ABOUT THE FILM
Garri Urban was a survivor – not a victim – of both the Holocaust and Gulag. Born in the shtetl (the Jewish rural community) in 1916, he overcame adversity through a mixture of charm, aggression, and chutzpah. His 1980 autobiographical account of his adventures took its title from when he was shot during his attempt to swim across an icy river from Soviet territory to Romania. He told the snipers who stooped to lift his apparently lifeless body; “no, tovarisch (comrade), I’m not dead” before striking their officer.
In 1992 his son, film-maker Stuart Urban, follows Garri into the former Soviet Union as soon as Communism disintegrates.
The video diaries that were made over a 14 year quest into Garri’s KGB records and the fate of his family in the Holocaust, plus extensive 16mm Kodachrome home movies from the 1950s onwards, form the core of the film, by two-time British Academy award winning director Stuart.
The revelations and surprises begin almost at once, when Garri finds he is still as listed as an “international spy” on the wanted list! Eventually Garri tracks down his KGB file. But the KGB keep back details about Garri which, they tell Stuart, “would make his hair stand on end” if only he knew this about his father …
As Stuart closely questions his father while he is alive, and then goes in search of answers he could not get until his father was dead, the film
takes the form not of a standard biographical documentary but a probing analysis of an identity, a rolling narrative whose chapters bring fresh surprises as we come into the 21st century.
Everyone has, or had, a father, and can relate to this quest. But how many fathers’ lives were so extreme, so mysterious, and so eventful?
Stuart recalls what an impact its revelations made on the family. He was keen to probe the story and his father’s epic adventure himself, but the Cold War was still on and there was no prospect of research behind the Iron Curtain.
A decade on, however, the USSR disintegrates, communism is gone. Now Garri can go back. Stuart takes his camera and the journey into the past begins.
1992: Stuart’s video diary at the Ukrainian village where Garri grew up in the region of Galicia. Here we meet the villagers and learn about this place and its people before and during the war when Garri was a young man, and the fate of the Jews who lived there.
We provide historical context in an on screen interview with Anne Applebaum, whose Pulitzer-prize winner Gulag is now seen as the definitive work on the Soviet repression. She sets up the historical background: how this area was ruled by five different regimes in the twentieth century; the tensions between Jews and locals, fascistic nationalists and communists etc.
Garri UrbanWe visit the home that was Garri’s as a boy, where he remembers his mother – the tree from which she picked apples still standing. Maria, who worked for the parents, remembers Garri as a little boy. They feast with the villagers in this very house, with the very people who witnessed the fate of their Jewish neighbors during the war – one can’t help but question their involvement or innocence, says Anne.
Next, the Jewish cemetery where Garri’s mother was buried, but it is also the site where 100,000 of Galicia’s Jews were massacred. Among bullet-holed headstones, a rabbi describes the slaughter and why the earth and pebbles are still greenish-blue – because of the disinfectant the Germans used on the pools of blood. Tombstones have also been taken to pave roads, but Garri finds approximately the place where his mother was buried and pays tribute to her. This is the first time we see to what emotional depths this story, and revisiting it, forces Garri to go.
Anne Applebaum explains the circumstances that made Garri decide to escape Romania by swimming across the river. In 1939 Garri had been doing medical studies and found himself in Poland when the Nazis and the Russians invaded. He escaped through Nazi lines to the Soviet zone but decided to get to free Romania. We go with Garri to where this crossing was attempted as he explains how he swam but was shot by the Russians before making it to the other side. Fished from the water’s edge, Garri was sentenced to 5 years in an Arctic camp.
We interview Menachem, his younger brother, speaking in 2006 in Tel-Aviv. He recalls how Garri was deported to the Gulag. As the Nazis invaded in 1941, their father had “benched” Menachem, letting the 15-year old go to join the partisans. He knew that his father as well as the rest of the family had died in the Holocaust, and presumed for 25 years that his brother had perished in the Gulag. Then, one day in 1964, a telegram from London arrived, asking him the names of his closest family members….
We learn from Menachem and Garri about the amazing and emotional reunion of the two brothers and visit the spot where it happened near Tel Aviv. We also hear from Menachem how he told his brother of the fate of the rest of their family and how he returned home after the war to kill the man responsible for murdering their sister and nephew. Menachem joined the Jewish underground, capturing and disposing of several senior SS officers, before emigrating to Israel, where he became a hero in three of its wars. We recall how the discovery of a brother brought so much happiness to Garri and his family. Menachem’s stories also help shed light on Garri’s singular character: how he had become tough and fearless when physically assaulting gangsters and anti-Semitic gangs.
