“If not us, then who:” ‘Nana’ aims to help millennials relate to the Holocaust

Serena Dykman is working on Nana, a documentary about her grandmother and the Holocaust. | Supplied by Serena Dykman

From a young age, Serena Dykman, a young European filmmaker, has known about the Holocaust. As the granddaughter of three survivors, she not only received a school education on the Holocaust, but a very personal one as well. She has witnessed the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe with the attack on the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels and the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris — both of which made her realize that it was time to act against the growing anti-Semitism in Europe. For two years, Serena read and explored her grandmother’s memoir, Mémorial des Morts Sans Tombaeu (in English, Memorial of the Dead Without a Grave). She believed that she had an advantage as a filmmaker to reach the millennial generation and those to come, so that the Holocaust would never be forgotten. Nana, her documentary on her grandmother, Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant, began.

New Voices spoke to Dykman about what led her to this project, how she sees the state of Holocaust education, and her goals for the film.

New Voices: You are creating this transgenerational documentary about your grandmother’s Holocaust experience. What lead you to tell her story, and can you explain the transgenerational aspect?

Serena Dykman: I was originally born in Paris, but lived in Belgium. I went to a Jewish school, and we learned a lot about the Holocaust at a young age, probably younger than it should have been presented to us. I flew back to Belgium on the day of the Jewish museum attack in Belgium [in May 2015], and then again to around the time of the Charlie attacks. I had been travelling with my grandmother’s memoir, and she emphasized tolerance, respecting one another. The fact that she’s not here to spread this message — and after these attacks it became quite clear that anti-Semitism was on the rise — I as a filmmaker wanted to tell her story.

The reason I call it a “transgenerational” film is because it’s not just about a testimony or just my grandmother. The story goes from my grandmother to my mother to me. It also pans three countries: It starts in Poland, where my grandmother was born; to Brussels, Belgium where she immigrated to; and to New York, where I reside and make the movie.

NV: In the teaser, you mention the notion of tolerance. (Hence, #NanaForTolerance.) Why do you want this to be the main message of your documentary?

SD: I think it’s what my grandmother stood for. She passed away when I was 11, so she passed away before I really got to know her. But I think that’s what she was all about: respecting one another no matter your skin color, religion, and so on. Sometimes people think that the Jews are playing the victim by always bringing up the Holocaust, and I’m trying to reverse that idea. When I was growing up and learning about it when I was around 8 years old, I wondered why were we learning about all this horrifying stuff, but it’s more important to remember the Holocaust. It could be anyone — that’s the scary part!

NV: Is there anything you are hoping that viewers will take away from your documentary other than remembrance and tolerance?

SD: Obviously, a film is not going to change the entire world, but perhaps it will make people think the next time they have a prejudicial thought. We all naturally have some prejudice, but it would be nice if people could gain a different perspective after seeing the movie.

NV: How are people receiving the concept of the documentary thus far?

SD: So far, so good! We did a whole Kickstarter campaign. It not only helped raise money for the project, but it reached people who didn’t know about the project. In November, we launched a campaign for millennials and screened a teaser. Suddenly, they could relate to it. It became real. It was no longer a statistic. My grandmother is of course tangible, but I was also on screen, and they could relate to me. Sometimes, I find it hard to relate to Holocaust survivors because they have experienced the worst. But putting me in the movie — someone millennials could relate to — seemed to have a lot of power.

NV: How much is it taking to film, produce, and edit the film?

SD: Well, I can’t reveal too much of the budget, especially since the film isn’t finished. The Kickstarter campaign was the beginning. It was a great way to get people involved, and we really needed funds — and Kickstarter is a great way to do that. However, Kickstarter is all or nothing — you either get a lot or you don’t. It has been helpful so far.

We also got a grant from NYU, where I started the project as an undergrad.

NV: How do you perceive Holocaust education today? Do you think it is satisfactory, or is there room for improvement? What would you add or take away?

SD: I’m not as familiar as how it’s taught in the U.S. I think from what I hear it’s only mandatory in five to seven states, according to Steven Spielberg’s own project [the USC Shoah Foundation], but I’m not sure about that number. I think we need to be careful about the age that this subject is taught, but I think we also need to make sure to teach it — not just the Holocaust, but genocide as well — before the prejudice sets in. It’s hard to reverse prejudice. It’s also important to emphasize to respect your own neighbor. Lessons on the Holocaust should not just focus on history.

NV: From one millennial to another, I have at times witnessed a lack of seriousness from our generation when it comes to the Holocaust. Do you think we have a chance of changing this if we are the ones to start the conversation as peers to the current generation?

SD: Our generation is at a crucial point. In 2016, we are losing are the very few survivors that are left. They are the best teaching tools. It’s up to us, the millennials. We need to make sure that we are taking it seriously for future generations to take it seriously. I chose to do this project, which is difficult on many levels, but if not us, then who? We need to be careful because Holocaust deniers are still out there, and anti-Semitism is still on the rise, particularly in Europe. I can speak firsthand on that. We don’t have to each dedicate a film to the Holocaust, but we need to find the balance of remembrance.

NV: Do you know approximately when the documentary will be released?

SD: It’s hard to say. We’re working on it every single day. We should be done with editing in about 3 months, but I can’t say much else at the moment.

NV: Anything else you want to add?

SD: I have another goal with the film. People our age and younger are using social media, smart phones, etc. I want to find a way to reach them, and keep them interested. I want to make an interactive website, so, say, 14-year-olds can interact more with my grandmother’s testimonies and more. There is so much we cannot put in the documentary, but I want to use different tools to keep their interest. They can sit down, watch the film, and then walk away and forget about it. This way they can continue to read and learn about the Holocaust.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

To learn more about Serena Dykman and Nanavisit her personal website, or the Nana Kickstarter and Facebook pages.


Alexa Kempner is a student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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