Students’ Written Responses to the Film

Assignment for the University of Connecticut, Storrs undergraduate course Human Rights and German Culture (GERM 1175), taught by Professor Sebastian Wogenstein:

1) Describe your experience as you watched Exile and Community: The Life of Carola Domar. Elaborate briefly on scenes or elements of the story that you may have found particularly thought-provoking. Did you see connections to other topics we’ve discussed in the course so far?
2) What questions would you like to ask the filmmaker and Carola Domar’s daughters, who will participate in our discussion?

Note: Most of the following student responses have been condensed or excerpted.

“For many years, the Holocaust was something unimaginable to me. In middle school, I learned about it in history books, and could hardly comprehend that such devastation could have come out of real life. Visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. changed that for me. Suddenly, the history was embedded in the lives of real people, and I felt like I was going through the confusion, pain, and suffering with them. Watching the documentary about the life of Carola Domar had the same energy for me. I felt Carola's horror and frustration when she was ripped away from the school where she'd been a leader of a group that had given her, for so many years, a sense of belonging.

One of the most touching, terrifying aspects of her story was the way she'd escaped death by chance, over and over again. Throughout the film, Carola continually emphasized how fortunate she was to be alive. As I watched her choose to go to England instead of the camp in Holland, which was soon decimated, and saw her boat commandeered as a war vessel, I felt the bitter truth of this statement time and time again. The uncertainty of Carola Domar's life as a refugee reminded me of the experience conveyed by the documentary Fuocoammare, in which so many migrants died, or barely escaped death, trying to flee the oppression they faced in their native countries.

The documentary on the life of Carola Domar also drove home the vital importance of creating a type of international law that would prevent genocide from happening again. Institutions such as the ICC (the International Criminal Court), if made more functional and efficient, could fill that void.

Questions I would like to ask the filmmaker and Carola Domar's daughters:
1) I'd like to know more about what happened to the other children who lived at Gross Breesen. I know that some of them served in the war, and others were imprisoned in the same concentration camp as Carola's father. How did they end up in these situations? What happened to the school? What was its background, and was it part of a larger resistance movement?
2) My family has lived in the U.S. for generations, but my great-grandmother was Jewish, and during the war, her parents told her never to tell anyone about her identity, because they were scared of persecution. She never did tell anyone she was Jewish until she was in her eighties. Were your parents still afraid of what might happen to them, even after they came to the U.S.?
3) What happened to Carola's older sister? Did she survive the Holocaust, and if so, did she ever reunite with her family?
4) How do you feel about the refugee crisis today? Do you think something like the Holocaust could ever happen again?”

—Rylee Thomas

“This documentary was very different than any other Holocaust or Nazi Germany film I ever watched in middle or high school. It examined the perspective of a Jew, in Nazi Germany, outside of the concentration camps. Carola identified herself as 'more German than Jewish.' Growing up, she didn't differentiate herself from her non-Jewish peers. To her, they were all the same. Up until 1933, when it became very apparent that others no longer saw it that way. After that, it was as if she walked around with a label on her.

Carola also went on to repeat many times throughout the film how lucky she was. There were many instances that could have changed the course of her life drastically. Even though she and her family went through numerous hardships, she still considered herself lucky, and that truly says a lot about what was going on at the time.

When Carola mentioned how other countries were restricting the number of Jews coming into their countries, it reminded me partly about what we have discussed in class. How not only were countries outside of Germany not intervening, but they didn't seem willing enough to take in many of the refugees. What happened was clearly a violation of numerous human rights, but many Jews didn't have the means to escape it without the help of others. And if they couldn't find that help, then they were left to fend for themselves.

1) Why do you think your parents wanted to integrate into an American life so badly?
2) Your mother mentioned that, because of her relationship with her mother, she wanted to be closer and more motherly to her own children, do you think she accomplished that?
3) You had mentioned that your mother didn't talk about her experiences while you were young. When she opened up about them, how did your views about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany shift, knowing that someone you love was severely impacted?”

