Filmmaker documents history of communist trials

In honor of Women’s History Month, the history department and the Women and Gender Studies department, hosted documentary filmmaker Zuzana Justman.

Justman showed her film “A Trial in Prague” and answered questions from the audience. Women in Learning and Leadership (WILL), Women and Gender Studies and the Gender Nation Democracy Program supported the presentation.

Justman’s film centered on the communist trials held in Czechoslovakia in 1952.

In the film, many of the widows of the men tried were interviewed, as well as a woman that was tried for being a communist herself.

Justman was born in Czechoslovakia and spent two years of her life in the Tarazine concentration camp. She escaped to Argentina soon after.

In 1950, she moved to the United States and attended Vassar College where she studied Slavic language and culture. As a young widow, she raised two sons. When she was 55 years old, Justman decided to pursue her dream of becoming a filmmaker.

Justman was the producer and screenwriter of “Tarazine Diary” in 1989, as well as the producer and director of the 1993 film “Now We are Free.”

She won an Emmy Award for “Voices of Children” in 1999 for her portrayal of three childhood friends who survived the concentration camps of the Holocaust.

“There are all deeply felt stories,” Cynthia Paces, professor of history, said.

“A Trial in Prague” shows the Communist party’s rise to power and the loyal people who helped along the way. Most of the people interviewed in the film had been in concentration camps before then.

“Trial” continued to show the downfall of communism and the betrayal many of the loyal supporters faced.

Most of the communists tortured and arrested during the trials were forced to confess to crimes they did not commit, much like George Orwell’s “1984.”

Eleven of those arrested were hanged. The other three were sentenced to life in prison. The ones sentenced to life were released shortly after Joseph Stalin’s death.

Justman produced this film for a “number of reasons.”

“A very good friend’s father was one of the men executed. I became friends with her in the ’50s – she had no contact with her family,” Justman said.

“I went to Prague in 1958 to visit my brother, and met my friend’s mother and family. The story had an impression on me,” she added.

The book “Under Cruel Star” by Heda M. Kovaly also inspired Justman. Kovaly was also interviewed in the documentary.

At first, Justman’s film was not shown in the Czech Republic.

The producers of the Czech television show turned it down originally, said, “There were so many films about the trials in Prague.”

According to Justman, this was not the case.

The letter she received from the producers stated a reason she believes to be “unknown.”

The film is now shown in the Czech Republic. Last November was the fiftieth anniversary of the trials.

When asked about her subjects, Justman said, “Some were more difficult than others.” However, interviewing Kovaly was “the most difficult because she went through so much. I had the strongest identification with her,” Justman said.

Justman plans to go in April to a conference, sponsored by Columbia University, concerning the trials and its anniversary.