s film is equal parts travelogue, documentary and cinema verité. Nothing about it is amateurish, though it lacks the highly polished look of, say, a PBS special or a Hollywood feature. (The big budget movie Everything Is Illuminated, starring Elijah Wood, which tells the fictional story of a young boy’s journey to Poland with his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, was released as Brian was finishing Full Circle.)
Brian the film editor eschews a lengthy set-up, using the Ken Burns–style of story telling to maximum effect, melding words, images and music to create a multimedia tapestry.
Grainy black-and-white photos of seventeen-year-old Seymour Mayer, his mother and father looking proud and strong in their best finery, members of the extended family and images of their hometown in happier times fade into focus during the opening frames of Full Circle, as the voice of a young Frank Sinatra croons “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.”
The song paints a portrait of domestic tranquillity, of family and friends sitting by the hearth, having returned home after a long absence to reminisce about good times gone by. And until he was eighteen, times were pretty good for Seymour, a handsome, energetic boy with a twinkle in his eye that suggests he was no stranger to mischief. The tone of the film changes, subtly at first, with the sounds of a crowd shouting words that are at first unintelligible. Then you hear it: “Sieg Heil!”
With striking clarity, the first visual cue of impending doom comes into focus: German soldiers in full-dress uniforms parade before the camera, each with his right arm extended in front of him, his face turned in the direction of his supreme commander, whose name has become synonymous with evil : Adolf Hitler. He’s smiling, of course.
The rest of the story unfolds methodically, giving Seymour ample time to stroll the streets of his old hometown, pointing out his old neighborhood, the site of his father’s shoe repair shop and his old grammar school. He’s surprised to find the school hasn’t changed all that much. The same is true of the old gazebo on the town green, which, except for a new, more brightly colored paint job, looks much as it did when Seymour and his friends, including his best friend, Eddie Goldstein, gathered there in the fateful spring of 1944. It would turn out to be the end of their innocence. Seymour got a glimmer of his immediate future when another one of his friends, a young man conscripted into the German army, returned to town one day dressed in his uniform. The boy’s once smiling face had become a sneer. “I remember I went up to him and he gave me the most awful look,” Seymour recalls. “Then he told me, ‘I can’t be seen with you,’ and he walked away. I was stunned, hurt.”
Much of what follows is well known, but hearing it told again by one who had lived through it is a powerful experience. It always is. In much of the film, Seymour’s recollections come slowly, painfully. He cries only once in the early part of the movie, at the site of a graveyard near the grounds of what had been a Jewish ghetto.
After the Germans seized control, Seymour’s family lived for a brief time in the ghetto, before being shipped off to concentration and labor camps. Members of Seymour’s family who died before the war are buried there, along with the bodies of hundreds of Jews from the surrounding area who died in German captivity. “It’s unbelievable what these bastards did,” Seymour says in the film, leaning on his daughter-in-law for both physical and emotional support. “I remember my mother crying, asking over and over again, ‘Why are they doing this to us.’ ”
THEN THE LOSS
Forced into the backs of cattle cars along with thousands of others, Seymour, his sister and their parents were shipped to different camps. His mother and sister died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. He and his father were consigned to a labor camp in Austria, Ebenzee. There they dug tunnels in which their German captors could hide from the Allied armies, who were then marching inexorably toward Berlin and the end of the war.
Just weeks from their liberation, Seymour’s father became too ill to work and spent the last days of his life in the infirmary, where he died days before the U.S. Army rolled into camp. On his return visit with his family, fifty-seven years later, Seymour points to a map of the camp, noting the location of the infirmary. “Right there — that’s where I said goodbye to my father,” he says, betraying little emotion. His matter-of-fact tone somehow makes the observation that much sadder.
While visiting Ebenzee, Seymour finally learned the fate of his good friend Eddie Goldstein, a mystery that had plagued him. In the final days before liberation, Seymour maintained he had seen the skeletal figure of a young man who looked remarkably like Eddie, though he couldn’t be sure. In the movie, we learn that Eddie was very fond of Sherlock Holmes mysteries. With help from Seymour, the curator
of the Ebenzee memorial discovered that the two old friends were in the camp at the same time. Eddie died in either late April or early May 1945, about the time Seymour believes he saw him.
“I assumed he had died, because if he had lived, I’m certain we would have found each other,” says Seymour. “Knowing what happened to him doesn’t make the loss any easier.” Loss — Seymour has experienced too much of it in his life. Even so, he is glad to have taken the trip full circle, to have reconnected with his past and to have helped his grandchildren find a bit of themselves.
When Brian addressed the ADL he spoke up about the “tragedy of human nature …We have yet to learn from our past. For sixty years, mankind has continued to kill, persecute and discriminate. We have seen genocides in Cambodia, Serbia, Rwanda and Iraq, and people have suffered under oppressive regimes in North Korea, Haiti, South Africa, Iran, Sudan and Tibet, to name a few. We continue to see the widespread destruction of the human spirit; and the prevailing philosophy of non-involvement leads the powerful nations of the world to stand by idly as acts of horror ensue.”
At school now, Brian studies politics. “Making this movie brought me closer to my history,” he said the other day, “closer to my grandfather and has convinced me of something you
read about in history classes all the time: The past, the present and maybe even the future are all connected. They’re one and the same.”