Escape From KaloscaThere Was Once…, Jewish children of Kalosca

There Was Once…
directed by Gabor Kalman

Filmmaker Gabor Kalman and his family lived in Kalosca, a small city south of Budapest. Like many Jewish families who settled there in the 19th century and defined the city’s middle class, they were business owners; the Kalman family ran a lumberyard. When the Germans invaded Hungary in 1944, Kalman and his mother fled to Budapest and lived under false ID to avoid deportation.

Kalman is now a professor of film and a documentary filmmaker. His family history may never have become a film had it not been for Györgyi Magó, a high school teacher in Kalosca, who found him online. Magó had been looking for members of Jewish families of Kalosca who had dispersed over the globe after the Nazi takeover.

Though not a Jew herself, “I was always sensitive when someone was humiliated or hurt,” says Magó, explaining her motivation in digging into Jewish history. She had taken an interest in the Jewish residents of her hometown while researching her thesis in 2003 and participated in the March of the Living from Auschwitz to Berkenau in 2004.

From that point on, she tracked down descendants and survivors of the holocaust –– some in their 80s, and some who were mere toddlers at the time –– in the U.S., Canada and in Israel. When Magó wrote to one of them in Montreal and did not hear back from her, she assumed it was because the elderly survivor would rather not remember her past. But then emails began pouring in from all over the world; the woman in Canada had notified all of her relatives.

Kalosca had been an archdiocese founded by King Stephen in the 11th century, the Catholic church being the sole landowner. When Jews began to open businesses in Kalosca in the late 18th century, they were not permitted to live in the town. In 1840 came the turning point: the archbishop allowed Jewish residents, and 24 years later the Catholic church donated most of the bricks to build the city’s first synagogue. What followed was the golden age of Kalosca and its Jewry, of growth and peaceful coexistence.

After the Nazi takeover, however, Jews were moved to designated houses on one street –– until the death trains began taking them away. Kalman recalls how his uncle bluffed a taxi driver to pull off his and his mother’s dramatic escape.

Magó interviews elderly residents of Kalosca: They don’t remember anti-Semitism growing up. One still corresponds with her elementary school classmate in Israel; another proudly guards a coat bought from a Jewish furrier and looks forward to handing it down to her descendants. One man recalls the dark clouds spreading over them: He and his friends had been disciplined by adults for breaking windows of Jewish houses. He says, “Although we would never do anything against concrete people, there was this anonymous possibility of being anti-Semitic.”

Kalman in his turn interviewed survivors or their children in Canada and the U.S. One woman relates how a boy in a concentration camp “saved her heart” by falling in love with her. “I don’t know why,” she says, “I was so ugly.” There is very little anger among the survivors –– just sadness, and love, for those who are not among them now, and for their now-vanished community.

Theo Alexopoulos’ motion graphics breathe life into what just a few years ago would have been old pictures on a copy stand. The sepia prints float in space, out of the past. In one segment, figures in the gelatin-silver print slowly fade in, as if returning from an enforced oblivion.

Magó and Kalman’s search culminates in the installation of a replica of a memorial tablet inscribed with the names of the lost residents of Kalosca next to the site of the former city synagogue. Magó’s correspondents fly in from all over the world for its unveiling. This emotional event is interrupted by an ugly resurgence in anti-Semitism, which until then had remained far in the film’s background. A survivor’s daughter is struck on the head by a steel bolt shot from a slingshot by a member of the ultra-right Magyar Gárda (dissolved by the Budapest Tribunal in 2009).

It’s Magó’s firm belief that a teacher should not “just teach, but educate,” and to pass what we know to the next generation. Her students help out at the unveiling ceremony, and at the film’s end, almost as a postscript, we see Magó’s daughter on her first day as a teacher.

–– Rika Ohara

Watch There Was Once… trailer here