Believe it or not, there were actually things that took place at Nazi Germany’s concentration camps that survivors found humorous years later.
That is the unlikely story that Santa Monica-based filmmaker Jon Kean tells in his poignant, yet surprisingly humorous documentary “Swimming in Auschwitz” that will air on local PBS station KCET on Sunday at 4 p.m.
“The idea started as a study of laughter as a survival tool,” Kean said as he was preparing to leave for a screening of his film. “I wanted to know whether there was laughter in concentration camps and how they used laughter to get through it all. That idea didn’t work out all that well, it didn’t translate that well on film.”
The film tells the story of six women who survived what can only be described as one of the worst human tragedies in modern history — the Holocaust. Through personal interviews, Kean digs deep into what kept them alive despite being surrounded by dehumanizing conditions.
One woman, Renee Firestone, was initially put off by Kean’s idea to focus on humor.
“I thought he was crazy,” Firestone said. “How do you expect to have any humor in a place that you just lost your whole family?
“Of course there was no humor.”
But, as she thought of Kean’s proposal, she realized that there were things that occurred during those dark days that she looks back on with a bit of a giggle.
In the film, she tells of when she met the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, a man known as the Angel of Death for his decidedly unethical experimentation on concentration camp prisoners.
The closing days of World War II were at hand and ally forces were closing in on Nazi held lands. Against the backdrop of bombs literally bursting in air, the camp’s commander was telling a group of prisoners that the allies may very well win the war, but many of those gathered would not live to see freedom.
It was then that Mengele singled out Firestone and told her that if she survived her internment she would have to have her tonsils removed.
“(After meeting with Kean) I kept thinking about some of the things that happened and I realized that they were not humorous then, but they are funny,” she said. “I thought there may be something to his idea.
“He came back and we talked and that’s how the film came to be.”
For Kean, the process began in 2002 when he first developed the kernel of what would become an award winning documentary. He initially was inspired by a quote attributed to comedian Billy Crystal. The noted funny man said that any time you put two Jewish people in a room together, they would eventually end up telling stories and laughing. From there, he thought of the most interesting room you could possible put Jewish people in and he came to the conclusion that the Holocaust was that setting.
His first move was to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where a directory of all survivors living in America can be found. He discovered that there were nearly 1,200 people who lived within 20 miles of Santa Monica who had lived through the ordeal. He sent letters out to each of them asking them if they would be interested in participating in the project. He was surprised when 300 contacted him back.
Of the initial 300 respondents, he chose 18 who he interviewed on camera. There was a total of eight men and 10 women. Once he completed the initial photography, he reviewed his 50 hours of footage and realized that the story of the Holocaust had never really been told through the female point of view.
It was then that he decided to focus on the stories of his female subjects and discovered that it was a novel approach to what has become a well documented time in history.
“I did not set out to make a film about women’s experiences,” Kean said. “It just ended up being the best angle to take for the film.”