‘I guess you’d call it a mitzvah’
Filmmaker describes his documentary on Holocaust survivor and educator Eva Schloss
You may or may not know that name. But you likely have read about her latest exploits. Eva Schloss is a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor, a British-based Holocaust educator who recently grabbed international headlines when she danced a hora with King Charles III at a London Chanukah celebration.
Before that, she was widely known for her testimony to the Shoah Foundation and a harrowing appearance in Ken Burns’ Holocaust documentary.
Yet despite her accomplishments, all the tragic and personal experiences she’s shared with others, there remained a pledge unfilled, one she made to her brother Heinz almost 80 years ago.
The story of that vow is at the center of “Eva’s Promise,” an independent documentary from filmmaker Steve McCarthy of Montclair that recently played to sold-out audiences at the Montclair Film Festival.
“Eva’s Promise” had its origins in a series of coincidences that began in New Brunswick at the George Street Playhouse more than 25 years ago, when Susan Kerner, a theater professor at Montclair State, directed a production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” there.
Early in the process, Ms. Kerner got in touch with Ed Silverberg, who’d been Anne’s friend before the Germans invaded Holland. He came in and talked to the cast about his and Anne’s lives in Amsterdam after the invasion. Quite serendipitously, at around the same time, Young Audiences of New Jersey, an organization whose mission is to inspire young people through the arts, approached Ms. Kerner.
“They wanted to see if I could commission a play with Anne Frank at the center and two survivors,” Ms. Kerner said. “It was up to me to decide who they were.
“I already knew Ed. Then I went to the Anne Frank Center in New York to see if they could give me another name. I wanted a woman, and I wanted her to be a camp survivor. Ed wasn’t in the camps. He’d been hiding during the war.”
The name they suggested was Eva Schloss, who had survived Auschwitz with her widowed mother. In another one of those strange coincidences, Ms. Schloss’s mother married Anne’s father Otto after the war.
Ms. Kerner arranged for playwright James Still to write the book for what became “And Then They Came For Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank,” a multimedia experience that combined videotaped interviews with the two survivors and actors who portrayed scenes from their lives. It was produced successfully around the world.
It also resulted in a friendship between Ms. Kerner and Ms. Schloss. They’d touch base once or twice a year, when Ms. Kerner went to London or Ms. Schloss came to the States. Because of her growing fame due to the play’s success, her friend “sold the antique shop she owned and became a full-time Holocaust educator,” Ms. Kerner said. But a perceived debt to her brother nagged at Ms. Schloss. Over the last few years, it became “very important to her to share her brother’s story.”
Eventually, Ms. Kerner suggested the best way to do so might be a film, and that’s when she approached Mr. McCarthy, 63, who teaches journalism and documentary production at Montclair State University. “Steve and I worked together a bit and we had built a very supportive and trusting relationship,” she said.
Mr. McCarthy, who grew up in Brooklyn, is the son of an NYPD patrolman, the third of four kids. He studied broadcasting at SUNY Oswego, and when he graduated, he landed a low-level job at CBS. Over the years there and at other jobs — with “60 Minutes,” “Dateline,” “America’s Most Wanted” — he learned the business and worked his way up to field producer. That’s typically the person who runs out, does major interviews, and then writes a script for the host to talk over. “I tell people I interviewed everyone from Muammar Gaddafi to Mick Jagger,” he said.
Around 9/11, he was laid off by CNN and decided to go into business himself. Since then, he’s produced and directed several documentaries, including one of his first, “Finding Paddy: The Story of Patrick Brown, FDNY,” a moving, tear-inducing film about a heroic fire fighter who lost his life on the 70th floor of the North Tower, tending to the wounded when the building collapsed.
Clearly Mr. McCarthy had the chops for his production. “It was in my wheelhouse,” he said. “I’ve done films about a major catastrophe. I’m a storyteller at heart. I think it’s part of being Irish.”
Ironically, he’d almost done a similar film involving another survivor, the late Abraham Zuckerman, but his family ultimately decided it would be too painful for Mr. Zuckerman to recount the story.
Not so with Ms. Schloss. “She had night terrors about Auschwitz,” Mr. McCarthy said. “Someone asked her if she can talk about [the experience]. And she talked about it some more and the night terrors went away. She realized she needed to talk about it, and I suppose that was some kind of therapy that helped her get over it.”
The film was a low budget affair that Ms. Schloss funded herself. Neither Mr. McCarthy nor Ms. Kerner took salaries. Only Mr. McCarthy’s two sons, cameramen Justin and Ryan McCarthy, were paid.
As he planned the documentary, Mr. McCarthy realized filming it sooner rather than later would be better, given Ms. Schloss’s age. So, despite the covid epidemic, he flew to London in 2020. “We couldn’t film her with other people, but we recorded about 12 hours of her testimony,” he said.
The Schloss family, forced to flee their native Vienna after the Anschluss, found sanctuary in Amsterdam, settling in an apartment across the street from Anne Frank. The two girls knew each other, but they were not friends.
After the Nazis invaded Holland and initiated increasingly harsh measures, the family was forced to split up and go into hiding in separate apartments. Betrayed by a spy, the Schlosses were reunited on the train to Auschwitz. On that trip, Heinz, an artist and poet, made his sister promise that if he did not survive, she would retrieve a cache of paintings and poems he’d stashed in the floorboards of the house where he and his father had hidden.
Tragically, neither Heinz nor his father survived, but the Schloss women did. After liberation, Eva retrieved his paintings, poems, and some other belongings. A few years ago, she donated them to Amsterdam Museum of the Resistance, where it is exhibited in a children’s wing.
Mr. McCarthy went to the museum and filmed curators talking about the exhibit and that time in history.
When he returned to the States and examined the footage he’d accumulated, Mr. McCarthy realized he had a treasure trove. What originally was intended as a 25-minute short became a compelling hour of Eva’s stories.
In its present form, “Eva’s Promise” sold out three showings at the Montclair Film Festival. Mr. McCarthy is taking it back to Amsterdam, where the Anne Frank House will sponsor a screening at the museum.
Then Mr. McCarthy will go to London, where “Eva’s Promise” will be shown at JW3, the Jewish cultural center, where the famous hora happened, and Ms. Schloss will conduct a post-screening talk-back.
Mr. McCarthy expects to shoot additional footage both in London and Amsterdam to complete what he considers an unfinished film.
Over the course of his initial edit, he’d shown versions of the documentary to his classes at Montclair State and was pleasantly surprised that all the students knew who Anne Frank was. He credits that to a New Jersey law that requires the Holocaust be taught in schools. “I don’t know about the rest of the country, but my students knew,” he said.
It’s the reason one of Mr. McCarthy’s goals is to somehow arrange for copies of the finished film to given to every high school in America. Beyond that, the film’s future is uncertain. He is trying to raise more money to finish the project. He hopes a streaming service picks it up, but in the end, he says, it doesn’t matter.
“I’m not doing this to make money,” he said. “I’m a teacher. My wife and I are older and financially stable. I guess you’d call it a mitzvah.”