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‘I’ve looked at this photo almost every day – and it doesn’t get any easier’

Anna Game-Lopata
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Published: 28 October 2022

Last updated: 5 March 2024

PETER HEGEDÜS was so moved by a Holocaust photograph that he brought the story to life using virtual reality technology. ANNA GAME-LOPATA talks to the Australian director of ‘To Never Forget’, opening next week at JIFF.

Australian filmmaker Peter Hegedüs was researching his Holocaust-themed documentary Lili (2019) when he came across a photograph that shook him to the core. He knew it would have to be the subject of his next film.

In the perfectly composed, sepia photograph, a small group of barely clad women and a little girl huddle, clothes strewn at their feet, freezing, vulnerable and terrified, on Skede beach in Liepaja, Latvia. Their local about-to-be executioners patrol nearby. A newly dug trench is visible at the edge of the frame.

“I've seen a lot of Holocaust photos, but this one somehow captured my attention, and I just couldn't let it go,” Hegedüs told The Jewish Independent.  “It became quite a traumatising process to be honest. I lived with this photograph for quite a long time, looked at it almost every day and it doesn't get any easier.”

The photograph which inspired Sorella's Story
The photograph which inspired Sorella's Story

Hegedüs, who identifies as Jewish, Roma and Hungarian, has made a broad range of films with social justice themes. He says his biggest fear is that the Holocaust will become a page in a history book and he’s determined not to let that happen.

Aware that many young people know nothing about the Holocaust, Hegedüs decided to make use of immersive 360-degree technology to get the photograph in front of young people in a way that would “stick”.

Sorella’s Story, the 15-minute film Hegedüs envisioned, recently premiered at the Venice Film Festival. It uses “360 Technology” to dramatise the moving and deeply tragic story of Sorella Epstein, the little girl hiding her face in the photograph, of whom no other images remain.

“Never forget me,” Sorella begs the audience as the last scene of the immersive film fades out.

The film's animation of the original photograph which inspired the story
The film's animation of the original photograph which inspired the story

At the same time, he also made To Never Forget, a film within a film documenting the three year-long production process of Sorella’s Story, including the casting and preparation of Kiara Kalmár, the brilliant young actress who plays Sorella herself.

To Never Forget, which screens at the Jewish International Film Festival, cleverly paves a journey for viewers and the film crew of Sorella’s Story — who happen to be Hegedüs’ own master’s students from Griffith Film School in Brisbane — to learn about the Latvian Holocaust simultaneously. It’s important to note that Griffith Film School played a critical role in the development of both the documentary and the immersive film.

One of the most beautiful parts of To Never Forget is the journey to Latvia, where research for Sorella’s Story gives the Australian film students an opportunity to discuss and confront disturbing parallels between the two countries in terms of the need to own and acknowledge systematic racism and genocide that took place on their shores.

Hegedüs retrieved just 10 minutes of the conversation he recorded with his grandmother before she died. He juxtaposes this testament with Sorella’s story.

“Generations Y and Z are the ones who are really addressing this issue and for that reason, the organic discussion between the Australian and Latvian students brings Sorella’s Story into the now,” Hegedüs says.

The subject matter of the film was so controversial in Latvia that Hegedüs actually shot it in Hungary, but he received significant support from both Jewish and non-Jewish researchers and historians in Latvia.

In particular, Ilana Ivanova, from Liepaja’s Jewish Heritage Foundation, who appears in To Never Forget, and whose father found the photograph, was an important source of information.

“Ilana introduced me to many people in Liepaja and Riga, including local researchers and historians who provided more details [for Sorella’s Story]. But the unfortunate reality is that the Nazis and their collaborators managed to wipe out lot of the history, so despite all our efforts, we still don’t know everything we’d like to about her.”

Hegedüs’s own connection to the Holocaust through his Hungarian-born grandparents is another mesmerising layer to this complex and intricate documentary.

Following the divorce of his parents, Hegedüs says he spent a lot of time with his grandparents, as his father moved back in with them. He was about ten years old when his Jewish grandmother first shared her wartime experiences with him.

Peter Hegedüs with an actor from Sorella's Story
Peter Hegedüs with an actor from Sorella's Story

“She didn’t hold back,” he tells. “My grandmother was one of those people who felt it was important to talk about the Holocaust. She was in her early twenties when she was sent to Bergen-Belsen and had to eat rotten sweet potatoes to avoid starvation.

“That was something that really stayed with me, and I got why food was of such importance. I felt guilty when I couldn’t eat, and I grew up with this sense of injustice and anger,” Hegedüs says.

It was this legacy that motivated Hegedüs to seek support from SBS in 1998, early in his career, to document his Hungarian grandfather Andras Hegedüs’s life as Hungary’s prime minister between 1955 and 1956.

The film, Grandfathers and Revolutions (1999) also tells of Andras Hegedüs’ fight to save gypsies from prosecution as a member of the Hungarian Underground movement and Communist Party during the war.

Of the resulting 60 hours of footage from Grandfathers and Revolutions, some of which got damaged in the interim, Hegedüs was lucky to retrieve just 10 minutes of the conversation he’d had with his grandmother before she died. In To Never Forget, this poignant testament juxtaposes elegantly with the main thread of Sorella’s story.

Given the indictment on humanity expressed in both the films, it’s not easy see where hope lies until the spine-tingling finale of To Never Forget, in which hundreds of people from a diverse range of cultural backgrounds individually speak the names of a Jewish person lost in the Latvian Holocaust.

The message of To Never Forget therefore seems to be that humanity must come together as one to acknowledge its brutality, however uncomfortable that might be, before a way forward towards healing can be found. 

“Young and old, sharing those names was super special and yes, I think that that is healing,” Hegedüs confirms. “I wanted people to come together in that way. Remembering the Holocaust should not just be a Jewish thing, it should be a human thing. Like reconciliation, it’s not comfortable but we have to grapple with it.”

And Hegedüs believes in hope. “I think the fact that just so many people around the world supported both these films and recognised the need to talk about the Holocaust is a sign of hope," he says.

“I also think the hope is in our kids and in education. It’s critical to educate people, especially the coming generations. And we have a responsibility to pass on what we know to our own kids, and to make sure they understand what injustice is.”


Photo: Detail of animation of original photo from the film.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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