'Letter to Wedgwood' is story of a near-miracle
Film documents connection between East European Zionist, British MP
“A Letter to Wedgwood: The Life of Gabriella Hartstein Auspitz” – the story of how a young girl’s meeting with a progressive British politician led to her surviving the Holocaust – will be screened Thursday, March 21, at 7:15 p.m. in Wasserman Cinematheque.
The screening, a New England premiere, will be followed by a discussion with Auspitz, who is now 98 years old.
Gabriella Hartstein was born in Budapest in 1914 and grew up in Mukačevo, a city of the Austro-Hungarian empire with a thriving, cosmopolitan Jewish community in which secular Hungarian Jews co‐existed with Hasidim and ardent Zionists. With the signing of the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, the city became part of Czechoslovakia.
Because Mukačevo was an important center of Zionism, British Colonel Josiah Wedgwood came in 1922 to give a speech on why he and other Christian Zionists from England were supporting the plan to create the State of Israel. Wedgwood had a visionary plan for a future British empire of seven democratic dominions – including Ireland and India as well as Palestine.
For this momentous occasion, the Jewish community selected a little girl with the beauty, charm and intellect to present the visitor with flowers and deliver a speech in English. Gabriella, the daughter of religious Zionists, memorized her speech but was so nervous that soon after starting it she burst into tears.
According to the family story, Wedgwood picked her up, dried her tears, kissed her and told her parents that “she is a great blessing.”
Over the next 16 years, the little girl grew into an ardent Zionist and teacher at the prestigious Hebrew gymnasium, and the Jewish community continued to prosper. Then, in the Munich Agreement of 1938, Czechoslovakia was dismembered and Hungarian fascists allied with the Axis powers took over the Mukačevo area.
As conditions worsened, Gabriella wrote to Wedgwood in an effort to save herself and her family. At the time, Members of Parliament were authorized to issue visas.
She addressed her letter to “Josiah Wedgwood, Parliament, London, England,” and a few weeks later she received a British visa in the mail. Months later, on the eve of World War II, Wedgwood sent a visa for her brother Joseph, who fought in the Czech Brigade of the British army.
Wedgwood used his visa-granting privilege so extensively that the Home Office eventually stopped honoring the documents he issued – at which point Wedgwood began persuading other MPs to issue them for him.
Gabriella became a guest in Wedgwood’s country house in the north of England. She married Harry Auspitz, whom she’d known as a child in Mukačevo, and who had U.S. citizenship. He had come to England to court her and bring her to America. They named their firstborn son Josiah in honor of Wedgwood.
Her beloved elder sister, her sister’s child and her parents all perished at Auschwitz.
In America, Gabriella earned master’s degrees in education and Hebrew literature and won a reputation as an innovative Hebrew educator.
The film depicts Gabriella’s relationship with Wedgwood through interviews, archival photos, rare archival footage, letters and a moving soundtrack. It also is based on her 2004 memoir, “My Righteous Gentile.”
Director Yale Strom said that because he had directed a number of documentary films that reference the Holocaust, “I was uncertain about revisiting the subject again -- what new element could there be to make a story unique? Gabriella’s story was the answer -- not only unique, but compelling and surprising and, as the title suggests, she connects us with someone we would never have thought of as a righteous person.
“Moreover,” he said, “I was fascinated by how Gabriella’s childhood home of Mukačevo, Czechoslovakia ‐- a seemingly backwards smallish town in sub‐Carpathian Ruthenia -‐ was such a dynamic center for Hasidism and Zionism.”
The screening is sponsored by the National Center for Jewish Film, the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry, Facing History and Ourselves, Harvard Hillel Worship and Study Minyan and the Harvard University Center for European Studies.