Carl Leblanc’s documentary The Heart of Auschwitz has its Toronto premiere at this year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival.

Since I’m a student of both history and film, you might imagine that I’ve seen more than my share of movies about the Holocaust. You’d be right. But Leblanc’s new film is a different and rather unexpected doorway into that history. It all comes from a small and seemingly insignificant object (pictured below) on display at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre.

Heart of Auschwitz - heart card

The heart is a tiny but elaborate birthday card made for a 20 year old woman named Fania in December 1944. What’s so remarkable about that, you ask? Well, in a labour camp/munitions factory at Auschwitz during the Second World War, it’s frankly amazing that 12 young women, many just teenagers, were able to make it at all. In an environment where they were searched going in and out of the factory (wouldn’t want anyone ferreting away a bullet), unable to retain any personal objects, and the writing of notes and letters was a hang-able offence, the making of the heart borders on the miraculous. They literally risked their lives to make a birthday card.

The next miracle is that Fania managed to get the object out of Auschwitz – it was the only personal posession she had. Fania resettled in Canada, and in 1988 donated the card to the Montreal museum. In recent years, director Leblanc had the intricate, origami-like pages of the card unfolded and carefully copied to begin to research the individuals who made it. The film leads us through his painstaking research at various Holocaust archives and institutions, following even the weakest leads to every corner of the world.

There are many obstacles in Leblanc’s path to discovery, not the least of which is that the card is signed only with first names. The film is a remarkable journey through history and memory. More than 60 years have passed since the liberation of Auschwitz; many faces and names have faded from the minds of the survivors, but to others, the memories are so vivid that they understandably refuse to relive it. After many frustrating false starts, however, Leblanc finally gets a break in the form of a helpful and engaging woman living in Israel. The film is very well crafted from observational footage and interviews with Fania and her family, museum researches, archivists, and the many people who help and/or hinder Leblanc on his quest.

What unfolds is a fascinating tapestry of families and friendships and connections, scattered to the four winds. I think the film is so interesting and emotionally affecting because it emerges from so simple and everyday an object – a birthday card. It brings the experience of Fania and her friends to a personal level, making the history more real, more identifiable, and ultimately, more meaningful.

The Heart of Auschwitz screens at this year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival on Sunday, May 8th at 7:45 pm and Monday, May 9th at 6:00 pm. Please check out the TJFF website for details.