For Chicago filmmaker Sharon Karp, growing up constantly hearing stories about her family’s flight from Austria, just steps ahead of the Nazis, was admittedly “awful.”
Ms. Karp recalled, “My parents were obviously so tortured by those stories, even as they were telling them.”
Yet Ms. Karp and her two sisters understood that there was no way for her parents not to talk about what happened, so defining were those years in Hitler’s Europe. Indeed, by the time she reached adulthood, Ms. Karp, found herself telling those same stories quite often.
In 2014, she premiered a documentary, “A Song for You,” and has been showing it at film festivals and other venues ever since. The film chronicles her parents’ flight across Europe, along with her oldest sister, and depicts the myriad individuals who put themselves at risk to help the young family out. The trip took several years for the Karps to complete, and the family had to cross the Pyrenees with the aid of the French Resistance to make their way to the western coast of Europe and a ship bound for America. They eventually settled in Evanston, where Ms. Karp grew up. Her father, George, a physician, ran a medical practice in West Rogers Park.
For Ms. Karp and her two sisters, the stories always lingered in the background in their parents’ house. The girls “were impressed that they had somehow survived when there were 6 million who hadn’t, and, on the other hand, we knew that we would never have an adventure quite as exciting, important or traumatic,” she said.
The Karps were stricter than most parents, often not trusting their children’s friends. Ms. Karp remembered her mother telling her, “‘I trusted my friends, and they stood out on the street, pretending not to know me because I was a Jew.’ It seemed like such a weird message for a little girl who had such sweet friends.”
While a student at Evanston Township High School, she recalled, she knew how to move about relatively freely throughout the school, thanks to fake hall passes her father inspired her to forge. “He knew all about producing fake documents,” she remembered.
When Ms. Karp told her filmmaking partner, Silvia Malagrino, about her parents’ journey, Ms. Malagrino was insistent that they begin interviewing Ms. Karp’s mother, Gisela, immediately. Gisela died while Ms. Karp was still in production on the film. But the work on “A Song for You” helped ease her grief.
“I had the opportunity to sit in the editing room working on the film,” Ms. Karp said. “My mama was there on my computer.”
She had an enormous trove of material from which to craft the film; Ms. Karp discovered a box of documents and mementoes from the trip after her mother’s death. Her father, who died in 1987, was a photography buff and had shot numerous reels of film documenting the family’s life and published a memoir about the European trek. Ms. Karp also used footage of trips that she and her sisters made retracing the Karps’ footsteps in various locations.
Ms. Karp said that when she sees footage in 2015 of displaced refugees crossing Europe, she senses echoes of what happened there in the first half of the 20th century.
“Little children walking in water, crying, with their mothers not knowing where to take them, not knowing where they are going,” she said. “All these hungry people – this is what happened to my family. It’s happening in Europe again. Thousands of people. Did we not learn? I don’t know what causes people to treat people like that. To be the child of refugees who miraculously survived, and to watch this, is shockingly painful.”
She wanted the film to show that people can resist oppression, and that there are people willing to help, like the many people who aided her family.
“This is a positive film,” she said. “This is about people who survived. This is about people who made it, as opposed to the 6 million killed, or however many there really were – there were many more, of all kinds of people. Because of the people who survived, we have these memories that make up the stories of what the Holocaust really was. Because, in fact, history is memory.”
“A Song for You” will be shown at 12:30 p.m. on March 3 at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El, 1175 Sheridan Rd. in Highland Park. More information is online at asongforyoumovie.com.