The story of Ella Blumenthal
By: Cathy Wilson
Having been involved in Holocaust and Genocide education for many years, and after watching the many documentaries and seeing the same black and white photographs, there is a possible risk of becoming slightly desensitised. Before watching “I Am Here”, the film of the story of Ella Blumenthal, I did wonder why there was a need for another documentary – what new information could Jordy Shank as Director and Gabriella Blumberg as Producer possibly add? The answer became abundantly clear through my tear-filled eyes: a lot!
Jordy and Gabriella met me at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Museum after an open Q&A with Kingsmead High School girls to dissect their documentary. They first explained that the timing of their documentary could not have been better. “Othering” finds itself being illustrated in so many different guises – in prejudice, stereotyping – which then pave the way for antisemitism, xenophobia, racism, and discrimination. They firmly believe that empathy creates room for understanding. Ella’s story is not a Holocaust documentary – it is Ella’s story. By listening to Ella talk you become captivated, not just by her resilience and her positivity, but you become awe-struck by her strength and sheer charisma. She is incredibly loveable and the bond that is instantly created allows for the viewer to take her hand and let her lead you into her memories.
This documentary follows Ella on her 98th birthday celebration – surrounded by friends and family who are honouring the life of an incredible person. We see the present-day Ella – the Ella who is still swimming, still taking walks along the promenade, and still an active member of her community in Cape Town. The other Ella depicted in the documentary is the Ella in Ella’s memories. Here the documentary does something incredibly magical and transforms the way holocaust stories are consumed by the audience; the Ella from Ella’s memories is depicted in beautiful, yet haunting animation. Jordy and Gabriella tell me that the idea of using illustrations only came after spending two days with Ella documenting her story. “The animation makes the message more palatable…Ella wasn’t initially sold on the idea, but we presented one illustrated story to her and she was sold.” We, the viewers, are now able to “walk alongside” Ella in her memories. A “magical realism” is created that allows a lot more emotion and symbolism to be packed into the documentary – something that black and white stock footage would struggle to do. I am also reminded of the difficulties of using stock footage – “it is hard to sometime decipher whether these films were a tool of Nazi propaganda” adds Jordy. All one’s senses are evoked in this documentary, and this is supported heavily by the illustrations. You smell the challah with Ella; you hear the fear through an incredible use of music and through Ella’s voice, so rich in emotion; you see the symbolism, through flying texts and butterflies; you feel the fear through eyes that stay with you for long after the documentary is finished. For me, this use of animation is a winning factor for this film, evoking emotions that the “normal” documentaries often fail to do.
During our conversation, we delve into the insider details of the making of this documentary – the hows and whys. Jordy tells me that he grew up in the same community as Ella. That she has always been a pillar in the community and that her personality and energy is infectious. This is beautifully captured in the “present day” extracts from the documentary. Jordy and Gabriella regale me with an instance that encapsulates her “simchas hachaim” (joy of life).
“During recording, we wanted to have a clip of Ella swimming. The cameras were all set up to capture a lap. Ella strode into the pool with incredible confidence and proceeded to swim 10 laps. The crew started to panic as they realised they would now need to follow her with the equipment. The camera nearly ended up swimming alongside Ella as the crew struggled to keep up with the 98 year old.”
“This whole process was very difficult for Ella – it was also very difficult for us.” Jordy maintains that this two day intensive discussion was, also, incredibly beautiful. “Ella felt that we were supporting her – and we felt that she was supporting us…her spark and energy helped us revisit her past together.” The trust and bond that was created through this creative process is evident in the documentary.
The film makers were fortunate to have the support of Ella’s family, too. “We are incredibly grateful to Ella’s family for allowing us to be present and film intimate family moments,” says Jordy. We, as viewers, are granted an invitation into the family’s private space – both physically for Ella’s birthday party, and emotionally through sharing the impact of generational trauma. How Ella’s children were always told that the scar on her forearm was from a car crash whilst it was the number tattooed on her during the Holocaust (and subsequently removed). How when they were young they would hear Ella screaming during the night reliving her trauma in her nightmares. Ella’s children claim that talking through this experience was an “incredibly cathartic experience” – thus emphasising even more the need for the open discussions that Jordy and Gabriella are aiming to provide through education.
Jordy and Gabriella know that the way Holocaust education is taught needs to be changed – and that in-so-doing, the landscape for teaching about the dangers of othering, discrimination, and racism in all forms is transformed. Having both come from Jewish schools, they believe that the lessons needed for people to gain empathy and, thus, understanding cannot be found purely in the pages of textbooks. It is the personal stories that allow for connections to be formed. It is through these connections that the barriers of “us” and “them” are broken down and the human lessons are learnt.
This is why Jordy and Gabriella are dedicated to creating a learning pack for schools out of the personal story that Ella has so generously given them. This is a work in progress – they have had Q&A sessions with classes from both Roedean and Kingsmead through the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre and have been blown away by the reception Ella’s story has received. They also aim to make this accessible to every school – whether that means screening it at schools themselves or providing data for viewing to be possible. Either way, their mission is set.
Gabriella reminds me that “I Am Here” is Ella’s story, it just so happens to be set during the Holocaust. The title rings throughout the documentary. When the Nazi guard looks at the number on Ella’s arm and is surprised that she is “still here”. Both Gabriella and Jordy emphasise the fact that Ella is incredibly present, in every conversation, in every gathering, she is front and centre, authentic and proud. Ella is still here and in a recent interview has said that “in spite of going through this trauma, I still feel now that I don’t carry in me any hate inside….I decided that I wanted to carry on…don’t stop…don’t look back…I am grateful for every day I have been given”. A message that can be inspirational to so many people from so many different generations; the historical backdrop could be different – but the message to be positive and “carry on” is universal. Ella’s story provides a catalyst for conversation about the dangers of othering and discrimination.
This documentary has received acclaim from both local and international critics. They have won Best Director at the Jozi Film Festival, the Durban International Film Festival, and the Africa Human Rights Film Festival – along with the Audience Choice Award. The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival awarded them the Audience Award for Best Documentary. “I Am Here” has been officially selected for the Cambridge Film Festival, the Berlin Human Rights Festival, the Miami Jewish Film Festival, the Dances With Films Festival, Newport Beach File Festival, and St Louis International Film Festival.
Jordy and Gabriella have put commitment, hard-work, and enormous amounts of passion into making Ella’s story into something that will create empathy in every viewer and with it an understanding of a time and place that can sometimes seem so very far away. They mention that they have had support from around 90% of the organisations they approached for support and assistance. Two of these organisations are the Claims Conference and the Holocaust and Genocide Centres in both Cape Town and Johannesburg. Jordy mentions that The Director of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, Tali Nates, came aboard very early to assist with fact-checking every cut.
If you want to watch this documentary, there are a few options available. Visiting www.sanktuaryfilms.com will advise you on when and where the upcoming screenings will be taking place. If you’re interested in having a private screening – Jordy and Gabriella would be happy for you to contact them email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.
This documentary was put together during the Covid lockdowns. Ella stood on her balcony as her daughter stood next to her saying how trying lockdown was. Ella looked out at the Atlantic Ocean and said, “What a beautiful sunset.” Unlike most Holocaust documentaries, Ella’s story has managed to leave us empowered…WE are here. What are we going to do with that privilege?