The passengers knew they were going to die.
Rounded up by Nazis, they were on trains headed to the Treblinka death camp in Poland. So they took a desperate measure.
They threw their young children off of the train.
This is the premise of the short film, “Castaways,” winner of the $10,000 gold prize at the second annual Robinson International Short Film Competition at SouthSide Works Cinema Wednesday, May 8. The competition, presented by JFilm, honored the memory of Sanford N. Robinson Sr.
Short films were submitted from countries around the world including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Poland, Great Britain and the United States. Several members of the Robinson family were present to hand out the awards.
“This was quite a surprise,” said Slawomir Grunberg, co-director of “Castaways.” “We’re really shocked and speechless.”
Tomasz Wisniewski co-directed the film with Grunberg. Wisniewski lives in Poland and was not able to attend the event.
“Castaways,” a 16-minute documentary filmed in Lapy, Poland, where trains transporting Jews to the Treblinka death camp passed through. The trains slowed down as they went through the town. Parents with small children took advantage by heaving their children out of the train windows hoping that a family would take them in and raise them.
Dozens of children were reportedly thrown out of the trains in Lapy. Only one child, whose identity the film did not reveal, is believed to have survived. Most of the “castaways” were killed by Nazi patrols and buried near the train tracks.
“Making a documentary is not easy, making short documentaries are even more difficult,” Grunberg said. “This film was totally done out of labor of love.”
Two silver awards, each of $3,000, were also announced at the competition.
“Paul,” a 27-minute film from Israel, took one of the silver awards. Adam Bizanski directed the film about a character named Paul, who is going through a tough breakup when his apartment is robbed. Paul, who is left to investigate the robbery himself in the Tel Aviv underworld, is portrayed as a puppet while everyone else in the film is human.
“This is really a great honor,” Bizanski said of the award. “Making short film is not an easy profession. Funds are very hard to come by. This will go to the next project and make the next project happen.”
The other short film to take home silver was “Reporting on the Times: The New York Times and the Holocaust.” Twenty-two-year-old Emily Harrold directed the 16-minute documentary that examined how The New York Times buried reports of the Holocaust on its back pages during World War II.
“ ‘Reporting on the Times’ was born out of shock, and as I continued to research, my pride that I associated with America in the 1940s crumbled,” Harrold said in a written statement. “Although this film is critical of the American press, my goal with this film is to understand rather than blame. It is only with understanding, I argue, that we can learn from our past.”
Five films were shown at the competition, including the three award winners. “Kosher,” from director Isabelle Stead, and “Shacharit: A Morning Prayer,” from director Steven Loring, were the other two.
Iris Samson, chair of the Robinson Competition subcommittee, said that there were 29 short films and documentaries submitted to the competition. The films had to be completed in 2010 or later, less than 40 minutes in length, and include some essence of Judaism, whether it was the theme, history or culture. The films also had to constitute a Pittsburgh premiere; they could not have been on national television or local screenings.
Robinson’s wife, Judy, and children Heather and David are involved in selecting the award winners, along with a panel of judges.
Kathryn Spitz Cohan, executive director of JFilm, noted the rarity of this type of event.
“It doesn’t take place in very many cities,” she said. “In fact, I couldn’t find any other cities where something like this was happening.”
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)