On the Plaza: Documenting a Personal Past

February 13, 2013

David Mayer never knew much about his grandfather, Paul. He knew his grandfather had escaped a Nazi labor camp in eastern Germany during World War II and emigrated to the U.S. in 1949. But Paul Mayer died in 1985, before David was born. The reality of that experience remained distant for David—until he found a translation of his grandfather’s journal.

“The thing that interests me most is that [my grandfather] never once talks badly about an individual Nazi,” says Mayer. “He never points a finger at a human being and says, ‘That’s their fault.’ ”

Fascinated, Mayer wanted to explore deeper. Having discovered a love for documentary filmmaking in high school, he applied for funding from Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics and the Center for Documentary Studies to make a film about his grandfather’s life. This past summer, he spent six weeks retracing his grandfather’s footsteps through a muchchanged Germany. Accompanied by 100 pounds of video equipment, Mayer visited his grandfather’s childhood home, labor camp, and ten-mile escape route that led Paul to safety. He interviewed cousins, old friends, and other Holocaust survivors to create an intimate view of lives in crisis.

Understanding history: Mayer retraced his grandfather's life, including his escape from a Nazi labor camp during World War II. (Credit: David Mayer '14)

 What he found, he says, was far from black and white. He cites an interview with Gunther Eisenhower, a former member of the Hitler Youth whom his grandfather befriended in later life. Eisenhower maintained that for a preteen boy in Frankfurt, joining the Hitler Youth was no more declarative than an American youth joining the Boy Scouts. Only as an adult could Eisenhower judge his participation in the movement.

Now, as Mayer edits more than 100 hours of footage into a ninety-minute film, he’s realizing that the journey explores his own life—and his own assumptions— as much as it does his grandfather’s. “I think it’s going to be a story of growing up,” he says. “I think any film is about the filmmaker.”