Resuming Garri’s 1992 journey through the former Soviet Union, we find ourselves in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where Garri and Menachem had looked for each other in vain at the station. It is at this point that the notorious Uzbek Security Service arrest Garri and Stuart for “filming without permission”. Garri deploys outrageous chutzpah to secure their release.
This stressful episode causes Garri’s rage to pour out against the KGB persecutions that he endured. He is determined to recover proof of his imprisonments – some cynical commentators had doubted the veracity of his adventures as recounted in his book. After 50 years, he wants his file from the KGB. But this will take a lot of work.
Exhausted but not intimidated, back at the hotel Garri lectures Stuart, behind the camera, on how he does not realize how hard this all is to bear and how his generation can never understand or show even a fraction of the qualities that his own displayed.
What will be their next adventure? Stuart recalls, from the book, that there is an important missing piece to this whole story – Noka – the most dear woman in Garri’s life (apart from Stuart’s mother). Garri and Noka met in Moscow and went together to Tashkent where they lived, sharing a room in her parents house, for two years, till Garri’s re-arrest.
NokaAnd so the search for Noka begins. By an amazing coincidence, Garri meets a Jewish doctor whose father worked in Garri’s hospital in 1944. He helps find her and we see the filmed phone call in which Garri speaks to Noka for the first time in 50 years. We learn that Noka was in fact later jailed for 8 years for her association with Garri.
They fly to meet Noka in Moscow, where she greets Garri with a red rose. They revisit the scenes of their joyful meetings in Moscow’s top hotels while Garri was, unbeknownst to her, on the run from the KGB in 1940. Noka has remained single after her best years were spent in camps. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, she rejoices in Garri having found her and being happy with his own family. Still strong, vivacious, and loyal, she vows to go with him to Tashkent to try and recover his KGB file, whatever the danger.
Anne Applebaum explains the climate of fear that still surrounds people delving into the past on such missions, especially in Uzbekistan.
Garri &anp; NokaIn Tashkent, Garri and Noka recall their love together and stand at the spot where, when he stepped out to buy cigarettes, the KGB arrested him in 1943. He disappeared and she did not see him for 50 years.
They manage to obtain a letter confirming and absolving Garri’s 5 year sentence but that does not satisfy him – he wants his file. He goes with brave Noka into the former KGB (now Uzbek Security Service) HQ directly to try and obtain it. It is here – the very place where Garri suffered unbearable torture – that we learn more about his story and what happened after he had in fact escaped in 1940 from the Arctic camp Niva III (with the help of a KGB officer’s wife) after only serving one year there. We learn how the KGB used torture to try and persuade Garri to work as a spy for them but, according to Garri, he never gave in.
Sentenced to five more years in 1943, he was out in one, but banned from Tashkent and his beloved Noka, who went into hiding for her own safety.
We hear how Garri, with spy-like efficiency, sent a secret message to Noka at her post-office that he would one day return to her and we see the actual post-office where this took place. She was soon to be arrested herself….
Within a few months in 1944, Garri was head of health in a newly liberated area of the Ukraine, and personally supervised the hygiene at party boss Nikita Krushchev’s victory celebrations in 1945. Anne comments that such a volte-face in personal circumstances was truly extraordinary, given that many did not even survive a five-year sentence, let alone serve one year. Is it possible that he did some deal with the KGB? She explains that they shot so many millions for no reason at all. How did Garri survive?
Only after the death of a strong father who projected and protected his own identity, is Stuart able deeply to probe that identity and the ramifications of that life.
Stuart discovers with his mother that Garri’s KGB files are no longer in the drawer where he kept them. Did he destroy them to stop questions being answered? Mysteriously, as Stuart delves further, the security archives of the former Soviet Union now deny ever having had a record of Garri Urban.
Menachem reveals, for the first time, that Garri confided in him that he had gone on a suicidally-dangerous mission for the KGB against the Nazis, to wartime Dresden. Menachem’s view is that if indeed Garri went to Dresden, he was fighting for the Allies and his people, not for the KGB.
Garri was an individualist, and after the war he was not interested in revenge. When he learned of the family’s fate, he escaped the Soviet Union to work with Jewish survivors of the death camps in the US occupation zone of Germany, before moving as far as he could from Europe - to South America – eventually building a family, peace and prosperity.
We end with Garri’s admirable ability to forgive - a scene in his Ukrainian village where he visits a church with the villagers and prays for them. He tells us while standing outside his old house to ‘fight for what you believe in and never give in’ and in his interview that ‘we must forgive but never forget’. ‘It was my destiny to survive to tell my story’ he says, ‘Tovarisch, I am alive, I am not dead!’
