The deeply moving 2016 documentary Nana does something that seems impossible; despite its harrowing subject matter, which chronicles the life and experiences of one exceptional woman before, during, and after the Holocaust, it will not only make viewers cry but also elicit a few chuckles along the way.
When asked to describe in one word the subject of this documentary, Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant, many of her family members and friends reply exactly the same; humour. Despite the emotionally charged and tragic material explored in Nana, the woman at its centre provides many comedic moments in which her charismatic personality comes shining through. One example is when she’s criticized for smoking and replies stubbornly, “I survived Auschwitz, I’ll survive cigarettes”. This award winning film was co- written and directed by Michalowski-Dyamant’s granddaughter Serena Dykman and produced by her daughter Alice Michalowski.
Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant’s story of loss, imprisonment, and survival is at times remarkable, heartbreaking, inspiring, and difficult to comprehend. Even the woman herself remarks that she didn’t make it through her horrific ordeal due to any special talent, strength, or ability. Instead, she credits her survival to a great many incidents of luck. Although Maryla was selected to be sent to the gas chambers not once but twice, she unbelievably still managed to stay alive and at one point became a translator for notorious war criminal Dr. Mengele.
The documentary follows Maryla’s riveting story from her prewar life in Poland to the horrors she endured with the arrival of Nazis and the start of World War II, to her time living in the Polish ghetto, internment at the Auschwitz concentration camp, participation in the Nazis’ so-called Death Marches, as well as her post-war work as a Holocaust educator and advocate for tolerance. In Nana, Maryla’s story is told through interviews filmed over the course of many years, archival footage, discussions with some of her friends and colleagues, and most notably through the personal journey undertaken by her daughter and granddaughter as they travel back to Poland and retrace her steps. By using footage of Serena Dykman and Alice Michalowski discussing this remarkable woman’s life while sitting in a Polish synagogue, walking the grounds of Auschwitz, and visiting various sites in Brussels, the filmmakers are able to better convey Maryla as a multi-dimensional human being rather than a mere statistic. This mother/daughter dynamic is very powerfully presented and serves to better illustrate how even today the Holocaust continues to have a ripple effect on the lives of millions of families.
Nana is a good example of a modern film that doesn’t just look back, but also provides a clear connection between the events that took place in Germany in the 1930s and 40s and today’s political climate. The Charlie Hebdo attacks are mentioned several times within the course of the documentary as Maryla herself stresses the importance of democracy and liberty and the need for tolerance, acceptance, and peace. Nana is a thoughtful, intelligent, and deeply moving film about a remarkable woman who endured the unimaginable and yet survived. Anyone who sees this documentary will surely be haunted by the riveting experiences and memories of Maryla Michalowski-Dyamant.
Nana is now available on DVD.