________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 20 . . . . May 29, 2009

cover Stronger Than Fire: The Eva Olsson Story.

Toronto, ON, Don Gray Production (contact donaldbgray@yahoo.com), 2008.
101 min., DVD, $37.00.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Frank Loreto.

**** /4

Many schools have had the opportunity of hosting Eva Olsson and listening to her account of being a Holocaust survivor. Since 1996, when she began her mission of relating her experiences, she has appeared at 1800 schools. She tells countless students about how she was separated from her family forever and of the horrors that befell her and people like her. That story stands alone, and Stronger than Fire is not required viewing to understand her message. This film goes deeper into her story and provides a background to her experiences that adds another dimension to this wonderful woman.

     The film begins with Eva, the grandmother at home and a devoted “bubba.” She is seen as very loving, but also as very ordinary. However, when September comes, she is on the road talking to school children of all ages. In her talks, she tells how she was taken from her mother while a teenager and never saw her again. She states how soldiers were told, “When a mother holds her child to her chest, shoot the child. The bullet would not only kill the child, but it would also kill the mother. It was cheaper that way.” She frames the Holocaust as a huge example of bullying. What was done to people was inexcusable, but the fact that so many stood by and allowed it to happen hurts her more. The talks, she explains, help her too: “It is a good thing I went out to speak because the nightmares were just awful.”

     After her talks, Eva is shown meeting with the students. Many are in tears and just want to be held by her, something which she is more than willing to do. For those who have seen Eva speak, this part of the film would act as a nice reminder of that experience. The scenes of her speaking are sewn together from a number of presentations, so clearly her message is the same wherever she goes. This would be a fine film if this is all it presented. However, there is much more here.

     Eva decided that she should go back to the scene of the horrors. Fear has kept her from returning, and she feels that she will conquer it by going. The next part of the film captures Eva as she forces herself to relive her experiences. It will be a gruelling trip, five countries in 18 days. The journey is not off to a good start. Just thinking of her mother brings her to tears. Eva is saddened by the fact that her mother never got to see her grandchildren.

     The first thing Eva notices is the lack of any sign of Jewish life in her old neighbourhood. Everything has changed, and Eva admits, “It’s later than I thought.” The gathering place where 24,000 Jews were taken again causes Eva to weep. She can still see the townspeople lining upon both sides of the street like they were watching a parade. No one came forward to help. She and her family endured a 14 hour train ride after which the people were marked off as either “fit for use or of no further use.” At the camp where her mother was killed, Eva admits that she “could not imagine that, after 63 years, the place would have the effect that it had.” There she sees the gas chamber where her mother died and the children’s shoes that still remain. Eva, at 82, admits that she has not been this saddened in a long time. The trip, at this point, causes Eva great confusion as she is unable to see what she will do with all this: “Right now everything is hollow and empty. Everything is gone.”

     Eva reflects on her stormy relationship with her father. They were never able to reconcile as he also was killed. When she hears of how the men were unloaded from the trains, she again starts to weep. She tells how men were taken into what seemed to be a medical office. They were told to stand against the wall, supposedly so their height could be taken. They did not know that SS officers were waiting to shoot them in the back through a slit in the wall. That way they did not have to see the faces of their victims.

     Before returning to Canada, Eva goes to see her husband’s family in Sweden. This is a beautiful homecoming, something she needed. Sadly, though, when asked upon her return, “How was your trip?” she could only say, “Devastating,” and she starts to cry.

     Thinking that talking to schools would put her back on track, Eva breaks down during her first presentation. However, she is able to regroup, and, at the end of the film, she states that she would like to continue what she has been doing for ten more years. Her message is to never give up.

     Stronger than Fire is truly a labour of love for someone clearly deserving such love. While the film is not perfect, it is a sincere and honest portrayal of a remarkable person. For those schools that have seen Eva, her journey to her past would add another dimension to her presentation.

     For those schools planning to invite Eva to speak (and all should!) the film would be an excellent introduction to her. The film could also be a good vehicle to bring Eva Olsson to areas where she might not be able to go.

     The film could be used in any course studying the Holocaust, Women’s Studies, History, Ethics, even Civics to study how a citizen’s rights can be removed. Due to the graphic film footage of the Holocaust victims, some might find some parts of the film difficult to watch. Despite that, this film is a must-see for all high schools.

Highly Recommended.

Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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