—Samantha Lavey

“I found it very interesting that in the very beginning Carola's daughter, Alice, mentioned that her mother did not speak of the Holocaust or of Hitler's impact while she was growing up. I understand it is not a pleasant memory but it just surprised me a little bit. But it's easier sharing good memories than traumatic ones. My mother has always been the same way in sharing her own memories.

I was very pleased hearing that Carola's class protected her against the two girls who didn't want her as class president anymore, but it was still very saddening at the same time that people had that sentiment towards her. It also surprised me hearing that her sister got a diploma from Hitler being one of the best German athletes, even though she was Jewish and he was limiting their freedom so much. Watching this film I just had a pit in my stomach.

1) What was your mother like growing up?
2) How did you learn about your mother's experiences?
3) What inspired you to make this film?”

—Alicia Henry

“One of the first things that struck me in the film is just how quickly Carola's life changed. To go from a republic that legally respected the rights of individuals to practice different religions to being actively persecuted by an authoritarian regime—even if the warning signs had been building for years, the switch itself happened nearly overnight. To go from a life of luxury to being persecuted for her family's religion, kicked out of school, barred from employing people who weren't Jewish, in just a couple years, is just another example of how fragile democracy is.

It's especially interesting to hear Carola's own experience with her religion as a child—being unaware that she was Jewish until she started school, having her friends rally around her in school and then being expelled for her religion anyway, being told for reasons she may not always understand that she was somehow fundamentally different from other Germans. As a child, Judaism wasn't this defining trait that categorized her as some toxic 'other'—Carola was a student, an athlete, and a friend.

1) You mentioned that you didn't really know what the word Holocaust meant until you went to college. It must have been difficult for Carola to open up about such a traumatic youth, what was her relationship with those stories like later in life?
2) What do you feel the impact of your mother's story, as told and distributed by this documentary, has been?”

—Timothy Watson

“One recollection in the documentary that had a great impact on me was when Carola was expelled from her school. I could tell she was surprised and felt betrayed by this, having been a great student and leader at the school. Another part that I felt was very powerful was when Carola spoke of choosing between the U.K. and Holland, and how her choice, although it wasn't necessarily her first choice, essentially saved her life. She repeated how lucky she was throughout the documentary, but she did face a lot of challenges and while she was lucky relative to many others, it is terrible that anyone had to worry more about their basic rights being violated just because of their religion. I am happy that she was eventually able to go back to her hometown and her school and find some peace.

1) One question that I have for Carola's daughters is: As stated in the documentary, your parents assimilated to American culture quite a bit, but were there some cultural habits, in addition to the food they cooked, that they held onto and passed on to you?
2) Another question I have is: Why do you think it was important to Carola to forgive others even after all that she went through?”

—Caitlyn Thorpe

Exile and Community: The Life of Carola Domar is obviously very powerful. One scene I found to be particularly powerful was when Carola describes not feeling any different than anyone else, 'until 1933, when it was really pointed out to me [Carola] that I was different.'

The two things that are the most thought provoking for me are: first, how quickly the time line of change was for Carola and her life; and second, how despite her family's wealth and status in pre-Hitler Germany their lives completely fell apart.

1) I am curious as to how they managed to have so many photos of Carola during her youth, and also amazed that these photos survived until the making of the documentary.
2) Did Carola's parents remain in Richmond after she went to George Washington and moved to Massachusetts?
3) While in England and the United States, was there also discrimination or negative attitudes that Carola and her family dealt with? (I assume there were some, but I am curious to know what that would have been like.)”

—anonymous student

“I was happy to know that Carola Domar's experience going back to Frankfurt, Germany was a positive one. There seemed to be a sense of inclusivity within Germany when she went back. I hope that this is how Germany is for many of its Holocaust survivors, and if so then I am glad to see that they have embraced their past mistakes and try to be as inclusive as possible.

