Jews, Kangaroos, and Koalas: The Animated Holocaust Films of Yoram Gross

Article excerpt

What do an Australian girl lost in the bush, a koala cub searching for its mother, and a Jewish girl hiding in the forest during the Holocaust have in common? They are all products of the fertile imagination and wartime ordeals of animator Yoram Gross. Though he has achieved fame as the Australian equivalent of Walt Disney, Gross spent his adolescence evading the Germans in Poland during World War Two. Known best for his adaptations of Australian children's classics such as Ethel Pedley's Dot and the Kangaroo and Dorothy Wall's Blinky Bill, Gross incorporates his experiences of escaping capture into animated films and television cartoons about youngsters separated from their parents and surviving in hostile environments with the help of compassionate animals or people. He gingerly conveys the human capacity for evil and passivity to juvenile audiences in plotlines which simultaneously emphasize the human potential for goodness and resistance. In this article I will trace the evolution of Gross's cinematic approach to teaching age-appropriate lessons about ecocide, genocide, and war from his early stop motion experimental film We Shall Never Die (1959) through his beloved Dot and Blinky Bill cartoons, his pioneering animated feature film Sarah and the Squirrel (1982), and his more graphic Holocaust shorts Don't Forget (2010) and Sentenced to Death (2011).

Gross grew up in an affluent Jewish family in Krakowuntil German troops marched into Poland in 1939. His father and brother Jozek fled to eastern Poland, which fell under Soviet control. His father perished in the massacres perpetrated by Ukrainians when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, while Jozek was deported to the interior of the USSR for slave labor and eventually served as a soldier in the Soviet-sponsored Anders Army, and then as a British paratrooper. Yoram and his mother, sister Klara, and brother Natan stayed one step ahead of the Nazis by moving from place to place in the vicinity of Krakow. After being interned in the Krakow Ghetto, Yoram and his remaining family escaped and travelled by train to Warsaw on forged papers where they eked out an existence until Natan and Yoram began painting and selling vases to local shops to support the family. The two brothers met Adam, another Jew passing as a Gentile with counterfeit documents, who worked for Zegota, the Polish Council to Aid Jews. He arranged for Yoram to attend a clandestine school for homeless orphans. Soon thereafter the underground Polish Home Army recruited Yoram as a courier. In the interim, his mother was caught and deported to Auschwitz and then to Ravensbrtick. As the Red Army pushed westward into Poland in the final year of the war, Yoram visited the liberated death camp of Majdanek and the ruins of Warsaw before returning to Krakow to be reunited with his mother. (1) Having been the victim of bigotry and the recipient of benevolence has shaped his cinematic vision. As he admits, "The thoughts, experiences, the sorrow ... reminiscences of the past are always with me like everything in your throat that you can't get rid of. Somehow, everything I've seen--life and death--these combined, whether purposely or not, influence the themes of my films." (2)

In the immediate postwar period Gross briefly studied to be a musician before becoming an assistant to the Polish director Eugeniusz Cenkalski and the Dutch director Yoris Ivens. These early experiences imbued Gross with an appreciation of endowing his films with compelling narratives and images. (3) Natan also worked in the film industry and wrote and directed the documentary Mir Lebn Geblibene ["we who are still alive"] (1947 and the docudrama Undzere Kindere ["our children"] (1948) which dealt respectively with the rebuilding of Polish Jewish life and the psychological scars left on Jewish orphans. (4) Yoram served as his brother's assistant director for the latter film. (5)

In 1950 Gross decided to immigrate to Israel to begin a new life in what he describes as the country where he should have been born as a Jew. …