For filmmaker Harvey Bravman, who spent more than 2,000 hours listening to the recorded testimonies of Holocaust survivors, the key significance of his film “Soul Witness, The Brookline Holocaust Witness Project” lies not in the fact of survival itself.
“I think the moral of the film is not that these people survived, but for you to experience their beauty and to understand that people just as beautiful as them did not,” said Bravman, who will be in Pittsburgh on Nov. 3 for a special screening of “Soul Witness” at the Regent Square Theater.
All proceeds from ticket sales will go to support the three Pittsburgh synagogues attacked on Oct. 27 in an anti-Semitic massacre that left 11 Jews dead and two seriously injured. The evening will include an address by Lauren Apter Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and a Q&A with Bravman.
The documentary features a collection of 31 interviews of Holocaust survivors which were conducted in the early 1990s, then locked away in a storage file for three decades. The interviews are deeply personal and gripping, with witnesses describing their lives before and during the war, and the lifelong effects of their experiences — surviving death camps, or hiding, or fighting in resistance movements. Several of the witnesses saved the lives of other Jews.
The 65-minute film, Bravman’s first full-length feature, derived from more than 80 hours of interview footage of Holocaust survivors in Brookline, Massachusetts. The interviews were conducted by Lawrence L. Langer, a Holocaust scholar and professor of English emeritus at Simmons College in Boston.
“They went through so much pain to give these testimonies,” explained Bravman. “They had kept everything bottled up for the last 45 years before that. They were in so much pain and testimonies were new.”
In recent years, it has become more common for Holocaust survivors to share their testimonies, both privately and publicly. In the decades after the war, though, survivors were not speaking about their experiences so openly, according to Bravman.
“People were not listening to survivors and the Jewish community wasn’t either,” he said. “I think there is this feeling that it was a lack of empathy, but I don’t think it has anything to do with that. It’s hard to listen to a friend tell something that’s not pleasant. You could imagine, it’s the late 1940s, early 1950s, and all people knew were the images of the camps they had at liberation and knowing people were exterminated. And knowing what that was like, people, I think, were just afraid to hear the details.”
Bravman said he was also afraid to hear the details, and, after receiving the tapes, more than two weeks passed before he could muster the courage to play them.
The most heart-wrenching testimonies, he said, reflect the pain of loss the survivors felt after their relatives were murdered.
“I think people go into the film thinking that some awful thing that happened at Auschwitz is going to be the hardest thing for them to hear,” Bravman said. “And I think they are unprepared sometimes for how they will feel to hear someone tell them how they lost their family and how much they loved their family. Because what’s more important?”
The film, he said, reveals in haunting detail “what it feels like to lose people that you loved, and to be alone afterward. Almost all of them were orphans when it was over. And I think that is more anguishing than what you think that you would be anguished about.”
Bravman included in the film “what was most important to the people who gave their testimony,” he said. “And what was most important to most of them were stories about their family.”
“Soul Witness,” he said, is also meant to highlight the imperative of listening.
“These are people who, when the war was over, they had nothing,” said Bravman. “They had no country, no family, no trust. And they went their lives with these memories that were bottled up and they had to deal with it in their own way. There were a few brave people who listened to them. I think because of that, these treasures exist.
“After you hear their stories, you are glad that you did, and I think you become stronger,” Bravman added. “It made me a better person.”
The film was completed in October 2018, and the first time it screened as a finished product was Nov. 1 at the Bedford Playhouse in New York, just a few days after the massacre at the Tree of Life building. Since then, Bravman said, he has been motivated to find a way to do something to help the three congregations that were attacked in Pittsburgh.
“We had sold out really early and so we had a full house,” Bravman recalled. “Then, what happened on October 27 put the screening on a whole new perspective and had an effect on me, and had an effect on the audience that night. We spoke about the shooting before the film. We had to, right? It was in all of our minds. And I think that stuck with me. Somehow I wanted to use the film to help.”
Bravman reached out to several theaters to inquire about screening his film in Pittsburgh, and Regent Square Theater, a nonprofit operated by Pittsburgh Center for Arts and Media, agreed to host.
“We are honored to screen this important film to support our Pittsburgh neighbors who endured this horrific tragedy and to remember the community members we lost,” said PCA&M Cinema Program Director Joseph Morrison in a prepared statement. “The Regent Square Theater is an important hub for community gatherings, and we’re happy to do our part.”
Bravman hopes that the testimonies in this film “will help the healing in a way.”
“Everything that helps can only help in small degrees,” he acknowledged. “We come there very humbled to try to do just this little bit, knowing there is no way to reverse time.”
The film is intended for a general audience with an advisory for children under 13.
Tickets to the benefit screening are available online or at the Regent Square Theatre or at the box office. More information on the film can be found at soulwitness.org. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at