It started innocently enough. R. Harvey Bravman of Brookline received a phone call from Lloyd Gellineau, Director or Diversity for the town of Brookline. He invited Harvey to a meeting to discuss producing a documentary about Brookline at the Health Department.
“There was a metal closet and they opened it up,” explains Bravman. “And in there were about 140 U-matic broadcast quality videotapes. I said, ‘What are these?’ They told me that they were interviews with Holocaust survivors, and that they had been in that closet for over 20 years. That started a journey that’s still going on.”
The project that they became – a movie called “Soul Witness, The Brookline Holocaust Witness Project,” began as a public-private joint venture with the Diversity and Inclusion Department of Brookline.
Leon Satenstein and Regina Barshak were the co-producers of the Brookline Holocaust Witness Project. Between 1990 and 1996, interviews were conducted with local residents who witnessed the Holocaust. They were recorded at what was then Brookline Access Television, now Brookline Interactive Group. “Soul Witness” is a work-in-progress documentary film based on these remarkable and compelling interviews.
Satenstein was a US Army Intelligence officer who had witnessed the liberation of the Dachau concentration camps at the end of World War II. He became an attorney who volunteered as a social worker to help and counsel Holocaust survivors.
Regina Barshak and her brother, Max Winder, lost their parents at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Regina co-chaired the Brookline Holocaust Memorial Committee, beginning in the ‘80’s, and spent six years conducting over 80 hours of video interviews of local Holocaust witnesses with Satenstein, which forms the basis of “Soul Witness.” They brought in Holocaust testimony expert Lawrence Langer and former Brookline Human Relations Director, Steve Bressler, to conduct the interviews.
Fast-forward a couple decades. Bravman explained, “We started categorizing the tapes, started reaching out to family members and using this grant money, and we brought in an attorney, Vinca Jarrett.”
The first problem they encountered had to do with the releases participants signed 20 years before. “And if you’re not an attorney who specializes in that, you need an attorney who lets you know if they’re legal,” explained. Then, he continued, “The project was halted by the Town Counsel’s office,” which said the committee had to be reformed because it had control over the tapes on behalf of the town. “That delayed things for about 15 months,” according to Bravman.
“Then the committee voted to allow me to produce a video for a special event at the Coolidge Corner Theater.” That 18-minute piece afforded town officials and others the opportunity to start seeing the project through less bureaucratic eyes.
It was over two years from the time Bravman had been introduced to these tapes and survivors were passing away. He felt that he needed to do more than just show clips. “I thought if I didn’t make a documentary, it might never get made,” says Bravman. “I just decided I had to do the whole thing. It’s still a work-in-progress film.”
On January 26, Bravman and company held a very special screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. The event sold out all 432 seats in the theater. Included in the audience were family members and friends of the witnesses in the film.
Harvey and Karen, Bravman’s wife, hosted a reception for the families at the Brookline Courtyard Marriott. At the Coolidge Corner screening, Karen, served as the Master of Ceremonies. A special performance of “Gideon Klein Piano Sonata”, composed in Terezin, was performed live by pianist Virginia Eskin. The film was then screened, followed by an emotional question and answer session. The Q&A was moderated by Adam Strom of Facing History and Ourselves, who was a consultant on the project.
“Since the screening, my phone is blowing up,” reveals Bravman. “The reaction is so strong. People want to help. People want to donate. The reaction is not only to the film but what’s behind the film. To give recognition to efforts of people back then. It’s something we needed to hear together as a community… as a town, a Jewish community, for people in harm’s way, for refugees. We are committed to raising the capital to complete a version of the film that can be shown at film festivals and responsible TV outlets. The version we have now has been so well received, we are working on more local showings.”
“Soul Witness” is compelling, despite being unfinished. “We felt such a responsibility to getting this right, to do justice to those people,” said Bravman.