The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm

February 26, 2018


jeff-scher-animation-15-united-states-holocaust-memorial-museumA-17606. 10-year-old Elliott asks his great-grandfather, Jack, what those numbers tattooed on his arm mean. Jack, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor, tells his great-grandson the story of his life: growing up in Poland, separating from his parents and never seeing them again, being sent to Auschwitz, meeting his wife in a displaced person’s camp after the war and finally immigrating to America to raise his family.

Enter filmmakers Amy Schatz and Sheila Nevins. “We began this project when we realized that there didn’t seem to be much for a family audience about the subject of the Holocaust,” Schatz tells me from her HBO office in New York.

Executive producer Shelia Nevins, who also works at HBO, had come across a children’s book about the Holocaust, which inspired her to make a film for young audiences. “And she came to me and proposed the idea to me,” Schatz says. “It was daunting I have to say. I felt concerned and I felt that it wasn’t clear – there was no roadmap as to how we might do this for a young audience, so we really had to figure out how to present the story with clarity and directness, but also to keep it gentle – so that was the beginning of this.”

Schatz, who is a freelance filmmaker, has worked on several documentaries focused on children, including “A Child’s Garden of Poetry,” “Through a Child’s Eyes: September 11, 2001” and “Don’t Divorce Me! Kids’ Rules for Parents on Divorce.”

“I have made many children’s shows on challenging subjects … but never about the Holocaust, and it was a unique challenge,” she says. “I think my experience has been making children’s shows that feature kids talking from the heart about deep subjects and listening to kids. My specialty is really making programs that feature kids and are for kids.”

The documentary, which is approximately 18 minutes long, focuses on a conversation between Elliott and Jack about his experience in the Holocaust. Elliott is the narrator, interviewer and storyteller in the film. “Interwoven is archival footage and stills and the animation, which helped to tell the story of Jack’s life,” Schatz says. Along with real footage, there is eight minutes of hand-painted watercolor animation by artist Jeff Scher.

“We needed to make some decisions as to how to visualize Jack’s history and we had collected archival films and stills that would be able to represent various points of Jack’s life. So we collected archival films of Jewish life in Poland. We had footage and stills of kids in the ghetto. And we had imagery of deportation, etc. And at one point we wondered if we could … bring it to life in a new way.”

“So we hired an animator who’s very brilliant at a technique called rotoscoping, which involves painting over the original archival material, keeping the reference there, keeping it real but adding this painterly quality. So all of the animation is based on real archival material, but it has the feeling of today … And it was also important that we still see some of that original archival material in the film to remind you this really happened. This was real.”

Since the short premiered on HBO on Holocaust Memorial Day at the end of January, Schatz says they have gotten requests from museums, schools and synagogues around the country to show the film. There is also an exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York of some of Scher’s animated stills. “So I think it’s really filling a need and a gap to be able to have something to be able to show kids that could be an introduction,” Schatz says. Α

The short can be viewed on HBO’s website for free at: There’s also a behind the scenes video with the artist and four companion films featuring interviews with other survivors.


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