San Diego Jewish Film Festival preview: ‘Habermann’

By  Joel A Moskowitz M D

LA JOLLA — This film is not about the Jewish question alone.   A Czech-German-Austrian production it chronicles the events surrounding the Nazis’ initial forays towards world domination in 1938.  It may well be that those younger than 50 will have little knowledge of the Sudetenland.  An area in the region called Bohemia it was created following WWI as part of the new state of Czechloslovokia.  In 1938, at an Agreement in Munich, it was ceded to Germany.  Not content, Hitler invaded the rest of Czechlosovokia six months later.  Estimated 90% of the 300,000 Czech and Slovok Jews were killed or died in concentration camps in the Nazi reign of terror.  Josef Urban wrote a novel based on true events and that forms the basis for the film “Habermann” or “Habermann’s Mill.”

It is the story of the complex alliances that ensued under Nazi occupation and brutality – not only to Jews but persons of German descent and Czech citizens.

Paradoxically, the director, Juraz Herz, is a Slovok born Czechoslovak; Mark Waschke, German actor has the role of the lead:  a German wealthy owner of a sawmill whose wife, he is later to learn, had a father named Silberstein (a Jew).  We can only suspect what happened to the father; the mother gave her daughter to Nuns to raise in a monastery and after the mother’s death, she was baptized.  And then the Nazis came to town!

The film is in German with English subtitles (this reviewer has familiarity with German and the subtitles, for the most part, were congruent with the verbalizations.  However, there are gaps in the story line which are disturbing.  The movie opens in 1945 with the ‘liberation’ of the small town where the wood mill is located (population circa 375).

The mill has been operated for four generations by the Habermann family.  History attests that the Germans were wealthier citizens, spoke both languages, and some yearned to be affiliated once again with other Germans, i.e. Austria.  Over seven centuries, for the most part, they were cooperative neighbors, with occasional conflicts on religious or social grounds.  Hitler’s invasion emphasizing racial purity created a divide that was murderous.

After the opening scenes, the film employs flashbacks to portray how some people reacted.  August Habermann, the respected and benevolent, mill owner seeks to protect his Czech workers.  His wife, Jana, who wears a cross on a necklace believed to be given to her by her mother, is bewildered that a local official presents her birth certificate to the head Nazi which reveals that she is half Jew and not Roman Catholic at all.

The nazi is a lecher, a thief, a murderer. As history reported, in Bosnia,  the Priest, when the Russians are about to recapture the area, advises him to go Argentina.  The paths various Czechs take to rebel i.e. distributing anti-nazi pamphlets; collecting guns to war against the Nazis; playing both sides – buttering up  the Nazis and the Czech resistors so as to be ‘safe’ when whoever wins.

And there are those who, like Hans, August Habermann’s younger brother, eagerly join the local Hitler Youth and as reward is sent to the Russian front where he loses a leg. Jana, the half Jew, cares more for Hans than his German, otherwise kind-hearted, brother.

With the end of WWII, the Germans were expelled.  There are claims of atrocities against them, many by those who assert that they were victims of Nazi terrorism themselves.

Three and a half million Sudeten Germans, called traitors, were expelled and up to 300,000, it is claimed, died in internment camps.  “Justice” and reparations have been called for. 

Habermann, an award winning film, dramatically and graphically (violence/nudity included) illustrates that some of the issues, more than six decade later, remain yet to be resolved.    The ffilm will be presented by the San Diego Jewish Film Festival at 7 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 13 at the Clairemont Reading 14 Theatre and at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 16, at the Carlsbad Village Theatre.

Moskowitz is a freelance writer based in La Jolla

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