Archive for May 4, 2010

Kitty Williams finally tells her Holocaust survivor tale

May 4, 2010 10 comments

I have been profiling Holocaust survivors for two decades. A survivor in the Omaha metro area who put me off for several years finally agreed to tell me her story last year so that I could share it with the general public. Her name is Kitty Williams and she lives across the Missouri River from Omaha in Council Bluffs, Iowa. I am glad I persisted in getting her story but moreover I’m glad she gifted the world with it. The article appeared in Omaha publication, The Jewish Press.

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This story won a 2009 Nebraska Press Association award in the feature story category.  It’s one of  a half-dozen or so Holocaust pieces I’ve written to have been so recognized.  Using the honor as a hook, The Jewish Press interviewed me for a profile about my life and work as a writer.

My article about Kitty was reprinted in the 2014 book, The Holocaust (Genocide and Persecution) – – as part of a series from Greenhaven Press.


Kitty Williams finally tells her Holocaust survivor tale

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the 2009 Jewish New Year’s edition of the Jewish Press, a publication of the Jewish Federation of Omaha (Neb.)


For the longest time, Holocaust survivor Kitty Williams of Council Bluffs didn’t think her story warranted telling. She considered her suffering insignificant amid the weight of Nazi atrocities. Other tragedies far surpassed her own. Nobody could find hers interesting or edifying. It’d all been said before.

She’s keenly aware that despite the cruelties her Hungarian-Jewish family endured, others endured more, such as a camp mate who lost nearly all her 50-some aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces. Kitty can still hardly believe she and two sisters survived Auschwitz-Birkenau. Another sister escaped certain demise on the Budapest Death March. Two brothers made it out of forced labor camps.

“Miraculously, six of us lived. We’re an exception. We were very fortunate that as many lived as did,” said the former Katalin Ehrenfeld.

She was made reticent, too, by Holocaust depictions of incalculable losses. To Kitty, 85, her own losses seemed almost trivial by comparison. But how can losing an adored father be minimized? He was her whole world.

Then there was the survivor guilt Kitty felt. Why was I spared? Why should I be singled out for attention? “I had it relatively easy, and that’s why I feel guilty telling you my story,” she told a reporter. This despite imprisonment in ghettos, at Auschwitz-Birkenau and in a forced labor camp. Her father and a brother killed, their home desecrated, her innocence violated. All sacrificed to the machinations of the Final Solution. She’d already lost her mother and a sister to typhus at age 7.



Kitty Williams prays at her mother’s grave



The permutations of her story, when taken together, make it singular: hiding and “passing” to escape capture; accepting Christian neighbors’ kindnesses; falling for a wounded German airman; finding and nursing her sister Magda at Auschwitz-Birkenau; being chosen for a life-saving detail of women laborers at a German munitions factory. After liberation Kitty married an American airman and came to live with him in Council Bluffs. At his request she concealed her heritage. She then experienced her own private holocaust of a failed marriage and a son’s suicide.

Her reluctance persists despite reminders that every survivor’s tale is a vital link to the body of eyewitness testimony that forms the historical record. Only those who actually lived the Shoah can bring history to life and give lie to the deniers. The larger story is not complete unless the smaller individual stories are documented.

As the number of survivors fast dwindles here and around the world, the need to preserve every untold story becomes more urgent. Kitty recognizes that, which is why she first testified for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Project. Omahan Ben Nachman interviewed her and her words are now part of the project’s massive archives. But perhaps no one outside her family will ever see that video.

Last May the Omaha World-Herald sketched the bare bones of her story after she met an American liberator at the Heartland Honor Flight reunion. Now, the Jewish Press presents Kitty’s odyssey in its entirety. She may still feel an unworthy subject, but perhaps her story’s publication will validate her travails.