As a child, I do not remember exactly how and when I learnt of my father’s full history. I do recall the telegram arriving, when I was five, confirming that my father had found the only surviving member of his family alive after 25 years – Uncle Menachem. So it dawned on me before the age of 13, when I made my “Brits vs NeoNazis” short, The Virus of War, that my father and his family had undergone immense suffering in World War Two but my main perception of him was as a supremely successful, confident and inspiring man who had fashioned a family and a luxurious life having escaped the Soviet Union with nothing.
His book, Tovarisch I Am Not Dead, published while I was at university in 1980, was a powerful and hard-hitting account that sold well in many countries. My father revealed himself to be a survivor of not just the Holocaust, but the Soviet camps: one of the 20th century’s most remarkable escapers and survivors.
He was totally extraordinary, but also supremely smart and intelligent, and of course it was clear to people encountering the aggressive side of my father that they were dealing with someone who generated huge aggression.
Equally, his charm was immense.
Were his aggression, his intelligence and his charm the keys to his survival?
As the years went on, I felt that I should address these questions, and others, by recounting his life in a factual film. (I also want to do a dramatised movie on him, one day, but that is another story…).
The fall of the Iron Curtain and Soviet Communism meant that in 1992 we could travel, at last, into that world which he had escaped in 1946. The evolution of video technology meant that I could do it “on the run”. We started a series of trips, which exposed as much about my father’s character as they did about his past. It soon became clear that the version of my father’s life recounted in his book was just one aspect of the truth. This made him uncomfortable in the presence of facts which did not fit. On the other hand, tracking people down after 50 years often confirmed the accuracy of many aspects of his book and his stunning recall.
The filmed material went through many changes and re-edits. In 1998 my father simply decided that the whole subject was too painful for him to want to have it seen in his lifetime. My own efforts had perhaps been in vain.
When Garri died, however, after a long and heavy illness in 2004, I felt that the door was open once more, and I could complete the story. This took more investigation in the archives and a lot more filming, while I pieced together some of the mysteries and was able to interview my uncle Menachem (Garri’s brother) and Noka Kapranova (Garri’s former lover) without him looming over our shoulders. Was she, for example, imprisoned because of her love for my father? My uncle spoke out for the first time, making astonishing revelations about him and his brother. I was grateful to be able to add their testimony to that of my father, heroic voices from a cruel age whose strength will live on beyond their mortal existence in this film.
Clearly, this film is in a sense an extended home movie that simply took a lot longer than most home movies to make! But the growth of “first person documentary” arguably demonstrates that film-makers who offer interesting stories or viewpoints are attracting audiences beyond their own front rooms, and I hope that this film’s themes - reconciliation between those who suffered in the Holocaust and those who (arguably) profited from it, the power of love that outlasted war and Gulag, and what it took to survive the worst and the best of the twentieth century - can offer some universal appeal.
Stuart Urban, March 22 2007
ABOUT THE BOOK
New paperback edition now available of the best seller whose sought after first edition retails for up to $440 on Amazon.com!
Available to buy now:
Amazon (Available in Paperback)
Lulu (Available in Paperback & for Download)
To support the film’s own tie-in edition, please buy here
"written with the narrative skill of a professional, this book became an international bestseller..."
"a book of the 'can't put down kind'...to be treasured."
"tragic, humorous...powerful, vivid, authentic."
The Jewish Chronicle
"a most remarkable man...a most enthralling book!"
"eye-opening...remarkable. Despite the most dismal circumstances, he never portrays himself as a victim. ****"
R Chapulina, Amazon Top 500 Reviewer
This is the true and striking story by a Jewish doctor of his struggle for survival when caught in 1939 between the evils of Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia.
After facing death from frontier patrols, a firing squad and torture, Urban arrives at a position of considerable power in Soviet society in a medical post. He risks his life again, fighting epidemics.
These fascinating memoirs give a rare glimpse of the Soviet Union in wartime, particularly into the exotic life of the Moscow élite, where beautiful women, diplomats and spies mingled at parties, and sex was used as a method of recruiting agents.
Compassionate to the sick, defiant to authority, Garri S. Urban courageously insisted on his own way, even in the face of death. He tells his remarkable tale as boldly as he lived it.
Tovarisch opens to overwhelmingly positive reactions
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian - 2nd May '08
Rated top film to see on release in UK
“The documentary is alive and well. As compelling as it is touching….a gripping documentary.”
Philip French, The Observer - 4th May '08
“A fascinating documentary….a riveting film about a remarkable man”
Derek Malcolm, The Evening Standard - 2nd May '08
“Stuart Urban’s skilfullly patched together film ….proves (Garri Urban’s) life seemed to triumph over everything.”
