By Glenn Kurtz
Farrar Straus Giroux. 415 pp. $30
In 2009, Glenn Kurtz uncovered a roll of 71-year-old film in his parents’ Florida basement. Deteriorated, the film was just months from being completely unwatchable. Instead, it became a window into the lost world of a mostly Jewish town in Eastern Europe on the eve of the Holocaust and the impetus for Kurtz’s book “Three Minutes in Poland.” Restored by researchers at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the film showed Kurtz’s grandparents’ 1938 European vacation, including three minutes in the town of Nasielsk, where his grandfather David was born.
Both a memoir and an impressive feat of historical research, “Three Minutes in Poland” documents Kurtz’s four-year search for surviving Nasielskers, who he hopes can piece together a narrative from the fragments of film. Slowly, he accumulates names and stories for a few of the approximately 3,000 Jews living in Nasielsk when his grandparents’ visited. Fewer than 100 were still alive when the war ended seven years later.
Kurtz’s reconstruction of his ancestral town and its decline is painstaking, sometimes to a fault. The narrative is occasionally derailed by long lists of names and dates. As is often the case with Holocaust narratives, individual stories of humanity and survival can be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the dead.
But the stories Kurtz tells resonate deeply. The book’s most profound moments come during his interviews with seven surviving Nasielskers. By turns horrifying, funny and sad, these interviews are the accounts not just of Holocaust survivors but also of individuals with homes and histories.
Morry Chandler, who appears in the film as an apple-cheeked 13-year-old and whose survival story anchors the book, tells Kurtz: “It’s like a childhood part that I never registered in my mind. . . . Right after this, the whole thing started, and I became an old man of fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. I can’t believe that I was really yet a kid, looking to get in the camera.”
That they preserve a childhood and a way of life that Chandler thought he’d lost is what makes David Kurtz’s film and his grandson’s scrupulous research special. In a genre so often preoccupied with the recitation of horrors, “Three Minutes in Poland” is the rare work that seems more about people than about ghosts.