“That’s when we became very scared”
Born in 1924, Kitty grew up in the Eastern Hungarian town of Sarand, near the Rumanian border. She was the second youngest of eight siblings. Their father, Mor Ehrenfeld, was a World War I combat veteran who incurred wounds fighting in the Austro-Hungarian army. However, losing the mother of his children, his beloved wife Anna, cut deeper than any shrapnel.

“It changed everything,” recalled Kitty. “It’s almost like there was a life before my mother that was beautiful and there was a life after my mother died that was sad. Of course, my father took it very hard and really I don’t think he ever recovered from the loss. He did not want to bring a step-mother into our lives. I remember he got us together and said, ‘We’ll make it, somehow we’ll make it.’”Kitty said, “I think most of all of the love that radiated between us is how we made it.”

Her sister Magda, 12 years her senior, became Kitty’s surrogate mother.

The family were the only Jews in the vicinity, except for the Leitners, whom they were not close to prior to the Holocaust, Circumstances would thrust the families together on a harrowing journey. Before the madness, Kitty recalls an idyllic life.

“I have beautiful memories mostly because of my large family. Most of my siblings were very musical and played instruments — that was our entertainment, sitting on the porch, my brothers playing these heartbreaking love songs on the violin. They’re still etched in my memory. We were so close as family, and since socially we really weren’t accepted in town, it was a wonderful feeling.

“We always had a lot of books in our house. We had probably the first radio — a crystal set. We got a newspaper from Budapest every day, although a day old.”

Her father’s 3rd grade education belied wisdom. He ran a general store in town, he dealt in grain, he owned a vineyard. Harvest time marked a communal peasant celebration. “Half the town would come and pick the grapes,” said Kitty. “It was kind of like 4th of July here. It was a get together for a lot of people.”

Kitty said her father was admired for his advanced ag techniques and many skills.

“The school board approached him every year with different parcels of land for him to look at and he would farm these on shares…because he was always able to figure out what was needed, to build it up. The town didn’t have a lawyer and so anytime anybody needed an official paper translated or written they would come to my dad. Besides, he had the most beautiful handwriting. For any advice there would be a knock on the window or on the door of somebody wanting, you know, ‘My child is sick, can I have something from the store?.’”

She said she’s read Who’s Who in Hungary listings praising him as a patriot, citing his WWI service. His community standing helped insulate the family from punitive, restrictive Jewish laws. Even when new, harsher anti-Jewish decrees began being instituted in 1939, she said, “he was always exempted from the Jewish laws until the very end.” Nothing could save the family once German forces occupied Hungary, a noncombatant but complicit ally of the Nazi regime and its master race ideology. Up until then, Hungarian Jews and gypsies largely avoided the mass internments and killings. But as these ethnic minorities discovered to their horror many of Hungary’s Christian leaders and citizens willingly participated in genocide.

The Ehrenfelds and their Jewish brothers and sisters had been duped into a false sense of security. “For us to be able to live amongst Gentiles peacefully it was like paradise,” said Kitty, “but in looking back in our history there were pogroms, we were persecuted.” She could not imagine what lay ahead. There were signs but few could read them. Where once her family “took part in a lot of the town’s activities,” they became isolated, ostracized. The Anti-Semitic enmity could be construed as a dangerous new pogrom or as just the latest wave of Jew bashing.

“The Hungarian radio broadcasts were very biased and so it was always full of good news of German victories. The movie house newsreels only showed all the battles they won,” said Kitty. “Of course they never missed an opportunity for Jew hating. You know, ‘If it wasn’t for the Jews everything would be fine.’ Everything was always the fault of the Jews.”

Even when the family encountered refugees fleeing neighboring countries they didn’t interpret it as a warning their own safety was in jeopardy.

“I remember young Polish and probably Czechoslovakian men knocking on our door saying they were trying to escape, trying to get to Israel, going through Hungary, and of course we always fed them and gave them some supplies. When they were telling us about the atrocities I don’t think we really believed them. The human mind cannot imagine this can happen. It’s an exaggeration, it can’t be true, it just can’t be. Of course, we never heard about the gas chambers. We heard about the shooting and the looting and that kind of stuff, but not the systematic killing of the Jews. We were completely unaware of it. We were so naive.”