1) One question that I had was regarding any literature about the Holocaust that you would recommend. In particular, are there any books where there are more stories like Carola Domar's? It could be nonfiction, biographical, or fiction inspired by real events. I would love to know more about Jewish emigration into the United States or other countries during this time.
2) Did Carola Domar's father ever mention his experience in the concentration camp to her after she traveled to the United States?
3) Did Carola stay in touch with the people she knew from Gross Breesen?
4) Did some individuals travel together to form the farm in Virginia?”

—Julia Mazur

“My experience watching the film was really a rollercoaster of emotions. This documentary was a story of Mrs. Carola Domar's experience and what surprised me at the end was that it was almost like a resolution because of her idea of wanting to forgive despite what happened to her when she was young, going through the beginnings of Nazi Germany. The idea that stood out to me was forgiveness.

1) What was your reaction to your mother going to Germany, realizing that it was for a commemoration of her?”

—Jet Yang

“I thought it was an excellent choice by the filmmaker to emphasize the personal elements of Carola’s life and her story and set up her childhood strongly. It really added context and provoked me to think more deeply about certain situations, like how she often emphasized that she didn't know if she would return home again when she left the house, or when she left her parents if she would ever see them again. Those parts of the film were, for obvious reasons, the most upsetting to me.

I liked that the film emphasized Carola's involvement in community throughout her life and how that was a huge part of her happiness. It was also most impactful and traumatizing when that community seemed to turn its back on her and she was not wanted at the school where she had been a leader.

This film can definitely relate to the refugee crisis today. In the film, Carola mentioned how some countries, like Brazil, started taking smaller numbers of Jewish people, despite the fact that escaping Germany was a matter of life and death for so many, including Carola's family, especially her disabled brother. I think it is essential that other countries follow Germany's lead in terms of current migrants/refugees. Germany cites their previous human rights violations as a reason that they extend help to others, and in my opinion this is absolutely necessary for them to do this and I commend them. However, the US has also committed severe wrongs towards the Black community. I hope that soon we start showing some more remorse and willingness to change from our own dark history. Carola even alluded to American racism in the film, showing the coexistence of the evils of antisemitism and racism.

1) Are you, and do you think Carola and other Holocaust survivors would be, frightened by recent events in the US?
2) How do you think Carola's experiences affected the way she raised her children?
3) Do you think something like the Holocaust could ever happen again?”

—Audrey Soltis

“Several of Carola’s experiences were quite interesting to me. One especially striking concept was that she went several years without realizing she was Jewish. Her wealthy family being treated like dirt, the same as every other family, is interesting to me because of what it says about the equalization of classes for the goal of genocide at that time. Lastly, I was very surprised that she had such an easy time forgiving the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Whether it comes from an empathy with those who struggled to commit evil acts, an understanding that people change, or a method of coping with the horrors of those years, I am not sure.

1) Why do you think she forgave the perpetrators of the Holocaust, and became so active in that organization reconnecting victims and victimizers?”

—Alexander Blumenfeld

“I found the experience watching the documentary very lovely and thought provoking. Even during parts that were sad, they were told in ways that made it interesting and personal. For example, when Carola Domar was retelling her experience of being expelled from school, you could really see how that impacted her negatively, but also the beauty of her being defended by her friends.

Another thing that I found interesting was the sense of community that she was able to experience in Gross Breesen. It allowed a sense of unity and inclusion to these adolescents who were previously excluded and discriminated against. It offered hope to leave the country. The UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights-United Nations) has a ton of articles recognizing the importance of community, which a lot of Jewish people were unable to experience during Hitler's reign. I believe Gross Breesen was a special opportunity for Carola.

1) A question that I have is about the legality of Gross Breesen. Was this place allowed? Was it something that had to be kept secret? I always thought that the Nazis discouraged unity among Jewish people at that time.”

—Alicia Gomez