Enid Tihanyi Zentelis is a writer and director. Her features include the Sundance Grand Jury Prize nominated Evergreen and Tribeca’s Nora Ephron Prize-nominated Bottled Up. She created and hosts the nonfiction narrative podcast How My Grandmother Won WWII, which is available everywhere you get your podcasts. You can download free transcripts and subscribe for series extras here.
I was stuck on a screenplay I had been trying to write; my grief and depression about my family wasn’t readily converting into art, and deflecting all the pain no longer felt possible. It had been years since my sister died of an opioid overdose, on the heels of my father dying of brain cancer – after battling his own severe addiction to alcohol. My mom was unwell. But grief stays fresh when you pack it away. I had been focused, for many years, on making a career for myself as a storyteller. Filmmaking can easily take every minute of every day, if you let it. I also had a family and a day job as a professor, so it was easy to keep moving.
My maternal grandmother, Isabelle, and I had always been very close. I lived with her for long stretches in Corsica, where she had made her home after World War II. Growing up, my parents had a harrowing marriage and divorce, and my grandmother had been my rock and my protector through most of it. Both my parents suffered from post-traumatic stress from World War II. My mom was born Jewish in 1942 Hungary and spent much of the Holocaust in hiding with her brother; later they were refugees. My father fled Latvia with his family when Stalin invaded and spent his entire childhood in displaced persons camps in Germany and then the U.K. In America, they struggled to make ends meet, even though they were so deeply intelligent, creative and willing.
It was 2017, and I found myself casting about anew for my grandmother, who had passed away in 1998, leafing through photos and letters. Trump had been recently elected, and this felt like another affront. Had I lost my country too? I needed to know how to fight fascism, how to resist in a meaningful way, and how to love life again. I knew if my grandmother had still been around, she would have had answers to all of these things. She had survived the Holocaust and managed to save my mom as well. She had survived fascists in Hungary under Horthy, then Nazis, German and Hungarian members of the Arrow Cross Party, followed by Stalin’s communists. Her story was remarkable, yes, but even more remarkable, she’d never stopped embracing the world.
I unearthed a document, a letter addressed to my grandmother, from the British Allied Control Commission, that I recalled seeing in childhood, but never really understood. My grandmother’s Holocaust survival story was so dramatic – she was ultimately saved by Raoul Wallenberg, along with her two kids – that we had assumed every document was related to her rescue. The letter was cryptic and vague, thanking her for her “highly confidential work” that she’d undertaken “at great risk to herself,” details of which were said to be in the British’s possession, but not outlined here. It was signed by Brigadier Eric Ferryman. I did a Google search for him, an option that had not been available when I last glanced at this letter in the ’80s. Brigadier Ferryman was a decorated military officer and Head of Special Operations Executive in Western Europe, prior to going to Hungary as member of the Allied Control Commission. Special Operations Executive (or SOE) was covert warfare. Had my grandmother been a spy? Had she fought back before she’d been a survivor of the Holocaust?
This possibility of a dramatically different family history, the unknown chapter of my grandmother’s life, was the gift I needed as person and as storyteller. Now, four years later, I’ve released How My Grandmother Won WWWII, a six-part nonfiction narrative podcast about my journey to discover my grandmother’s secret history as Jewish fascist fighter.
When I set about investigating my grandmother’s hidden past, I wasn’t sure how I would be able to shape it into a story. It was important to me to relay the facts as I once understood them, as well as the new facts as they were evolving and being uncovered. But it was more important to me to communicate the psychic toll my family’s past experiences had taken. I wondered how I could serve my grandmother’s story, and simultaneously communicate the effects of generational trauma; the way some family members succumb to it, and the way others turned it into a source of strength and determination. I also have a lot of strong opinions about how filmed stories convey the past, and I didn’t want to fall into the trap of regurgitating the past without transforming it in some meaningful way.
The past is not a separate entity to be examined under a microscope. Nor is it a massive bronze statue to be worshipped in a town square. The past is part of our continuum. It’s in our bloodstreams. Where we delineate the past ending and the present starting is arbitrary. This can be an overwhelming, unwieldy fact. As a storyteller and filmmaker, I know that the frame you choose to tell your stories means almost as much as the story itself.
I chose to tell my grandmother’s story, and my journey to uncover her covert work for British Special Ops from inside fascist Hungary in the 1930s and ’40s, through the framework of my own life and that of my family’s. How I had come to understand that we were Jewish and that my mom, uncle and grandmother survived the Holocaust, and the secrecy that followed – that was my frame. The emotions I felt along the way were as important as what I was learning. I realized the reticence I had felt all along, of exposing my family pain and shame in my work as an artist. It was painful to dig around in the past and to publicly speak about my understanding or misunderstanding of my family members and our history as podcast narrator. At one point, though, I found my voice. I found my confidence again, with the help of friends and other artists I deeply admire. The more I read about the risks my grandmother took, and tried to piece together the past, the more emboldened I became to shout out our family story, with all of its trauma and imperfections and brilliance. I could feel myself coming out of my funk, as well as growing stronger as a storyteller.
When films and series take on history in innovative ways, ways that are not focused solely on the objectively dramatic event of war and of famous men, we access a more complex understanding of ourselves and, I believe, are less apt to repeat our mistakes of the past. We can access the motivations and emotions of people in the past as they navigated their days and minutes, full of challenges, that we can all directly relate to.
As I begin to formulate the filmed adaptation of my podcast, something that I am overjoyed to be working on, I look to works that tackle history in ways that seize us like the present. The 2018 feature Transit, directed by Christian Petzold, transposes the narrative of Anna Seghers‘s 1944 novel to present-day France. This story about a man trying to escape Nazi-occupied France does not spare us of the bloodshed, fear and trauma associated with World War II. But it doesn’t need a period setting to take us there. It places us in modern-day Europe, with its refugee crisis, extreme poverty, and its bureaucratic and ideological quagmires. It is a double-exposure of the past and present, making our connection to this history immediate and its effects undeniable. What would a rote period piece have added to the historical conversation? Without innovative structures and approaches to historical films and series, we remain mere spectators, unable to access our place with our own human history.
Watchmen, a genre-bending, time-traveling series based on the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, is able to explore the transgenerational weight of this mass murder, and the multiple ways trauma seizes families, towns and, indeed, a species for a lifetime (or multiple, parallel lifetimes). When the trauma and crimes inflicted go unaccounted for so long, it is just as if we are living in a warped parallel universe. Up is down. How can America begin to process and eradicate its white supremacy? Account for the ongoing crimes? A reckoning must take place. We must answer for this horror in order to have the hope of a different and better world. But to answer for it, we must understand the past and all of its ugliness as well as its complexities. What humans are capable of inflicting upon each other is endlessly dark and complex. Stories that seek to communicate this are necessarily complex and do not seek a neat, reductive story structure which ultimately lets the audience off the hook – doomed to misunderstand, half-understand and ultimately repeat the same traumas.
There are many other works that are inspiring me, from Ida to The Great, to Small Axe and more. My podcast, How My Grandmother Won WWII has connected with a wide range of people around the world, charting everywhere from Japan to South Africa and many places in between. My grandmother’s heroism and her spirit are hitting a universal chord with people as they navigate their own challenging times during this pandemic. It is deeply gratifying to step out of such a dark history, and into the full light of storytelling.