Catherine Shoard, The Sunday Telegraph - 4th May '08
“wholly absorbing documentary…fascinating narrative….really grips”
Karl French, The Financial Times - 1st May '08
Wendy Ide, The Times - 1st May '08
“A fascinating portrait of a charismatic personality”.
Gerald Aaron, The Jewish Chronicle - 1st May '08
“Deeply affecting ….superb documentary….unmissable”.
Allan Hunter, The Daily Express - 2nd May '08
“A poignant documentary…a compelling account of one man’s extraordinary family histoy”
David Parkinson, Empire Magazine - May '08
“An intriguing investigation…genuinely moving”
Edward Lawrenson, The Big Issue Magazine - May '08
“Poignant, affectionate portrait of a remarkable character.”
Wally Hammond, Time Out - 1st May '08
James MacLeish, Channel 4 Film - May '08
“Profoundly moving, deeply compelling…a fascinating, moving documentary, brimful of twists and tragedies.”
The Radio Times - May '08
“A fascinating insight.”
Alison Rowat, The Herald - 22nd May '08
“An extraordinary and moving tale.
Tom Dawson, The List - 22 May '08
“an absorbing and moving tale”
SIGNIS - May '08
The First Post - 1st May '08
“A remarkable tale.”
Laurshka Ivan-Zadeh, Metro
2nd May '08
Nev Pierce, BBC Movies - Reviews - 26th April '08
Robert Hanks, The Independent - 2nd May '08
“It’s engaging both as a portrait of the turbulence of life in the 20th century, and of the difficulty of being a father or a son.”
Geoffrey Macnab, Screen International - 25th Sept '07
"Stuart Urban's rich and affecting documentary about a survivor of the Soviet Gulags is a real-life story with as many twists as a Cold War espionage novel."
The Guardian – 1st May '08
Article by Stuart Urban on how he got the film into cinemas himself.
The Sunday Times - 18th May '08
Stuart Urban writes for The Sunday Times.
BBC Radio London – 1st May '08
Jason Solomons interviews Stuart Urban
The Guardian – 1st May '08
Article by Stuart Urban on how he got the film into cinemas himself
The Jewish Chronicle - 24th April '08
"Travels with my Father the spy."
Jerusalem Post - 5th Dec '07
"Sometimes people hear about Tovarisch and 'they say, 'Not another Holocaust film.' Then they are amazed, it is not a catalog of massacres and suffering. It is as much about triumph and the strength of personality.'
The film is 'a testament, but not an unquestioning testament to what my father endured and survived'." Download
ARCHIVE PRESS COVERAGE
One World UK - 28th April '08
"It gives a human face to some of the seismic events of the mid-20th century."
Jewish Telegraph - 27th April '08
"Dad's Holocaust Story is Urban Legend."
British Film Magazine - 1st April '08
"The bravery of generations past never ceases to astound and this British documentary adds another stunning history to the record.."
Raindance Interview - 20th November '07
James Mullighan, Creative Director of Shooting People, conducts the Q&A with me which you can see in podcast form here – scroll down for various items on the film and its Raindance Q&A .
The Jewish Chronicle - 24th Jan '08
"One thing not to miss..."
Shooting People Interview -1st November '07
"The [film] travels in some very dangerous places, being arrested by secret police, uncovering many very dark places and even darker deeds that happened in them. It is a life that raises almost as many questions as it answers, about the hidden worlds of cross-border traffic and international espionage during the Second World War and the Cold War, that may well continue to this very day."
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Directors Notes Interview - LISTEN NOW - 28th October '07
Hour long audio interview with Stuart Urban, director of Tovarisch I am Not Dead, about the film and his unique childhood in filmmaking.
Britfilms Review - 26th Sept '07
"A genuinely emotional and fascinating insight into one extraordinary and feisty modern day hero, this is without doubt one to put on your ‘to watch’ list."
Screen International Review - 25th Sept '07
"Stuart Urban's rich and affecting documentary about a survivor of the Soviet Gulags is a real-life story with as many twists as a Cold War espionage novel."
"Garri’s reunion with Noka - his lover 50 years before - plays like something out of Dr Zhivago... (an) extraordinary story."
Orlando Sentinel **** Review - 21st Sept '07
"British filmmaker Stuart Urban's documentary is about uncovering the truth about who exactly his dapper, swaggering, colorful Holocaust- and gulag-surviving father was. A past full of contradictions (Urban interviewed his dad extensively and didn't get straight answers), startling revelations and lingering mysteries fill this fascinating family portrait of a life lived in struggle and strife."
Raindance Best Documentary Nomination – Citation - 10th Sept '07
"It is the theme of survival, rather than defeat, under oppression which makes this documentary inspiring, hopeful and therefore vital as a social lesson. This is a compelling documentary on many levels and is indicative of the future of documentary-making."