TUNKHANNOCK — Around 70 people spent a sunny Wednesday afternoon in the dark, inside the Dietrich Theater to try to understand a little more about history. It was the theater’s final showing of “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” part of the theater’s third annual summer film festival.
The movie is based on the true story of Jan Zabinski, director of the Warsaw Zoo and his courageous wife, Antonia, who saved the lives of 300 Jews imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto after the Germans invaded Poland in 1939.
And, if anyone in the theater possibly assumed this might have been fiction, Elly Miller, of Shavertown, reinforced the story with a brief description of how the Holocaust affected her own family.
“What you saw on the screen today isn’t made up,” she told the audience in the theater after the closing credits. “These things happened. These events were all too real. And this wasn’t just in Poland, but throughout Europe under Nazi rule.”
Miller spoke for a few minutes before the film to introduce herself and talked briefly about the war and its impact. After, she took the microphone again and talked about those family members – her maternal grandparents and five of their children who perished in one corner of Poland because of their race.
And she has proof.
For at least two decades, Miller has been researching her family’s past. It began when a teenaged Elly found a photo of her mother’s family. Only two of the Zorn children made it to America in the 1920s before politics closed any possibility of the rest of the family being able to leave the town of Bursztyn, then a part of the Austrian Empire.
When the young Elly asked about the people in that photo, her mother simply said that they “died in the war.”
“My mother didn’t talk about her family when we were growing up,” she said, talking about her childhood as the sixth of seven children of Clara and Rubin Kaufman in Ossining, NY. “Maybe it was because of my mother’s past life, or maybe in spite of it, but she wanted her children to have the educational and economic opportunities that were impossible in her own life. And, possibly, more importantly, she wanted them to have a happy childhood.”
But there were dark times for Clara Kaufman, most especially during the Yiskor memorial service during the Jewish High Holy Days.
“My mother would come out of those services in tears. It was the only time we saw her cry,” Miller said.
And finally, as Clara Kaufman lay on her deathbed, she asked her daughter, Elly, whose name honors Eleanor Roosevelt, a force for human rights in this country, to find out about those who never made it to America.
The talisman for that research is a yellowed postcard with Ukrainian printing and postmark, the final message written in fountain pen, by Miller’s grandmother, Frieda Zorn. It is now a prized family keepsake, evidence of a woman who tried to keep her American family’s optimism about the future.
Elly Miller traveled throughout the world, had a career in business and education and served her community for several decades. She raised two sons, watching them grow, get an education and get married. Once she became a grandmother herself, Miller realized there had been an empty space in her own childhood.
That’s when her search began in earnest into the past. She has done research on the computer – even finding the name of her grandfather, Lieb Zorn, on a roster of Jews who lost their lives in Bursztyn at the hands of the Nazis. She and her husband, Murray, have traveled to Poland and have walked on the paths, on the railroad tracks and into the buildings in Auschwitz and Birkenau, the last places seen by so many Jews before they were sent to their deaths.
Her efforts to speak to others about the Nazi blight on Europe, the inhumane attack on the Jewish people, the cruelty, the internments in ghettos and prison camps, the massacres, began when one of Miller’s friends, a middle-school teacher, asked for help to get her students to better understand “The Diary of Ann Frank.”
“So many died,” Miller said. “But Hitler did not win. From the seven children of Clara and Rubin Kaufman, there are now more than three dozen children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. And there are millions of others who live on.”
Miller continues to tell the story of the past as part of a mission to get a message to future generations.
“I need to tell this story for at least one good reason,” she said. “We need to keep the story alive so people can learn and remember. Otherwise, it could happen again. And this is something that should never happen again.”