The Joe Engel Story

The flier for To Auschwitz and Back, The Joe Engel Story. Provided

It began with an informal chat in a dentist office but rapidly evolved into a film project that presents and preserves the story of one of Charleston's best-known Holocaust survivors.

The resulting documentary, "To Auschwitz and Back: The Joe Engel Story," will have its public premiere Wednesday at the Terrace Theater on James Island.

Ron Small of the Anchor Media Group Inc. first met Engel a few years ago, casually, through his dentist Michael Engel, Joe's nephew. Small already had heard Joe Engel share his story.

Last summer, Small raised the possibility with Michael of filming his uncle, and everything just clicked. Michael Engel is credited as the documentary's executive producer, an honorary title recognizing his role in making the film possible.

"Somehow I asked the right way and literally it happened that quickly," he said. "Other filmmakers have asked for access to Joe. Somehow, I guess he felt differently about me."

Once the production began, things flowed naturally, largely a result of the Polish that Engel has developed by sharing his story publicly over the years. The filming took only two days, while the editing took about two months, so it was finished in time for Engel's 90th birthday last October.

"I don't want to minimize the fact it was only two days, but it was a very powerful two days," Small said. While Small has done many voice-overs in his work, he did not want his voice in this documentary, only Engel's.

Engel said he is very satisfied with the result.

"That was not easy for me, to sit down and tell him my past, what I went through. I lost my family," he said, "but the story has to be told for the young generation, so never again. This should not happen to anybody, to any humans, what they done to us.”

Decades ago, Engel was not comfortable talking about his experience in the Holocaust until another survivor, the late Pincus Kolender, encouraged Engel to join him in telling their stories.

One of the only challenges during the documentary might have been at the beginning, when Small tried to break the ice by asking Engel to share a joke on camera.

"Joe will tell you he's not a joke teller, but he did say something very funny that we included," Small said. "He was very easygoing and very willing to do whatever. He loved to be directed. He's a very compelling interview."

The film also includes archival material from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Its 47-minute length happens to coincide with the length of a broadcast hour, minus commercial breaks.

"It's the length that it needed to be to tell his story adequately," Small said.

"There’s more to tell," Engel added. "I could talk for hours and hours and never come to an end ... but I'm highly satisfied with it."

Author and retired College of Charleston professor Jack Bass has said Engel "may well be the most remarkable man in Charleston."

Born in Poland in 1927, he grew up in the increasing despair of a Jewish ghetto outside Warsaw. He was only 14 when he last saw his parents. The Nazis took him to Birkenau and Auschwitz concentration camps before he escaped from a train during a freezing winter night.

"The people were dying out, and I took my life in my own hands and I said to myself, 'Joe, if I stay here in the train ... I never will survive. If I jumped (from) the train, I might have a chance to survive,'" he said. "If I get killed, they shot at me, so what? I don’t have to suffer."

After his successful escape, he began a covert fight against the Germans as World War II wound toward an end.

In 1949, Engel immigrated to the United States and eventually settled in Charleston, where he opened a dry cleaning shop on King Street and eventually became a philanthropist and community leader, particularly in the area of Holocaust education.

Sandra Brett, who does cultural arts programming for Charleston Jewish Community Center Without Walls, said Engel is one of only about eight local Holocaust survivors, and one of the most visible.

“He goes to numerous schools every year," she said. "It’s hard on him, but he continues to do it because it’s so important not only to remember but also to try to effect change."

While next week will be its public premiere, the documentary was shown to about 300 people during a private event celebrating Engel's 90th birthday on Oct. 19.

"To say there wasn't a dry eye in the house would be an understatement," Small said. "I've not had anyone come to me with anything other than ridiculously glowing remarks, and I give the credit to Joe."

The Jan. 24 screening will include remarks by Small, Engel and others, such as Nancy Zisk, a Charleston School of Law professor.

Zisk said her remarks will try to put the Holocaust in a larger context, specifically as an example of how the rule of law can erode.

"My point is whenever there is a leader who believes the law doesn't apply to him or that he can change the law to suit his needs, society breaks down," she said. "The rule of law breaks down, then things bad can happen."

She said the best way of fighting those people who think the law doesn't apply to them is to speak up.

"That's what is so amazing about Joe," she said. "You've got to speak up, which is what he's all about."

Small said Midwest Tape now owns the tape, and that company is a large conduit into the nation's library systems. And there's also the potential for it to be broadcast on television.

"We're debating which channel that will be right now," he added. "One of the promises I made to Joe was a lot of people would see this. He's so pleased his story will continue to be told after he is no longer with us. That's part of the satisfaction he got from doing this."

Small said the documentary isn't solely about Engel's experience in the Holocaust but also about the successful life he was able to build for himself.

"It's like what Rabbi (Adam) Rosenbaum said, if he turned out to be an angry, bitter guy, nobody would think twice because of what he went through," Small said. "But he didn't. He managed to turn an awful, horrible, inconceivable childhood experience into something positive. I don't think I've met somebody as beloved as Joe Engel."

"It's a horribly sad but also joyous program," Small added. "As a filmmaker, it's probably one of the most rewarding programs I've ever done and largely because of Joe's reaction to it."

Engel is satisfied that the documentary will survive as a record of what happened.

"Maybe people will remember, because a lot of youngsters, they didn’t even know the second (world) war existed, so we have to tell them," he said. "We have to teach them because we never know who is going to be the next.”

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.