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Settela – Face of the Past (1994)

Settela Face of the Past

In 1944, a Jewish prisoner, Rudolf Beslauer, was commissioned by camp commander Gemmeker to make a film about life and work in Westerbork. Seven seconds from this film became the symbol of the deportations to the Nazi extermination camps: a girl with a white headscarf standing in the doorway of a goods wagon. Who was she?

In 1994 Cherry Duyns followed journalist Aad Wagenaar in search of the girl’s identity.

“This was a quite controversial thing in the Netherlands […] because the girl in the door of the boxcar had become an established icon of the commemoration of the persecution of Dutch Jews during WW2. Suddenly she turned out to be of Sinti background, which was not appreciated by a lot of Jews (and non-Jews), as one can understand.
Settela then became an icon of the Sinti Holocaust commemoration, which only started to become visible in the late 1990s. The entire thing is additionaly ambivalent, as the reconstruction of the real name of the girl stays dubios (from a strict historiographical point of view), to say the least. She surely was a Sinti, but it’s hard to say, if her name was Settela (or Blieta) or something completely different.

It’s worth to read Wagenaars book, as he is very open about the weak spots of his own research, it’s called “Settela”. Also one has to keep in mind, that this is a documentary with its own inner narrative and Cherry Duyns did emphasis certain aspects and neglected others, in order to justify his newly concern about that footage beyond the finding of Settela.

To a certain degree I feel sympathy for the Dutch Jews who didn’t welcome the discovery – especially if one claims a tribe-free commemoration it should not be so important what the girl’s background was. But indeed, the Sinti and Roma have been neglected as a victim group of the Holocaust, so it seems to be understandable, that they claim this picture (which, btw. a lot of Sinti not even do, as they believe one should not talk about the dead).

One has to keep in mind that the Jews in Holland have been devided since 1945 in at least two general groups of which one group basically supports Wagenaar (see for example A shadow of a doubt by Rolf Orthel). These people (which are mainly leftists and some Jews) are in contradiction to the way the majority of the society commemorates the occupation (namely as a thing they endured passively).

This documentary marks some kind of a turning point, as – similar to Germany in the early to mid 1990s (Wehrmachtsausstellung) – the traditional way of commemorating (and leaving out certain not so nice truths about collaboration or even clear responsibility for murder) – is being questioned here, at least to a certain degree. Identifying Settela is a way of coming to terms with the own past; a way of looking a the existing traces and not blend the national history into a blurred total of Holocaust, but to acknowledge individuals, individual suffering, but subsequently also individual guilt.”

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