By ‘39, the circle of Kitty’s life narrowed. She was 15 and her family was dispersed, her older siblings married and moved away. It was just Kitty and her father. Back home in Sarand and in the nearby city of Debrecen, where Kitty attended high school and her sister Magda lived, things were getting more difficult.

“I was a young girl but I couldn’t get out except maybe for a couple hours a day. You couldn’t travel, you were forbidden to do anything.”

Wearing the Star of David in public became compulsory. Once, when a Gentile girl asked her to go to the movies, Kitty, anxious to leave the house and be a normal teenager again, agreed. “It was like a dream to get out of my almost virtual prison.” The dream turned nightmare. The movie was a virulent German propaganda film, Walking home from the theater in the chill of the afternoon Kitty put on a coat, covering her Yellow Star. Someone must have reported her, as the next day the police came to her home and arrested her. She was taken away and jailed in another town despite the protests and pleadings of her and father.

“I just begged and begged, ‘I have to be with my dad, please let me out,’ but they had no mercy. They kept me in there.”

She got out only after a Gentile woman who once worked for the family walked the 8 kilometers to obtain her release. Kitty suspects her father gave the woman money to bribe officials. Kitty will never know though as the incident “was never discussed.” Kitty’s father had been allowed to keep his store but eventually he was forced to close it. Then, on March 19, 1944, the German Army occupied Hungary.

“I remember I was visiting my sister Magda in Debrecen. She was married and pregnant. I was walking on the street and I saw German troops marching all over. They’d just landed or drove into Hungary. It happened all in one day. They just descended on us. They were everywhere. That’s when we became very scared.”





“Even to go to our death it was torture”
Before long her brothers were nabbed and sent to forced labor camps. Her sister Elizabeth, who lived in the capital city Budapest, was taken prisoner the very day the Germans stormed into Hungary. She ended up in Auschwitz with Kitty and Magda. Another sister, Klari, was forced from her home in Budapest to march with thousands of others. Their supposed destination — Vienna. But standing orders said no Jews were to make it there alive. Stragglers or resistors were shot on the spot. Klari was a comely young woman who, with a girlfriend, drew the attention of a Hungarian guard. He confided they would not survive the march and offered to hide them at his family’s home in Budapest. Klari accepted the offer and lived. Her girlfriend refused and died. Klari ended up a virtual slave but she made it through.

It was awhile before the Germans reached Kitty’s town. She can never forget the mob that came for her in the middle of the night. Rape and murder on their minds.

“The first night we heard…let me put it this way, we had our Kristallnacht. It was a mixture of German and Hungarian hoodlums. They broke every window in the house. My dad got up. The Germans demanded I come out. They wanted me. I was a young girl of not even 19. Fortunately my dad spoke German. He said, ‘I’m so sorry, she’s not here.’ The Hungarians were more demanding.”

Somehow he convinced the thugs she wasn’t there. They left uttering epithets. “I remember spending the night under the bed shaking,” said Kitty, “and from then on I never slept at home.” For a time she hid in the apartment of a Christian family in Debrecen. But the stress of avoiding detection became too much and the family put her out. Kitty wanted to be home anyway. “I didn’t really like this hiding. I wanted to go and be with my dad, to take care of him.” Her law-abiding father also wanted her home. He arranged for her to travel in the wagon of a farmer going to market. Posing as a Gentile, head wrapped in a babushka, she passed.

Back in Sarand, the Ehrenfeld’s Christian neighbor, widower Mihaly Toath, offered to put Kitty up. He didn’t have children of his own and he felt protective of Kitty,  his friend Mor’s last child at home. And so for a month she whiled away the daylight hours at home before secreting away to the old man’s tiny place at night. He slept in the one bed and she slept under it, his chickens clucking and pecking all about. She called him “uncle.” The ruse could only buy Kitty and her father so much time.

