For 70 years, Maxwell Smart wondered what happened to the baby girl he saved during the Holocaust.
It was one of several mysteries filmmakers set out to solve in the History Channel’s investigative documentary Cheating Hitler: Surviving the Holocaust.
“He said, ‘If you can find that baby you would be able to alleviate me of all this guilt.’ So we had a mission,” recalled director Rebecca Snow.
What she and her team were able to make happen over the course of one year was nothing short of miraculous, all these decades later.
The film brings three child survivors — Rose Lipszyc, Helen Yermus and Smart, who was just nine when the Second World War began — back to their roots in Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania.
Yermus wants to know more about the fate of her brother. Lipszyc seeks to honour her parents by going to the places where they spent their final days.
The survivors endured the terror of forced labour, killing squads and concentration camps, robbing them of their childhood.
Beyond that, they lost their families, homes and possessions.
The documentary brings survivors on a journey to finding answers to questions that have weighed on them, ultimately providing them with a newfound sense of peace.
“It was pretty amazing to us that so many of the survivors, even 75 years after this happened, had unanswered questions, had mysteries in their lives from their experience that they wanted answers to,” said Steve Gamester, the film’s producer. “So we thought that would be a really interesting way to approach the film to try and discover some answers, to learn something new about the Holocaust.”
The documentary starts with Smart, who at 13 years old, found a baby after a Nazi massacre in a Ukrainian forest.
“Two days before we were due to leave with Maxwell … we heard that this baby had been found,” recalled Snow.
Through incredible detective work, the team managed to reunite the two in a deeply moving encounter.
The film also visits some hidden and rarely visited sites where the Holocaust occurred.
Historians, genealogists and forensic experts help to uncover unexpected life-changing information thought to be lost to history.
“If we can help tell that story and we can help tell that truth, then that is going to be incredibly valuable, beyond valuable for public knowledge, for public awareness of these events,” said Snow.
The film comes at a critical time.
A recent study by the Azrieli Foundation found one in five millennials in Canada haven’t heard or are not sure if they have heard of the Holocaust.
“I hope that people will watch this film and have an appreciation for the incredible resilience of these survivors, but also for the dangers of prejudice, the dangers of anti-Semitism, the dangers of militarism and nationalism,” said Gamester, who hopes that viewers will “try to be better citizens and try to collectively have a more peaceful world.”
For Lipszyc, it was an opportunity to revisit her history with her grandchildren.
“I have three children, five granddaughters, three great-grandchildren,” she said proudly. “Mom, I made it!”
Lipszyc said she hopes an important message is received by those who view the film.
“To be tolerant to one and other, to understand that life is worth living, not to kill innocent people for no reason at all.. that the world can be very cruel but it’s up to us to make it better,” she said.
Cheating Hitler will be broadcast on Nov. 11 on the History Channel at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Check your local listings for more information.