California filmmaker brings Scandinavian Holocaust story to Pittsburgh
Little known chapter of WWII history educates and inspires
A California filmmaker wants Pittsburghers to know more about a piece of Scandinavian history. Along with screening her documentary “Passage to Sweden” at Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville on May 7, Los Angeles-based Suzannah Warlick will participate in a question-and-answer session.
The program, which is sponsored by the Scandinavian Society of Western Pennsylvania, should shed light on a region and Holocaust narrative that gets little attention, Warlick told the Chronicle, speaking from her home in California.
“People know about the Holocaust in generalities,” she said, “but events that happened in Scandinavia and Budapest they're not aware of.”
“Passage to Sweden” tells the story of Scandinavian upstanders who dramatically saved thousands of Jewish lives during World War II.
Approximately 7,500 Jews were living in Denmark when Germany occupied the country in early 1943, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. After initially helping Jews into hiding, Danish resistance workers transported almost 7,200 Jews and 700 of their non-Jewish relatives to neutral Sweden. By the end of the war, 120 Danish Jews died either in Theresienstadt or during the flight from Denmark, representing “one of the highest Jewish survival rates for any German-occupied European country.”
Recognizing this heroism is important, Warlick said.
These upstanders “risked their lives,” she continued. “They showed courage, they showed compassion to their Jewish citizens and they need to be remembered — and that legacy needs to be kept alive.”
Warlick spent 14 years making the film. There were periods of stop and start, she said, but the completed work represents her efforts to “make a difference.”
“In Judaism, and I'm sure in other religions, the saying is if you save one life you save the world, and it's so true,” the Jewish filmmaker said. “This one life goes on to make future generations, and this one life goes on to impact other people by their experiences.”
Since its 2021 release, “Passage to Sweden” has screened at numerous Jewish film festivals and museums.
Bringing the documentary to a group like the Scandinavian Society of Western Pennsylvania is exciting, she said: “I don't know if they necessarily know too much about the Holocaust, and even about their own history.”
But viewers aren’t the only ones learning.
“Making this film was the most educational experience of my life, to be quite honest,” Warlick said. “I've learned so much not only about the history, but about how important it is to bring these stories to light.”
She recalled trying to hire a young graphic artist to help with the project.
“She wasn't Jewish. I really had to tell her all about the Holocaust. I couldn't believe that she had no clue,” Warlick said.
A lack of Holocaust knowledge among young people isn’t surprising.
In 2020, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference), released a national survey on Holocaust knowledge among millennials and Gen Z. The state-by-state report found that 63% of respondents did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Additionally, within Pennsylvania, 45% of respondents couldn’t name a single concentration camp or ghetto; 10% believed Jews caused the Holocaust; and 52% had seen “Holocaust denial or distortion” online or through social media.
Warlick said she’s astonished by both the lack of knowledge and the rejection of facts.
“For any Holocaust deniers out there, how could you deny something that there's so much truth about, so much visual proof, audio proof, individual truth about what happened,” Warlick said. “It's amazing to me, how that can even be in the realm of the world.”
Countering that swell with a film is like using an oar to shift the sea, but Warlick is confident “Passage to Sweden” can help change the tide.
“The more stories, the more education you put out there about the Holocaust about what happened, hopefully, hopefully, it will get out there to people who have other ideas,” she said.
Despite western Pennsylvania’s unpredictable weather, Warlick said she is eager to leave Los Angeles’s sunny comfort to further educational aims.
“I’m looking forward to meeting the Scandinavian audience in Pittsburgh,” she said. “I hope that this film is as educational to them as it was to me. And I hope that they learn something from it and take away something that they can pass on to others.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at [email protected].