Kitty’s home was confiscated, the guest bedroom taken over by a wounded German pilot. He stayed two weeks. “We had to take care of him. My father changed his dressing — he had a leg injury — and I fed him.” One thing led to another. “He was a young man and I was a young girl. He wanted to meet me after the war. I remember he gave me a note with his town’s name — Dusseldorf — and his address. He gave us so much encouragement. He kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to end, we are losing the war. Everything will be wonderful for you.’ And, of course, that is not how it happened, but it was a nice fantasy — until he was sent home.”

Even after the ghettos, right up through arriving at Auschwitz, she clung to hope they might meet again. “I remember I had this little note I was holding that I finally dropped just before they shaved us and everything, because it was sort of like my security blanket.” Any sense of security she still had was shattered.

In April the roundup of Jews began. Kitty’s large home was designated a ghetto. Mr. and Mrs Leitner and daughter Ica were taken there. The girls became friends. A doctor’s widow, Mrs. Kovacs, was brought there, too. Only part Jewish, she’d lived as a Christian. “She came with all her furs and jewelry and she kept saying, ‘I believe in Jesus Christ, how can this happen to me?’ But, you know, it didn’t matter,” said Kitty. “If they knew you had even an ounce of Jewish blood…”

As insurance, Kitty’s father had a shoemaker fashion false soles in his shoe. Mor stashed some 5,000 pengos in each cavity. A fortune then. “Maybe that’s all he had, I don’t know,” said Kitty. “At any rate I remember my dad saying to me, ‘You know, maybe it will buy you a loaf of bread some day.’”

After two weeks all the occupants were taken to a ghetto in another town, where they joined more Jews. Then in June everyone was trudged off to Nagyvarad, whose factory-works complex of barns with dirt floors became a makeshift camp for some 2,000 prisoners. Men, women, children. Sick and healthy. Rich and poor. That many people crammed into a space not made for human habitation made for “horrible conditions.” She said, “It was a huge place. All the Jews taken from the surrounding towns and small ghettos were concentrated in this one facility. They let us take some food, clothing, supplies along. The food didn’t last very long. We were already starting to be hungry.”

Kitty and Ica were ordered into evacuated outlying ghettos, with an armed guard escort, to forage for food left behind. “That’s how we supplied the camp,” said Kitty. “We went from house to house and picked up food left here and there. The sight of it, it still chills me, because I would see children’s things, a shoe here, a shoe there, toys, furniture, clothes. It looked like they must have been taken in the middle of the night and that they weren’t prepared for it.” She couldn’t shake the scene of quiet lives so violently interrupted.

Weeks passed. Rumors of death camps and gas chambers spread. As did counter rumors the Germans needed the Jews for war labor. Kitty, her father and most others chose to believe their lives were too precious to be snuffed out. They were even hoping the railroad tracks that ran nearby would soon bring a train to transport them to a labor camp. Anything would be better than this, they thought. “You can’t imagine the brutality from the Hungarians,” said Kitty.

It was “a relief” when a train did come for them in August. Relief gave way to dread as they were herded onto the cattle cars in the summer heat. “The horror of that I can’t even…” she said, her voice breaking. “It’s very hard for anybody in the free world to imagine what they did to us. Anything you’ve seen or read, it was much worse. They put us in there on top of each other with no water and a bucket for a toilet. We could never lie down. You couldn’t see out. Total darkness. Just one little hole. And by this time we hardly had any food.”

No one knew the destination. The journey was interminable, impossible, awful. “It seemed to me like it was at least five days,” said Kitty. “I do know you can get there overnight by train.” She refers to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death camp they were en route to. It’s a trip she’s remade twice in the ensuing years. Getting there that first time was like a slow, agonizing death. “We stopped and slowed down, again and again. It was like torture on purpose, even to go to our death it was torture.”





