Categorized | Baron_Lawrence

The Wandering Review: ‘Blinky and Me’

Blinky and Me, Directed by Tomasz Magierski (USA: Smoking Mirror Productions, 2012).  Available for purchase at www.tomaszmagierski.com

By Laurie Baron

Lawrence (Laurie) Baron

SAN DIEGO — What do a a koala cub searching for its mother and a Jewish girl hiding in the forest during the Holocaust have in common?  They are all both products of the fertile imagination and wartime ordeal of animator Yoram Gross. Though he has achieved fame as the Australian equivalent to Walt Disney, Gross spent his adolescence hiding from the Germans in Poland during World War Two.  Known best for his adaptations of Australian children’s classics like Ethel Pedley’s Dot and the Kangaroo and Dorothy Wall’s Blinky Bill, Gross incorporates his experiences of evading capture by the Germans into animated films and television cartoons about youngsters separated from their parents and surviving in hostile environments with the help of bystanders.  He conveys the human capacity for evil and passivity to juvenile audiences in plotlines which simultaneously affirm the human potential for goodness and resistance.

Tomasz Magierski’s Blinky and Me introduces American audiences to this fascinating filmmaker.  It follows Yoram Gross as he accompanies his grandchildren back to Cracow to teach them about what his family endured during World War Two.  Born in 1926 to a mother and father who owned two stores, Yoram led a happy childhood in Cracow until German troops marched into Poland in 1939.  His grandparents were killed by the Germans.  His father and brother Jozek fled to eastern Poland which fell under Soviet control.  His father perished in the massacres perpetrated by Ukrainians when Germany invaded the Soviet Union; whereas Jozek got deported to the interior of the USSR for slave labor and consecutively served as a soldier in the Soviet-sponsored Anders Army and as a British paratrooper.  Yoram and his mother, sister Klara, and brother Natan moved from place to place in the vicinity of Cracow.

After being interned in the Cracow Ghetto, Yoram and his remaining family escaped and travelled by train to Warsaw on forged papers where they eked out an existence until Yoram started a business painting and selling vases to local shops to support the family.  The two brothers met Adam, another Jew passing as a Gentile on counterfeit documents, who worked for Źegota, the Polish Council to Aid Jews.  He arranged for Natan and Yoram to attend a school for homeless orphans. Soon thereafter the clandestine Polish Home Army recruited Yoram as a courier.  In the interim, his mother was caught and deported to Auschwitz and then to Ravensbrück.  As the Red Army pushed westward into Poland in the final year of the war, Yoram toured the liberated death camp of Majdanek and the ruins of Warsaw before he returned to Cracow to be reunited with her.  Having been the recipient of bigotry and benevolence has shaped his cinematic vision.

As Yoram relates his story to his grandchildren, excerpts from his films that draw on the tribulations and triumphs he encountered in hiding are seamlessly shown.  What ostensibly are innocuous cartons featuring lovable animal and human characters are derived from that bleak era when Jews were hunted like animals and fended for themselves or with the aid of sympathetic Gentiles to avoid detection by German soldiers and Polish informers.

He also tells how he ended up in Australia.  In the immediate postwar period Yoram briefly studied to be a musician before turning to filmmaking.  In 1950 Yoram decided to immigrate to Israel to begin a new life in what he describes as the country where he should have been born as a Jew.  At first he shot stories as a newsreel cameraman, but disliked how his footage was often taken out of context and distorted in the finished films.  He learned the art of animation making training films for the Israeli army. Since he had little money, he and his wife Alina experimented with stop motion films utilizing everyday objects and garnered acclaim and awards at international film festivals.  In Israel Gross is remembered primarily for his acclaimed animated puppet film Joseph the Dreamer (1962) based on the Biblical story.

Hoping to protect his newborn son from the ravages of war, Yoram and his family immigrated to Australia in 1968 in the wake of the Six Day War.  He and his second wife Sandra founded their own studio and achieved international success with Dot and the Kangaroo in 1977.

Yoram’s shift to producing animated films about serious historical subjects paralleled three trends in popular culture.  First, the turmoil of the Sixties emboldened animators to tackle controversial contemporary issues. Second, the identity politics of ethnic and racial minorities who had been victims of discrimination and persecution prompted a cycle of films dramatizing their marginalization and suffering in television miniseries like Roots (1977).  Yoram contributed to this genre the following year with The Little Convict, a cartoon about the incarceration and manumission of the youngest prisoner ever exiled to Australia during the 19th Century.  Third, public awareness and interest in the Holocaust grew in Australia in the 1980s.

