The Holocaust's invisible evil

The Daily Pennsylvanian
February 20, 2003

Erika Szanto takes questions before the screening of her film on the Holocaust. Szanto discussed her film at an event at the Annenberg Center.

Erika Szanto takes questions before the screening of her film on the Holocaust. Szanto discussed her film at an event at the Annenberg Center.

J.S. Taylor/The Daily Pennsylvanian

It's hard to imagine that the Holocaust went largely unprotested by scores of Hungarians, but this was exactly what acclaimed Hungarian director and screenwriter Erika Szanto set out to prove yesterday to a crowd of over 30 faculty and community members.

Sociology Professor Elijah Anderson was at the Annenberg School for Communication to introduce Szanto, who was on her first visit to Penn to hold a screening and discussion of her film Elysium -- a story about a Hungarian boy who is placed in a Nazi labor camp in 1944.

"Erika Szanto has worked in Hungarian and American film, television and theater for almost 30 years," Anderson said. "She has written and directed over 50 television and feature film scripts."

She is also a novelist and short story writer.

But Elysium is one of her works which hits particularly close to home. Szanto said her inspiration to write and direct the film came from a real-life experience during the Holocaust when her father received an invitation to come to the United States but refused the offer. He was later killed in a Nazi labor camp.

Though alive during the Holocaust -- she was 2 years old at the time -- Szanto said she does not remember experiencing it.

Still, Elysium revolves around a child, with a 10-year-old Hungarian boy who is taken away from his family by the Nazis while he is walking to a neighbor's house. He arrives at a children's Nazi camp called Elysium -- another name for the Garden of Eden because it is for the good children captured by the Nazis.

Ultimately, the Nazis kill the young boy while he is showering. Though the end of the film does not show the actual death, it does hint at his oncoming death.

"I didn't try to depict the physical horror of the concentration camps," Szanto said.

In fact, she deliberately stayed away from making a Holocaust story that showed the actual deaths of Jews. Rather, she said she wanted her audience to feel the emotional distress the Jewish people felt because of the Holocaust.

"My main message was that the devil [does] not always show his face and sometimes... it is not very easy to recognize the devil in our society," she said. "I wanted to show a metaphor of how people are trapped in a situation and they believe that if they follow the rules, if they [are] obedient, it will help them and everything will be OK, the government will protect them."

For this reason, Szanto said the Hungarians did not establish much of a resistance against the German oppression and left their lives in the hands of the Nazis. She also said she wanted to show that many types of people in Hungarian society were responsible for the extermination of Hungarian Jews.

One of her overarching messages was that different Hungarians from different socio-economic classes were all responsible in some way for the Holocaust in Hungary. In the film, the parents of the Hungarian boy are not able to receive help from their rich friends, the police or even Jewish officials.

And students connected with Szanto's message.

"This was a different kind of film. You were able to receive it on more of an emotional level," said Michelle Charles, a first-year professional student with the Organizational Dynamics Program in the School of Arts and Sciences. "It was impressive with the casts of the children to get the message of the film across."

But despite the acclaim, Szanto is far from finished -- in April, she plans to begin directing theatre in Hungary.

Her screening was sponsored by the Kelly Writers House, the center for Africana Studies Center, and the Philadelphia Ethnography Project.