“It was death and smoke and smell.”
It all had the intended dehumanizing effect. “I know at first there was some modesty left in us,” said Kitty. “We hung up a sheet or something when somebody had to relieve themselves. But after awhile nobody even cared. What surprised me is we didn’t go mad, we were still functioning. I mean, I know there were people dead around me because I know we left bodies in there when we finally got out. But it’s like I didn’t want to even believe it’s happening. It didn’t register.”

At a stop German soldiers replaced the Hungarian guards. An officer announced anyone carrying valuables must surrender them or be subject to execution. Kitty and her father exchanged glances and whispers. What to do? They decided they couldn’t chance it. She said as their drama played out others in the car wrestled with the same dilemma. The deliberations grew animated. Some decried their fellow Jews as hoarders, lashing out, “See, that’s why we’re in the state we’re in — you don’t obey the law.’ Others commented, “You were smart to do it.”

Mor used a tool to wedge his soles off, handing over the money to a pair of young soldiers. “At the next stop,” said Kitty, “the same two soldiers came with buckets of water and big baskets of French bread and they flung the bread into the car, and only our car. Loaf after loaf. Everybody was reaching for it. I know everybody got at least two loaves. My dad was treated like a hero.” The lost fortune “did buy us a loaf of bread,” after all, she said.

The further the train went the more unfamiliar the surroundings appeared. But Mor knew the territory. He recognized they’d crossed into Poland. Then they were there — Auschwitz-Birkenau. “At least we weren’t hungry when we got there,” said Kitty. She would know real hunger and deprivation soon enough.

Kitty, her sisters, her father, the Leitners, the rich widow — they were part of the flood of refugees the Nazis evacuated from Hungary in ‘44, the last major contingent of Jews targeted for death. The war was being lost and what Kitty calls “the killing machine” had to be fed before the advancing Allies arrived.

“We arrived early morning, the sun was just coming up. Nobody spoke to you, everybody yelled, they always yelled. ‘Get out, get out! Leave your luggage, you’ll get it later! Stand in line!’ In the distance I saw this beautiful, tall German officer all in white with several dogs and soldiers around. He was sitting and looking at us, pointing — right, left. I found out later it was Dr. (Josef) Mengele.” The selection separated Kitty from her father. “I went to the right with my friend and her parents and my dad went to the left.” Kitty asked men in striped garb where the others were being taken. The cryptic reply: “You’ll see.” She learned “the striped ones were inmates who had the job of getting us organized. Everything was so organized. The method was so perfect. There were typists, barbers.” Lines and names and counts. Chilling efficiency. Always, guns, whips, clubs at the ready.




Before her father was led away, she recalls embracing him, “looking over and saying something like, ‘See you later.’ Well, later never came. That was the last sight of him I ever had.” She learned he was killed that same day. Her sister Elizabeth, who arrived before, was on a work detail sifting through clothes of those killed in the gas chambers. “It was,” said Kitty, “a plum job. You would give your right arm for it because you were able to go through pockets and find food.” A friend was rifling through a man’s overcoat when she found a wedding picture she recognized as Elizabeth’s. The overcoat belonged to Mor. He’d carried the photo with him. “That’s how Elizabeth knew our father was dead. I have the picture.”

The dead at least were free of degradation. The living had to endure more misery. In Kitty’s experience, the worst brutality was meted out not by Germans but arm-banded kapos, prisoners working for the Nazis.

“They were so hardened by then. They’d been in concentration camps for years and seen so much that they weren’t even like human beings anymore. Whatever beatings I had in the camp were always from a kapo.”

A gray pall hung over this killing zone. “I don’t think a blade of grass ever grew and I don’t think a bird ever flew in Auschwitz. It was the most devastating place. It was death and smoke and smell. When it rained, it was mud. It was unbelievable.

