Book Review: Three Minutes in Poland

The following review appears in East Coast Ink’s fifth issue, Bones.

Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Film by Glenn Kurtz

What if finding an old home video—created by family long before you were born—helped you discover the lost history of a town that was almost entirely changed during World War II? What if it introduced you to the realities of Nazi-controlled Poland, told from the mouths of those who lived it?

Inspired by an unlabeled three-minute clip of a small town in Poland—sandwiched between shots of London and Paris—Glenn Kurtz sets off to find out more about this village portrayed in his grandfather’s 1938 home video of a trip to Europe found in his parents’ Florida basement. The video shows a vibrant, thriving community of children and townspeople welcoming the Americans and leaving cheder (Jewish elementary school) to investigate the excitement. After much investigation and many questions, Kurtz discovers this is the town of Nasielsk, Poland, shown in that video only one year before the beginning of the war and the destruction of almost all of the town’s predominantly Jewish population.

The book takes readers through Kurtz’s step-by-step process as he sifts through public records in New York, attempting to find names and contact information for any survivors that may have known was Nasielsk was like firsthand. He visits the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. to submit the film as well as restore the original strip. Perhaps the most exciting moment is when he travels across the United States to meet a survivor whose memory gives him many names, places, and details about the town that, in turn, leads him to find other survivors, photos, and important facts.

In the process, Glenn learns about life in a small, Jewish town pre-World War II; life during the war as Nasielskers fought to survive as Germany fully occupied Poland and as the Soviet Union forced those who escaped from Poland into forced labor camps; and, finally, the intricate and fascinating history of his own family, and how that fits into his life today. It’s a story about Nasielsk, but, perhaps more importantly, it’s the story of the survival of a people, their love for their hometown, and their desire that their history be shared and celebrated.

Rich in history and detail, Three Minutes in Poland reads more like a fast-paced mystery novel rather than a non-fiction narrative. Kurtz is an expert storyteller, and his passion for Nasielsk’s history jumps off the pages and he walks readers through interviews with natives, his personal research, and his travels to Europe and Israel. He meticulously organizes the information, accumulating the names, places, and stories told by those who lived in Nasielsk, making them his own memories, and, in turn, the reader’s memories.

Towards the end of the book, he sits with two survivors who were friends as young boys. As they talk, laugh, and reminisce, Kurtz guides the reader through their conversation, clarifying each person to whom they refer—and sometimes, he participates in the conversation himself. It is this moment when the reader realizes how deeply Kurtz cares about this town, its people, and its history.

Three Minutes in Poland looks at the horrors of the Holocaust in a totally different way—it celebrates the life that existed before the war and shows how truly beautiful it was. Today, Nasielsk has changed—what was a primarily Jewish town before the war has become almost entirely Polish in the modern day—but there are still traces of the community that used to thrive there. What Kurtz has done here is give that memory a true heartbeat.

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