Film by CUNY professors recounts discovery of Nazi victims’ driver’s licenses

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Baruch College

Mia Gindis

A documentary produced by three CUNY professors tells the story of how a school project led 13 Jewish families to uncover the fate of their ancestors.

The documentary, “13 Jewish Driver’s Licenses – 13 Jewish Fates,” focuses on a provision of anti-Jewish legislation enacted across prewar Germany: the prohibition of Jewish people from holding driver’s licenses.

In 2017, 13 confiscated driver’s licenses were uncovered in the storage of a county office in Lichtenfels, a small town in Bavaria.

“The county commissioner, in a brilliant move, disobeyed the orders from the government to have everything digitized,” Elisabeth Gareis, who teaches communication studies at Baruch College, said.

Instead, the commissioner sent them off to a local high school history teacher who had his students research the license holders’ fates.

They found out that five of the Jewish drivers had been killed in the Holocaust, but a surviving eight were now scattered across the globe, including in Israel, the United States and Argentina.

Nearly a year following this discovery, the survivors’ descendants were invited to Lichtenfels to claim their ancestors’ licenses. Most agreed.

The film documents their return, as well as the small town’s efforts to reconcile with its unfortunate history.

“This was a very big deal for this small town,” Gareis said in an interview with The Ticker. “German towns might have a record of Jewish residents, maybe they know a little bit about their biographies, but Lichtenfels is unique. Not only do we now know so much about the lives of these Jewish residents and their fates, but their descendants actually came back.”

Gareis, a native of Lichtenfels, visits her hometown every summer to see her family. During a trip in 2019, she spotted a newspaper article about the project which immediately piqued her interest.

Upon her return to the United States, Gareis befriended Lisa Salko, the descendent of license holder Sigmund Marx, after hearing her give a presentation in Westchester.

“So, here I am, a child of that same hometown that was the hometown of her grandfather,” Gareis said. “If they had stayed, or if I had stayed, we might be neighbors.”

Nearly a year later, the German Consulate in New York requested that Salko produce a video about the contents of her presentation.

Salko approached Gareis and her husband Ryoya Terao, who teaches video production at New York City College of Technology. They both readily agreed to get involved.

Terao, who helped direct the film, also enlisted Vinit Parmar, his film partner and a professor at Brooklyn College, as a producer.

Gareis served as associate producer as well as an intercultural and language expert. Her responsibilities included conducting interviews, securing access to film locations, fundraising, doing archival research and more.

She described the effect of learning about the fates of the Jewish drivers as that of “a fog being lifted.”

“I believe most locals feel proud of their ‘Aufarbeiten’ of history,” Gareis said. “‘Aufarbeiten’ is a German term that’s hard to translate — it means the processing of history to the point where we not only have thorough knowledge about what happened but where we take responsibility for the past and the future.”

“13 Jewish Driver’s Licenses – 13 Jewish Fates” was conceived as a short film, lasting for about 15 minutes. It is currently in post-production and will be shown on the German Consulate’s website as well as various other screening venues.

A longer, full-length documentary about Jewish life in Lichtenfels in the 1930s is currently in the works.

“Maybe positive resolutions, and remembrance, and some feeling of reconciliation, maybe it’s possible to do without deep connections, but I am not sure,” Gareis said. “I think these individual connections and friendships play a crucial part in paving the way for a peaceful future.”