“A reason to live”
Kitty said she was still “in denial” even with the crematoriums going full blast, the flames licking the sky, the stench of human flesh permeating the air. “I didn’t want to face it. I could not believe it.” The kapos didn’t mince words when asked, “When will we see our parents?’ The cold answer: “They’re up in the smoke.”

Stripped, shaved, showered, disinfected, the inmates got mismatched rags as clothes, a metal pan as a pillow. The newly built barrack or lager she and Ica were assigned was within a half-block of a crematorium. The barrack was a windowless barn with a dirt floor. No partitions. Approaching it, she said, “we saw these shaven heads atop walking skeletons. They were inquiring where we were from and did we know so-and-so.” She passed another lager whose inmates “were even in worse shape. They were dark-skinned and there were entire families together.” The identities of these exotics puzzled Kitty until learning they were gypsies.

“The first night was my introduction to seeing somebody dying. Somebody next to me had a diabetic reaction and died.”

Death became numbingly routine. With no bunks, people were “half way on top of each other — a thousand of us in this one huge barrack. We were there a few days and new transports were coming from Hungary almost daily. The Germans were in a rush to kill us. They couldn’t do it fast enough.”

“August 2nd, 1944 we woke-up to this horrible noise, people begging for help. We went outside and saw smoke and flames from the crematorium chimney near us. Next to the crematorium was a ditch and from that direction there were screams and flames going up, the smell of human flesh burning. And that screaming, sometimes I wake up and it comes back to me. It just pierces to your soul.”

When Kitty learned her sister Magda was in camp she managed finding her in another barrack. Magda had been expecting while in the Debrecen ghetto and so Kitty anticipated meeting the newborn, but there was no baby. It died in the ghetto. Unburied. Magda was desolate and weak. Kitty became her caregiver. “I fought for her to get even a drip of water, anything, because she really didn’t have the strength. I moved over to her barrack. They kept track of us but not to the point where it made any difference because people were dying constantly.” Kitty begged Ica to come with her but declined. One day Kitty went to her old barrack to check on Ica and it was empty. The Germans had liquidated it.

Getting Magda back to a semblance of health gave Kitty “a reason to live. We were together.” In mid August the sisters were fortunate to be selected for forced labor. Before boarding the train the Germans made a second cut, eliminating the sick. When a guard noticed Magda’s lactating breasts she was pulled from the line.

“I was just devastated,” said Kitty. “I was sure she would never make it. Neither of us could run back to the other without getting shot. She ended up with a lot worse fate than I did, but she did make it. She died a year ago at 96.”

“We were just happy to get out”
A book written by a camp mate of Kitty’s reveals that male workers had been requested. Either due to lack of able-bodied men or a mix-up, said Kitty, “us girls” ended up in Allendorf, Germany. 1,000 of them. “We were just happy to get out,” she said. By war’s end, virtually all the women survived. Everything about Allendorf was an improvement over Auschwitz. Training in, the cattle cars were far less crowded. Kitty recalls her surprise looking out and seeing ordinary people going about their daily lives. “Life goes on on the outside? Not everybody is like us?”

The women’s quarters were in the woods, the barracks built for free workers and “so it was not unbearable,” said Kitty. The munitions factory was an hour’s walk. “The work was heavy, it wasn’t designed for females. My work was to chisel powder out of dud (undetonated) bombs, shells, grenades. Other people were filling them and putting them on the conveyor belt. The Germans were so desperate for war materials they were remixing, reusing explosives. It was a tremendous operation.”

The workers handled toxic chemicals without protection — no gloves, no masks. The poison made people sick. Hair turned purple. Skin assumed a yellow cast. Shifts lasted 12 hours. The factory operated around the clock. The workers were issued wooden shoes and coming back and forth from the factory to camp the women clopped, clopped on the town’s cobblestone streets.

Supervising were mostly civilian German overseers. Kitty described them as “more neutral” and “not really brutal.” The few guards were mostly women and, she said, they “were particularly cruel. They punished us for just petty things.” One German woman, however, did befriend Kitty and even though they couldn’t speak each other’s language a weakened Kitty was allowed respites from work at a forest hideaway. The German gave her extra food Kitty then shared with camp mates.

