UT film grad earns acclaim for family tale
Short explores grandmother's time in concentration camp.
Ruth Fertig is a descendant of Holocaust survivors, but that's as much as she knew until a couple of years ago.
Her family knew little about her grandparents' time in Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in what was then Czechoslovakia, and they were reluctant to share what they did know.
But after Fertig discovered that her grandmother, a native of the country, had written a detailed memoir, the radio-TV-film major at the University of Texas decided to make her grandmother's experiences the subject of a documentary.
Now, a year after the 30-year-old graduated with a master's degree, the 23-minute documentary has won a Student Academy Award. Fertig will receive her award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences during a ceremony tonight in Beverly Hills, Calif.
"Yizkor," which means remembrance in Hebrew, tells the story of her grandmother's experience and the silence it brought to her family. Liselotte Fertig was sent to the camp while pregnant and was separated from her husband, Pavel, who was deported to Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen before he was liberated. Liselotte Fertig gave birth in the camp, but the girl died. Liselotte Fertig was liberated when she was 27.
Ruth Fertig is named after that baby. According to information provided by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Liselotte Fertig was among 7,000 Jewish Czech survivors from that camp; 6,152 died.
"My grandparents never talked about what happened to them," Ruth Fertig said. "The re were no photos. There was no footage."
Fertig spent six months recovering a journal from her family in Israel and decided to use a voiceover of her grandmother's written words in the film.
"My grandmother's story was so strong," Fertig said. "Ninety percent of (the film) is purely her words."
With only archival material to use in her film, Fertig traveled to the Czech Republic to shoot with Super 8, the kind of grainy, inexpensive film used decades ago for home videos. The only existing footage of her grandparents, who both died about a decade ago, was shot on the same type of film.
Fertig filled in the gaps of the visual narrative with animation but took care to do so in a way that didn't come off as cartoonish. For this, she sought the help of Jeanne Stern, another UT film graduate, who was experienced with animation.
"There's something about that mixture of voiceover and animation," said Paul Stekler, a UT communications professor and Fertig's former advisor. "In its simplicity, it just worked."
The documentary took a year of combining voiceover, photographs, animation, and footage from historical archives, her family's collection and her own shots. Stekler encouraged her to submit the work for a Student Academy Award.
"It was a different take I've seen on Holocaust films," Stekler said. "She really made it her own."
Of 12 films being honored, Fertig's and two others in the documentary category are being considered for top honors.
"I'm just really proud of, not only the content, but of the technical execution," said Fertig, who now lives in New York. "I'm shocked to have gotten this far — and to say that I won a Student Academy Award is enough of an honor in itself."
After her trip, Fertig hopes to market her film and have it screened in festivals internationally, where thousands of people could come to know her grandmother's story.