The Last Flight of Petr Ginz: Behind the Scenes

This month’s Iowa Alumni Magazine feature article discusses how University of Iowa alumnus Churchill Roberts came to tell the story of Petr Ginz, an inspiring young boy killed in the Holocaust. Read more about what went into the making of Roberts’ latest documentary, The Last Flight of Petr Ginz, in this Iowa Alumni Magazine exclusive:

Standing in a former concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, Churchill Roberts watched silently as Chava Pressburger recalled the last moments she’d spent with her brother before he died at Auschwitz. He could barely imagine the thoughts running through the head of the sad elderly woman.

During the making of his documentary film, The Last Flight of Petr Ginz, Roberts*, 72PhD, often had to ask Holocaust survivors to relive some of their most painful moments and experiences. It was just part of the complex, diplomatic, and creative behind-the-scenes work that helped bring the award-winning film to fruition.

“When you immerse yourself in a story like this, and become close to the family

while doing so, you continually grieve for their loss,” says the film’s co-director, Sandy Dickson.

Other hurdles were more technical and time-consuming. Research director

Cara Pilson combed through millions of archived documents, images, and film footage at Israel’s Yad Veshem Holocaust museum and other historic collections in

Czechoslovakia, Poland, Germany, and the U.S. Many sources of information also needed to be translated into English. Editor Cindy Hill then wove together interviews, photographs, and archival materials to tell Petr’s story in a way that was both engaging and meaningful.

One key difficulty was the fact that increasingly fewer Holocaust survivors remain

alive; only four or five people still remember being in Terezin concentration camp with Petr Ginz. “As time passes and memory fades, the Holocaust seems inconceivable. Yet this planned genocide of millions of people was not only the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, but also likely all of human history,” says Roberts. “For the sake of posterity, it’s important to record the firsthand accounts of witnesses while we still can.

To preserve authenticity, Roberts also avoids using actors to reenact historic

scenes, explaining “there’s a tendency to make them overly dramatic.” In The Last Flight of Petr Ginz, he and Sandy Dickson chose to animate the main character; while this approach helps the film appeal to younger audiences, the result is far from superficial or juvenile. When Petr arrives at Auschwitz, blinking

in the glare of a spotlight and frightened by the cacophony of barking dogs and shouting Nazi guards, the scenes are somber, realistic, and heart-rending.

Some of the animation is based on Petr’s original artwork from the concentration camp. His red rocket ship appears in several major sequences, while other scenes show the monster Ka-Du chasing its human prey and swallowing victims in a gulp. “One of our main concerns was whether the animation would be consistent with Petr’s artwork,” says Roberts. “But, over time, it felt as if Petr’s imagination had been transferred to our animator, Cory Godbey.”

Throughout the three-year project, the filmmakers took great care to approach their dark subject matter with subtlety and respect. Their hard work paid off, with The Last Flight of Petr Ginz amassing numerous international awards since its completion in 2011, as well as recognition from the United Nations. The U.N. developed a study guide about the documentary and screened the film at its New York headquarters as part of its observance of the 2012 International Day of Commemoration for Holocaust victims.

But, the most important reaction to the film came after a private screening in Jerusalem. In the longest 70 minutes of their lives, Roberts and his team paced outside, biting their nails. Finally, a petite, reserved woman emerged and headed their way. Enfolding them all in a warm hug, Chava Pressburger—the sister of Petr Ginz—gave her blessing to the film about her beloved brother’s life and death.

Read more about Roberts’ documentary and Petr’s story here.  

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