The prisoners heard snatches of news about the war’s progress: the Allies landing, the war going badly for Germany. “But we didn’t believe it,” said Kitty. By March ‘45 food was scarce for everyone. In late March the commandant gathered the camp’s entire contingent in a courtyard to announce he and his staff were leaving. The Americans were approaching. The war was over. “He told us, ‘You’re free to go, you’re on your own. Good luck,’” Kitty said. It was a shock. Some survivors followed the commander and his staff. Most hit the road in groups. Kitty was among a group of 20 women who’d shared a room and become like sisters.

“We decided to stick together. We went one direction. We had no idea really. We ate anything we could find — grass, vegetables in the fields, eggs in hen houses. We feared knocking on the doors of German houses. We were afraid of the reception we would get. Once in a while some of us, probably not me, was brave enough to knock. There was hostility from some, generosity from others.”

One day on the road someone in Kitty’s group spied a convoy of U.S. tanks. She took off her white slip, tied it to tree branch and flagged them down. It was April 1, 1945. Mor’s birthday. The G.I.s became the survivors’ liberators. “They showered us with candy and gum. I’d never had chewing gum. The Americans were almost childlike, so good, so unspoiled. They were like angels that dropped down from heaven,” Kitty recalled. She and the others were trucked to the nearest village, whose burgomeister was pressed into putting them up, the villagers ordered to wait on them hand and foot. G.I.s stood guard to prevent reprisals. After a few days the Army decided it wasn’t safe and relocated the women to Fritzlar, a former Luftwaffe air base. The women were offered housing, food, jobs, protection. They readily accepted. For two years Kitty lived and worked there, first as a mess hall waitress, then, having quickly picked up English, as a PBX operator. Affairs and romances between G.I.s and native girls were common. Kitty was not immune.





“My holocaust here”
In the post-war limbo of piecing together broken lives, everybody was searching for  loved ones in displaced persons camps. Communication and transportation were slow in a region reduced to rubble. Kitty had no desire to return to her hometown. Too painful. An old beau from Hungary who “never stopped looking” found Kitty. “He wanted me,” she said. Once reunited, the engaged couple set marriage plans. She even had a wedding dress made from sheets. But then she called it off. She’d met a WASP American flyer with whom she wanted to make a fresh start in the U.S. “I didn’t want to go back to the past. It was a mistake. I paid a really terrible price to come here. But that was my decision at the time.”

After an epic struggle to send for her, over the Army’s strenuous objections, she met him in New York and they caught a train for Iowa. “On the train he asked me not to ever mention I’m Jewish, not to talk about Auschwitz. He said, ‘My family would not accept you — no reason for you to repeat that. I want you to be treated like everybody else.’ And, you know, he made sense. But it’s very difficult to deny your heritage. For years, because of his family, nobody knew. I can’t say it was all his fault. It was two different worlds. We were worlds apart.”

His drinking further drove a wedge between them. They had three children together. After 12 years they separated. Kitty became a single working mom. She was a bank teller and later trained tellers. Her first-born, Mike, earned a college scholarship, but never used it. Nobody knew it but he was troubled. At 19 he committed suicide. “It was the ‘60s. No father, me working long hours. We were abandoned. I blame myself,” she said. “I expected him (Mike) to be the head of the household and concentrated on the other two kids and didn’t realize he was slipping away. That was my Holocaust here. That had a lot to do with the divorce.”

