Colorado documentary filmmaker Dylan Nelson’s latest project, The Liegnitz Plot, follows a man’s quest to recover valuable stamps stolen from Holocaust victims and stashed in a basement in a Polish town once occupied by the Nazis.
But the film, currently midway through production, is about much more.
It would seem that an event as horrific as the Holocaust — in which six million Jewish people and millions of others deemed undesirable by the Nazis were slaughtered en masse — would be hard to forget, Nelson says. But a recent poll by the Anti-Defamation League shows that 50 percent of people under 35 in more than 100 countries have never heard of the Holocaust. The ADL has also documented a sharp increase in anti-Semitic attitudes in Poland over the past few years, and nearly 75 percent of respondents to a survey said that Jewish people in Poland still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust.
As for the documentary, “the stamps are not the point," Nelson explains. “The point of the film is to increase remembrance of the Holocaust and increase understanding of the Holocaust."
Nelson teaches film classes at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. She has also been involved with documentaries about, among other topics, the Nanking Massacre (Nanking) and music in the civil rights era (Soundtrack for a Revolution), both of which were shortlisted for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. She is also working on documentaries concerning the Argentine military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s, child sexual assault, and civil rights icon James Meredith.
The Liegnitz Plot tells the story of protagonist Gary Gilbert, a former producer on Seinfeld, who learned of valuable stamps confiscated from Holocaust victims. He discovered a Nazi officer charged with culling the best stamps and sending them to Berlin, but who instead stashed them in a Polish basement during the war to keep them for himself. In the 1970s, a group of men learned of the stamps and planned to hunt them down, smuggle them from behind the Communist-controlled Iron Curtain and sell them for a profit. They didn't succeed. Later, Gilbert set out to find the stamps and return them to the ancestors of the owners.
Gilbert and the film crew traveled to Legnica, Poland, to look for the stamps, and under the false pretense of shooting a fictional movie (think Gilbert’s own personal Argo) gained access to part of the basement in question. They even hired an actress as part of the ruse. When they were unable to locate the stamps, they attempted diplomatic means, and they are continuing those efforts.
Much of the research for the film led to little information about the stamps, but instead to the discovery of horrible, little-known stories about the Holocaust, Nelson says. The filmmakers wanted to tell those stories.
“That research has been a part of the film,” she adds. “Our hope is we are going to be able to tell Holocaust stories in the guise of a mystery and thereby reach a broad audience.”
She notes that the filmmakers were disturbed by what they encountered during their time in Poland, which has seen a rise in right-wing populism in recent years. She recalls a recent tabloid that published an actual story on “How to Spot a Jew.”
“We were first in Poland and trying to track the stamps to a particular basement,” she says. “A few weeks after we left, an anti-immigrant crowd burned an Orthodox Jew in effigy in a public square of the main city in Lower Silesia.”
She says that her movie is not seeking to vilify Poland, but to tell the story of Gilbert’s search for the stamps and confront the disturbing rise of right-wing xenophobia, authoritarianism and anti-Semitism — not only in that country, but worldwide.
“These are entrenched attitudes, and they are extremely hard to fight,” she says. “I don't think we have to look too far outside our own doors for people not wanting to recognize the realities of history and see them for what they are.”
Nelson is drawn to stories like the one being told in The Liegnitz Plot because she grew up on Sullivan's Island near Charleston, South Carolina. As a child, parents and teachers simply ignored the history of large numbers of enslaved Africans passing through the Port of Charleston to be quarantined before eventually being auctioned off. It was just something that was not discussed, and the whitewashing of history in her home town never sat well with Nelson.
“The city is much better about it now,” she says. “But when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, it wasn’t discussed. I was out of college before I realized the island I grew up on was the Ellis Island of slavery. ... I’ve been drawn to telling stories of atrocities that have been hidden or eclipsed.”
For more information on The Liegnitz Project or to donate money toward the project, visit kickstarter.com. The campaign ends on January 3.