The Story of Soul Witness

Leon Satenstein and Regina Barshak

In 1945, a 19 year old US Army intelligence office named Leon Satenstein, witnessed the liberation of Dachau.

After the war, Leon went on to become a prominent attorney, serving in the JFK administration. Forever changed by what he witnessed at Dachau, Leon spent his free hours volunteering as a social worker, counseling Holocaust witnesses.

In 1980, Leon moved to Brookline, Massachusetts.

Regina Barshak was a Brookline resident. She was also a Holocaust survivor from France. Regina and her brother Max were hidden from the Nazis. Their parents perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Max went on to become a violinist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra for over thirty years. Regina was one of the people Leon helped.

The Brookline Holocaust Witness Project

Leon and Regina shared a vision to create a living memorial of local survivors by recording their testimonies to both document and validate their experiences. Leon and Regina also believed that these testimonies could become an important educational and healing tool for their community and beyond. Their endeavor became an official Town of Brookline project.

Beginning in 1990, with the help of world-renowned Holocaust testimony expert Lawrence Langer, Facing History and Ourselves, the Fortunoff Archives for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, Brookline Access Television and Town of Brookline Director of Human Relations, Steve Bressler, Leon and Regina facilitated the video recording of over 80 hours of testimonies. Lawrence Langer personally conducted approximately 80% of the interviews and supervised all the interviews.

The interviews were recorded in duplicate with one set of tapes going to Fortunoff for research and archival purposes and the other set of tapes staying in Brookline to be shared with the local community.

The Storage Unit

Leon and Regina wanted to be able to share the testimonies with the public but they knew it would be impossible for people to see all of the footage – akin to watching an “80 hour movie”. They also understood that not all the interview footage was appropriate for all age groups.

The Brookline tapes were placed in a metal storage unit in the Brookline Health Department Building until the group could raise the funds to edit the interview footage and properly archive it for the public.

The Town of Brookline’s copies of the interviews were kept in that storage unit in the Town’s health department building for over 20 years.

When Leon Satenstein passed away in 2012 and we lost Regina Barshak a few years later; the tapes were still in the storage unit.

The Tapes are Discovered

In 2014, Dr. Lloyd Gellineau, Brookline’s new Chief Diversity Officer, discovered approximately 140 U-matic videotapes in a metal storage unit. Dr. Gellineau learned that the videotapes contained testimonies of local Holocaust survivors taken decades earlier.

Dr. Gellineau had a vision to create a documentary based on the footage. He immediately turned to experienced producer R. Harvey Bravman. Harvey had founded the Brookline Youth Awards in 2011, a digital archive of interviews Harvey conducts of Brookline’s accomplished teenagers.

In 2016, Harvey managed the digitization and restoration of the videotapes. He then produced and directed a work-in-progress version of the film, personally fundraising as he went along. Harvey turned to longtime friend, Robert Kirwan to edit the film. Rob also edited NOVA’s Holocaust Escape Tunnel and Poisoned Waters.

The work-in-progress version of the film focuses almost exclusively on the Holocaust testimony footage, weaving just enough narrative to keep the viewer grounded in context.

As the work-in-progress version of the film was drawing completion, Harvey’s wife, Karen Chase, armed with only a spreadsheet of the witnesses’ 1989 contact information, researched the whereabouts and contacted family members of those who testified.

On January 26, 2017, the work-in-progress version of the film based on the never seen before testimonies was screened at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline. A reception was held before the special screening for the family members of those who were interviewed so many years before.

The film sold out the Coolidge Corner Theatre. And then it sold out the theater a second time. Soul Witness has screened at the Coolidge 6 times.

On the morning of November 30, 2017, Brookline High School took students on a field trip to the Coolidge to see Soul Witness and learn from their neighbors from the past.

In December of 2017, production began to complete the directors cut of the film.

The director’s cut of Soul Witness was completed in October, 2018. The film sold out the Bedford Playhouse in Westchester County, NY on November 1, 2018.

On February 28, 2019, Soul Witness screened at the Coolidge, with all proceeds going to the theater for its support of the film. The screening raised over $8,000 for the nonprofit.