The costs of completing the documentary A 20th Century Passion include editing time, colour correction and sound mix. (screenshot)
A GoFundMe campaign has been launched to bring to the big screen a documentary about the late Peter Gary, a Hungarian-born composer, Holocaust survivor and resident of Victoria.
The online fundraising effort to complete A 20th Century Passion was started by filmmaker David Malysheff and Gary’s widow, Judith Estrin. Their goal is $35,000.
Gary passed away in 2016, the same year his oratorio A 20th Century Passion premièred in Jerusalem. The work spans the period from the First World War to the Nuremberg trials, including his experiences living in and surviving three years in three different concentration camps.
Gary had a message, the campaign organizers say, which was to stamp out hate. Over the years, he delivered this message to tens of thousands of students throughout Canada.
“The message of the oratorio is to remember history, that hate is ugly and brutal and should be stopped. It is a love piece in honour of Peter’s mother, who was brutally murdered by the Nazis while Peter spent three years in death camps,” Estrin said.
“Like all classical oratorios, it is tragic – this one deals not with the life of Jesus but with the six million murdered Jews. Because Peter had to deal with the murdered bodies of children, he dedicated the piece to the murdered 1.5 million Jewish children,” she said.
While Gary wrote the oratorio over a period of many years, revising it right up to time of his death, it was mostly written during 1970s and 1980s. Barak Tal, the conductor who led the work in Jerusalem, spent time with Gary at his home, going over every note.
The documentary explains how the oratorio came to fruition, using the Jerusalem performance as the score beneath the narrative. The film also shows Gary speaking to high school students about his experiences.
Malysheff, who has been a cinematographer for The Nature of Things, Us and Them and The Fifth Estate, described the film as a passion project – one for which he has not received any payment in the seven years since he began working on it. The costs of completing the film, including editing time, colour correction, sound mix and more, have led Estrin and him to appeal to the public for support.
The importance of A 20th Century Passion at this time cannot be overstated, Estrin said. “With antisemitic hate crimes and acts up just since Oct. 7, the message to stamp out hate, to go in peace, is more critical than ever,” she said. “The world has lost its moral compass, and this piece is about the hope that [people] will remember what horror the 20th century held for the world. We are facing an enemy who wants to annihilate all Jews. Once they are done with us, they will come for everyone else.”
The filmmakers also point out that a significant number of North Americans born after 1981 cannot name a single concentration camp or ghetto and think that fewer than six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. An alarming percentage of young people, they added, hold the opinion that the Jews caused the Holocaust.
Gary was born in 1924 into an artistic family that included famed Hungarian musicians, such as conductor Eugene Ormandy and pianist Lili Kraus. Through his mother’s encouragement, he began his musical training on the piano before the age of 5.
Deemed a musical “wunderkind,” Gary was admitted at the age of 9 to Budapest’s Franz Liszt Academy of Music, where he studied advanced choral and orchestral composition, as well as conducting, under the tutelage of Bela Bartok, Zoltan Kodaly and Leo Weiner.
In 1940, Gary’s education stopped when both he and his mother were arrested by the Nazis. His father was away on a business trip, which allowed him to escape into hiding. Gary spent the next years in concentration camps before he was liberated from Bergen-Belsen by the British on his 21st birthday.
Following the war, Gary moved to Paris to resume his musical studies at Sorbonne University. He received a doctorate in musicology there in 1949.
Gary then immigrated to the United States and, for a brief time, worked in the music department at MGM. In 1963, he took a year off to compose a ballet suite that was performed in France. During his life, he composed more than 20 orchestral pieces, which have been performed in the United States, Canada, Germany, Holland, France and Scotland.
The film runs approximately 90 minutes. Malysheff and Estrin would like it shown at Jewish film festivals and in schools. They have a curriculum for secondary schools that uses the libretto as text. To date, the oratorio has been translated into Hebrew, French and German.
The Jerusalem performance of A 20th Century Passion is available on YouTube. More on Gary can be found at jewishindependent.ca/help-passion-to-israel and jewishindependent.ca/holocaust-survivor-peter-garys-oratorio.
To donate to the documentary’s fundraising campaign, visit gofund.me/d335a5f8. All who send in a contribution will receive a screen credit for being part of the message of the film.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.