A granddaughter bears witness

Serena Dykman as seen in “NANA.” Courtesy of First Run Features
In a new documentary, director Serena Dykman retraces her grandmother’s story of survival in Auschwitz and how past atrocities can shape our future

Every film about the Holocaust reminds us to never forget. Very few articulate what it takes to always remember.

“NANA,” (First Run Features) the debut feature film from Serena Dykman, documents her journey as she and her mother Alice retrace her grandmother’s story of survival, from her childhood in Poland to Auschwitz, where she was forced to be a translator for the “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele, to her postwar life in Belgium.

Dykman, who was raised in Paris and Brussels and graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, says she knew she wanted to make the film when she finally read her grandmother’s memoir, the day after the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015.

“I didn’t realize what she lived and what she stood for, and the activist that she was. I think the combination of being in Paris during that time [of the Charlie Hebdo attack], and reading the memoir made me very angry to see that people like my grandmother did such amazing and important work, but so many survivors are already gone and can’t do that job anymore. I just felt like I had to do something about it,” says Dykman, who was eleven when she lost her grandmother.

Three and half weeks later, Dykman began shooting “NANA.” At first, she says, people were skeptical; it was very hard to be taken seriously as a 22-year-old woman tackling the Holocaust. Dykman focused on making sure that her grandmother’s story was told from a transgenerational perspective, alternating from her grandmother to her mother to herself.

Then, after filming, Dykman got an unexpected boon. She began receiving footage from all over the world of her grandmother, the Polish-born Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant. After the war, Michalowski-Dyamant had devoted her life to sharing her story, repeatedly sitting down for televised interviews and even returning to Auschwitz to educate visitors. Her testimony became part of her survival, and it boomeranged back to her granddaughter.

Dykman wound up with nearly 100 hours of her grandmother’s testimony, which she juxtaposes with interviews and footage of her own trip to Auschwitz. Michalowski-Dyamant is compelling on camera, and her testimony is by turns life-affirming and humorous, bone-chilling and incomprehensible. She recalls thanking the guard who tattooed a number on her arm because she understood this meant she would be allowed to live. She describes the fear that infused her every interaction with Mengele, then calls him a very handsome man. Her testimony captures both the barbarism and selfless sacrifice that humans are capable of, and it comes together in a pastiche of different B-roll segments artfully spliced into a seamless narrative. The effect of fragmentation is powerful: Michalowski-Dyamant told her story again and again and again, and yet could never capture the totality of her experience.

For the skeptics, Dykman’s youth is in fact one of the film’s strengths. This is a story of Holocaust survival, but it is also a master class in transmission. The first image of the film is a home video clip of a newborn Dykman, cradled by her mother as her grandmother looks on. Through her testimony, Michalowski-Dyamant projected the past into the future, transcribing it onto today’s pages darkened by new shadows of authoritarianism and fascism. NANA’s story is now Dykman’s story, and, the film seems to suggest, it must be ours, too.