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TJFF: The Heart of Auschwitz

The Heart of Auschwitz

Directed by Carl LeBlanc

2010, Canada, 85 mins.

The heart that this title refers to is not the centre of Auschwitz. Rather, it is a small, heart-shaped book containing birthday wishes, constructed in secret by twelve female prisoners and given to fellow inmate Fania Feiner. It is a delicate thing, small enough to be hidden in the palm of one’s hand, and opens like origami. This documentary is the story of that little heart, now on display at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, and an unlikely journey by director Carl LeBlanc (and Feiner’s indomitable daughter, Sandy Feiner) to find the twelve women who signed the card.

Holocaust documentaries tend to be either expansive investigations of the camps, filled with statistics and stories that emphasize the enormity of history, or focused explorations of personal history. This documentary is the latter; it assumes that the audience is already knowledgeable about the Holocaust, and it is giving us a small piece of that history that magnifies the whole thing. It begins with Fania Feiner’s recollections, and then it moves on to places like Washington DC, Paris, and Tel Aviv, as LeBlanc looks through archives and museums for a list of twelve names that might possibly have been at Auschwitz. This journey is bittersweet. As LeBlanc points out, it might seem like a romantic thing to find twelve signatories of a birthday card, but the reality is that the endeavor is difficult and Auschwitz survivors might not want to be found.

The survivors, of course, are the highlight of the film – if sometimes reluctantly. Our enthusiasm for their stories, manifested in LeBlanc, is tempered by the fact that they don’t always want to remember, that some of them don’t want to talk about it. Fania Feiner herself goes on something of a journey, initially ambivalent to the project but eventually embracing the idea.

It is a sad truth that we are approaching a time when films like The Heart of Auschwitz can no longer be made. In making this film (and donating the heart itself to the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre), Fania Feiner has done us a remarkable service: she has given us a piece of history that proves that there was courage in such a dark time.

–       Dave Robson

Toronto Jewish Film Festival is playing from May 7th through May 15th. Tickets may be purchased online, by phone, or in person. More information is available on their website.