Gita Kaufman’s childhood memories of Vienna are few but vivid. She remembers it as a beautiful, pleasant city that seemed to change suddenly in 1939, when Adolf Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland and launched World War II.
“Sept. 4, they banged on our door in the middle of the night and arrested my father,” says Kaufman, who is Jewish. “They threw him down the stairs on the way out of the house.” From there, she says, he was dragged down to the Danube, dunked in the water and beaten nearly to death.
Kaufman was only a toddler at the time, but she has gleaned details from a trove of family letters, written between 1939 and 1941, which she discovered in a drawer after her mother’s death. The letters provide a focal point for her documentary, “Shadows From My Past,” which screens on Long Island this weekend.
In the film, Gita and her husband, Curt Kaufman, who died before the film was completed, return to Vienna to find out whether Austria has fully acknowledged its role in World War II. Among the subjects they interviewed are the Austrian politician Jörg Haider, the famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal and former Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, who was revealed to have served in the Wehrmacht during World War II.
Made on a shoestring budget over the course of many years, “Shadows From My Past” recounts Kaufman’s escape with her family from Vienna to America when she was 4 years old. It details the tangled bureaucracy that hindered many Jews from leaving the country and features excerpts from the letters, many of them cries for help to overseas relatives. Most of the writers, she notes, did not survive.
Kaufman landed in New York City. She grew up to earn a master’s in education from Columbia University and taught in the public school system for 32 years.
“We always asked: Could it happen again?” Kaufman says. “It can happen anywhere. And you don’t have to be Jewish. It’s a warning to today, to be aware of what’s going on and to be alert.”
WHO Gita Kaufman will speak in person at a screening of “Shadows From My Past”
WHEN | WHERE 2 p.m. Sunday at Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington.
INFO Tickets are $15. Call 631-423-7610 or go to cinemaartscentre.org.