Responding to these developments in 1982 Yoram produced the first feature-length cartoon about the Holocaust, Sarah and the Squirrel.  The opening klezmer tune by famed clarinetist Giora Feidman reveals the Jewish identity of the film’s protagonist.  In the prologue, Mia Farrow informs viewers that the following story constitutes “a memorial to all children of all wars.” When the inhabitants of Sarah’s village panic over the outbreak of war,  World War Two clips of bombing raids and artillery flash across the screen, Sarah, and her father, mother, and grandmother run away to the forest and conceal themselves in a pit.  While foraging for food, she befriends animals and stumbles upon a barbed wire encampment where she sees her former teacher clad in a striped uniform toiling for cruel guards.  As she writes an entry in her diary, footage of refugees carrying their possessions appear on the page.  Sarah returns to her village and witnesses her mother and grandmother loaded onto a truck.  Her mother signals her to go away.

When she comes back to the camouflaged pit, Sarah finds it empty except for the ransacked items scattered on its floor.  Demoralized by her abandonment, Sarah nevertheless musters the courage to stop the war.  After witnessing a thwarted attempt by partisans to dynamite a railroad bridge which trains laden with weapons regularly cross, Sarah embarks on a plan to sabotage the bridge by removing bricks from the foundation every day.  Between her forays to the bridge, she endures the animal equivalent of a holocaust, a raging forest fire.  The forces of destruction are personified by black beasts with crow-like heads, pointy spinal plates, and long tails.  The company of animals and flashbacks of her childhood including a sequence of her family celebrating Shabbat provide Sarah solace.  The bridge eventually collapses and the train careens into a ravine.  Sarah is last seen heading into the forest. Yoram comments,  “Naturally, she fails because it is impossible to stop a war with one hammer and being a little girl.  Nevertheless, she is trying to do this because one must try.  Maybe we will succeed!”

To make Sarah’s message more universal and comprehensible to young audiences, Yoram chose not to explicitly identify the perpetrators as Germans or the victims as Jews.  Moreover, he cast war and its collateral damage rather than genocide as the film’s villain.  As he explained to me, “Sarah was a commercial film for children and this is partly the reason why I made it more general and not Jewish-specific. I felt I didn’t need to tell the story to adults who knew the subject well enough, but to children who didn’t because it happened before they were born or because they haven’t experienced war first hand.”  He believes it “is impossible to present the complete story of the Holocaust to children, especially in film media, as we adults naturally wish to protect these beautiful innocent children from concepts that are gruesome, horrific, and painful.” Nevertheless, it is obvious to anyone familiar with the Holocaust or Jewish culture that the soldiers in Sarah are Germans and the people captured or fleeing them are Jews since these details are embedded in the film’s iconography, klezmer music, and narrative.

Yoram’s most beloved cartoon is Blinky Bill: The Mischievous Koala (1992).  Though primarily about deforestation’s impact on animals, it still touches on Yoram’s recurring themes of displacement, separation, and resistance. The images of animals fleeing the burnt forest and carrying their meager belongings resemble footage of Jews being resettled in ghettos.  Blinky teams up with a girl koala named Nutzy.  Together they infiltrate the woodchip mill to witness their former tree houses reduced to sawdust.  Unable to escape the mill with Blinky, Nutzy gets adopted by the logger’s daughter.  Blinky and his forest compatriots outwit the forester to free Nutzy.  In the tumult Blinky is reunited with his mother who was trapped under logs awaiting chipping at the mill   In Blinky and Me, Yoram admits Blinky is his cartoon counterpart: “Blinky Bill lost his father just like I lost my father.  Blinky is separated from his mother, just like I was separated from my mother during the war.  Our main occupation was hiding.  Like mice we fled from place to to place to avoid getting caught.  We had friends, Jewish friends.  We had non-Jewish friends, and they were good people, and we trusted them completely.”  At the end of Magierski’s documentary, Yoram locates his closest Polish friend and surprises him with a visit.

While Yoram’s films deal with ecocide, genocide and war, they impart optimism that decent people can prevent such things from occurring.  His endearing characters and their efforts to overcome adversity teach young audiences they might do the same, even when the stakes are not global, like protecting the bullied or reporting pet abuse.  Yoram Gross could have been embittered by his fugitive childhood.  Instead, he has found it is better to light up the screen with positive messages rather than to curse the darkness. Magierski’s documentary affords us the opportunity to meet this sensitive soul and to bask in the glow of his personality and films.

*
Lawrence Baron recently retired from being the Nasatir Professor of Modern Jewish History at San Diego State University.  He is the author of Projecting the Holocaust into the Present: The Changing Focus of Contemporary Holocaust Cinema (Rowman and Littlefield: 2005) and editor of The Modern Jewish Experience in World Cinema (Brandeis University Press: 2011).      He may be contacted at [email protected]

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