Shira Stoll, a Multimedia Specialist for the Advance/SILive.com, is the filmmaker behind the “Where Life Leads You” documentary and the Staten Island Holocaust Survivor series.
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — It was a Tuesday afternoon at the Joan and Alan Bernikow JCC of Staten Island when I first met Gabi Held.
Holocaust survivors were singing Yiddish and Hebrew songs in the Sukkah, a temporary hut used to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
Gabi was with his wife, Mariann, and they were quietly enjoying the festivities. When everyone in the room introduced themselves, I noticed that Gabi did not want to speak.
Instead, Mariann went on to tell his story, of being a 12-year-old boy from Hungary taken to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp with his mother and two brothers. And of how they were able to survive.
Gabi nodded at her to thank her for talking.
After the singing celebration, I approached Gabi and Mariann. I told them about the project and how I wanted to interview all of the Holocaust survivors on Staten Island to preserve their stories on SILive.com.
Gabi was hesitant; it was clear he didn’t want to relive the Holocaust. But Mariann insisted on the importance of telling his story.
I went to their house a few days later. When the cameras were rolling, Gabi grew emotional and the interview was intense. I could tell how painful it was for him to recall his experience.
Just as he began talking about being forced to the concentration camp, Gabi’s dog walked into the room and the dog’s footsteps made a constant, irritating tapping noise. The audio sounded terrible, but Gabi continued to speak (and cry).
I couldn’t bring myself to stop him from speaking, not even to preserve the audio that was so critical for the project.
After I left, I was worried the interview was ruined, but attempted to make it usable in post-production.
I spent weeks trying to repair the audio, and finally realized it was not going to happen. I either had to redo the interview with Gabi or not use his story in the project.
A few days later, I called him and told him what happened, in hopes that he would be open to doing it again. But immediately he shut down the idea. He couldn’t talk about it again, it was just too painful.
And how could I blame him? It was hard enough telling it once. How could I make someone feel this much pain for a story, again? Was it really that important?
I started to doubt myself. But finally, I settled on the idea of just taking his portrait. At least I would have a nice picture of him and could write his story.
He agreed. But he was in Florida for the winter, so I flew there.
He seemed happy and content to be in the warm weather.
During the photo shoot, he told me about his grandkids and his stay in Boynton Beach, where he escapes the cold months on Staten Island.
We had a nice time and I was happy with the photos.
As I was packing up to leave, Gabi said that he was impressed with my dedication to the project and how much it means to me. And because of that, he said he would do an interview. As long as we kept it short.
And we did.
The whole interview lasted only a few minutes, but it was just detailed enough to tell his incredible Holocaust story.
In those few minutes, I realized how important it was to tell this story, beyond just a photo and written narrative. Because with every word, you can hear in his voice how he suffered, and you can see his perseverance, strength and will to survive. Because so often, the Holocaust becomes just a topic we read about in a textbook, but having our hearts broken with Gabi helps us to truly understand the scope of the Holocaust.
We invite you to watch and hear from Gabi directly in the above video.