news misas fugue to make its staunton debut
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Misa’s Fugue to make its Staunton debut

film2Before moving to Staunton last summer, Robert E. Lee High School social studies teacher Jennifer Goss had the privilege of documenting the story of Holocaust survivor, Frank Grunwald.  The resulting film, Misa’s Fugue, has since garnered several awards and been selected to play in several prestigious film festivals throughout the world.

On Sunday, May 5 at 4 PM, the film will make its official Virginia premiere at Mary Baldwin College in the Francis Auditorium.  The screening is being co-sponsored by the Shenandoah Valley Holocaust Education Project and the Spencer Center at MBC.

“Misa’s Fugue,” a 90-minute film that weaves art, music, history and technology with emotion and inspiration, tells the extraordinary story of Holocaust survivor Frank “Misa” Grunwald.

History shows that nearly 1.5 million children were murdered during  the Holocaust between 1933 and 1945.  Grunwald was one of fewer  than 300 children to escape death from the “camp-ghetto” at Terezin  (or Theresienstadt) in the Czech Republic, a facility used by the Nazis  as a tool of deception.

Grunwald is now 80, and living in Fishers, Indiana.  More than 66 years after his liberation, the twists, turns and torments of his four-year ordeal and miraculous survival have been artfully documented by a collaboration of more than 200 former and current students, 10 teachers who spanned 6 different departments in Fleetwood Area High School, a small handful of independent filmmaking professionals, and 5 international organizations.  Goss taught Social Studies at Fleetwood (located outside of Reading, PA) for ten years before relocating to her husband’s hometown.

Goss’s partner in the project was the film’s director and Fleetwood Area High School Media/Communications teacher, Sean Gaston.  Gaston became a teacher after fifteen years in the film industry and both shared the goal of taking their student’s learning away from the textbook.  When Gaston met Grunwald in June, 2010, the lightbulb went off that this chance meeting could provide him with that opportunity on a large scale.

“Misa’s Fugue” began with Gaston’s happenstance introduction to Grunwald, an epiphany and scribbles in a notebook some 22 months ago at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Belfer “Next Step” Conference in Indianapolis, IN.

After hearing Grunwald’s story and viewing several of the hundreds of family photos that miraculously survived the war, Gaston asked Grunwald if his story had ever been documented.  Grunwald said yes, but not to his satisfaction.  A retired industrial designer and adjunct professor at Purdue University, Grunwald connected with Gaston over a mutual love of the arts and agreed that he would be willing to share his life with students in a school several hundred miles away.

“A personal story is always more powerful than just hearing that millions of people were murdered and never seeing their faces,” he said.

That night, after their initial meeting, Gaston called his then-colleague and USHMM Museum Teacher Fellow, Goss.  He pitched the idea and then asked her to help him produce the film, placing her in charge of procuring the initial funding.  Goss, said, “The entire film has been community funded.  The initial donation came from the Jewish Federation of Reading.  Other community groups and individual donors came on board and helped to bring this project to life.”

The project took off and grew in ways that the pair hadn’t imagined.  “It has consumed every spare second of our lives for nearly three years,” Goss said.  “It’s become just so much more than a simple film.”

In addition to their full-time teaching jobs, both took on the task of bringing the film to life.  Gaston directed the project and served as producer and as one of the screenwriters.  Goss, a noted Holocaust educator, produced and also served as the film’s historical consultant and assisted with the screenwriting.

Once the initial narrative was recorded, students in Gaston’s Media and Communications program transcribed the interview.  While they worked on this, students in the history department worked with Goss to research additional primary source photographs and film footage from the era through USHMM in Washington, D.C.  They also completed an International Tracing Service (ITS) request to see if any documentation on the Grunwald family existed in the Holocaust-era archives in Germany.  Dozens of documents were found.

The documents are among hundreds of artifacts that appear in the film, some emerging “out of nowhere,” Gaston said, during the lengthy discovery process.  Perhaps the most touching example is a hastily written letter by Grunwald’s mother to his father – moments before trucks took her to the gas chamber.  That letter was donated this past July to USHMM and will become part of their Permanent Exhibition, a testament to its uniqueness and importance as an artifact from this tragic time.

It would not be the only interesting item that would be included in the film.

“We were about 14 months into the project when Frank casually mentions to us that a relative in Europe might have some 8mm film of his family from the 1930s,” recalled Gaston.  “That’s an amazing find. So now we have a few clips of that in the film.  The project evolved in directions we never expected, and took on a life of its own.”

By its completion, Misa’s Fugue incorporated the efforts of students in FAHS’s art, music, media/communications, technical education, social studies, and english departments.  They were guided by Gaston, Goss and faculty members in 6 different departments of the school.  Three independent filmmaking professionals also participated, largely donating their services because they believed in the project.  Five international organizations including the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, USHMM, Yad Vashem, USC-Shoah Foundation and Radio Praha also contributed to the effort.

The film premiered in April 2012 in the city of Reading, PA.  Over four hundred supporters, local notables, students and their families were in attendance.  The premiere was accompanied by a display of the student artwork that is interwoven throughout the film.

Since April, the team has distributed 1,500 DVDs of “Misa’s Fugue” at nominal pack-and-ship costs to high schools, non-profits and museums that illuminate Holocaust history and to project donors.  Funding from backers such as the Jewish Federation of Reading, the Albright College Holocaust Resource Center, the Pennsylvania Holocaust Education Council,  local synagogues and many anonymous donors are enabling that plan, as well as other education partnership projects.

In October, the film was specially screened for staff and volunteers at USHMM.  The film has also played at several film festivals including the Phoenix Film Festival, the Greater Reading Film Festival and the Philadelphia Film Festival. In July, it will play at the “Sundance of the East,” the New Hope Film Festival. It has even garnered attention from Emmy-award winning actor Michael Constantine and Playtone Productions co-founder Gary Goetzman.  Both personally reached out to the producers to share their positive impressions of the film.  Goetzman has also written a letter of support for the project.

In May, the film is officially going “international.”  Although copies have been distributed to individuals in over a dozen foreign countries, May will see the film’s premiere in Europe at the Zagreb Jewish Film Festival in Croatia.  Later that month, the film will also be shown by the Jewish Holocaust Centre

Goss is amazed by the path the film has taken since its premiere.  “When we set out to make this film, I was confident we would create a good final product; however, neither Sean nor I even fathomed the impact this film would have on people around the world.  The fact that we can share Frank’s story with so many people is incredible and we are grateful for all of the opportunities that have been offered to us in spreading Frank’s legacy and the story of so many others who did not survive.”

“I hope everyone who sees this film realizes the underlying message of education that goes beyond a classroom, a textbook, a standardized test,” Gaston said.  “This is a lesson and an experience about humanity these kids will remember the rest of their lives.”  According to Goss, the project was truly “life changing.”  The students who participated agree.

To extend this mission, the pair is distributing the film on a “not-for-profit” basis fueled by donations.  Their goal is to get it into high school and university libraries and classrooms across the country and around the world.

For more information on the film and to see a trailer, please visit www.misasfugue.com.  For more information about this event, please contact Rabbi Joe Blair at [email protected] or by calling 540-886- 4091.

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