But life went on. Kitty’s surviving children, Mark and Pamela, earned scholarships to Yale and Grinnell, respectively. Kitty rose to vice president. She finally spoke about her Jewish heritage and survivor past. She met a good man in Bill, her husband of 32 years now. He’s embraced her past. “I’ve had a lot of bad things happen but the good outweighs the bad. Bill’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“I am so fortunate in so many ways. Now I’m sort of out of the closet.”
In 1990 Kitty was invited back to Allendorf for a reunion with her fellow camp mates. All expenses paid. She’d sworn never to step foot again in Germany. But this was something she hadn’t counted on — a reunion and reconciliation. She went with family. All told, 333 of the 1,000 women came. She renewed old friendships and made new ones. The Germans’ “kindness and sympathy and regret” struck her. “They rolled out the red carpet. It was like magical. They even had a kosher table and brought in rabbis from Frankfurt. They couldn’t do enough for us. It changed my outlook.” She also visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. She remade the trip in 2000. She returned again this summer with a grand-niece and granddaughter.

She treasures these visits. She’s glad she’s shared her story. The past still haunts her though. “My most vivid memory of Auschwitz is seeing the carts carrying the dead bodies. Whenever I can’t sleep it comes back to me — this image of people in striped uniforms pulling this wagon and throwing the bodies on it. The pile got so high the limbs were hanging out, and nobody knew who they were. We just went on existing. You get used to it, you’re callous, you just think about your own survival. Sometimes I feel like, Was there a life before Auschwitz?”

There was. More importantly, there’s been a life after. A reminder of change is a new museum dedicated to the 1,000 in Stadtallendorf, Germany. All their names inscribed there, Kitty’s included. “It’s a memory forever,” she said. “It’s pretty remarkable.” She especially likes that school kids tour the site. “That’s what’s most outstanding.”

Through it all, Kitty’s never lost her humanity. “I love people — the interaction.” Visit her and this doting Jewish mother will humble you with her warmth and hospitality. She’s amazed by the new life she made for herself in America after everything she knew was gone. Times got tough, sure, but help was always there. “I am so fortunate in so many ways.” She’s even glad her survivor identity is known. “Now I’m sort of out of the closet.”

Master of light, Mauro Fiore, Oscar-winning director of photography for “Avatar”

May 4, 2010 26 comments

When I discovered a couple years ago that world-class cinematographer Mauro Fiore was living quietly in Omaha I added him to my checklist of persons I must interview.  I didn’t do anything about contacting him until I found out he shot the live action sequences for Avatar, which of course blew up to become the highest earning film in history. That gave me a sense of urgency and soon enough I made arrangements to meet and interview him.

He has a great story, and I tried to do it justice in the following piece, which appeared in The Reader ( on the eve of the Oscars.  He won an Academy Award and in his acceptance speech gave a shout out to his adopted hometown of Omaha.


Master of light, Mauro Fiore, Oscar-winning director of photography for “Avatar”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in a 2010 issue of The Reader (


As if being director of photography for the highest grossing movie ($2.4 billion and counting) in history were not enough, Nebraska resident Mauro Fiore is Oscar-nominated for his work on Avatar. Since only a third of the 3D, largely computer-generated movie entails live action, he wasn’t expecting recognition.

“I don’t think in those terms anyway,” he said. “I just do my work.”

But fame is finding him anyway in the wake of the Avatar phenomenon. That’s making Fiore more than the Average Joe down the street who travels for his job. Now neighbors know his business is lighting and photographing mega Hollywood movies in far-flung locales.

He just wrapped The A-Team for Joe Carnahan in Vancouver, British Columbia. He spent months in New Zealand on Avatar, weeks in the United Arab Emirates for The Kingdom and extensive time in Hawaii for Tears of the Sun. He’s worked with filmmakers James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay. He’s lit and shot such stars as Sigourney Weaver, Jamie Foxx, Bruce Willis, Liam Neeson, Jessica Biel, Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke.

Busted. No more living under the radar for Fiore, who lives in Papillion with his wife Christine and their three young children. The couple will do the Hollywood thing at the Oscars, where they’ll be part of the Cameron-led Avatar contingent.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Fiore’s southern Italy hometown of Marzi, Calabria is abuzz over one of its own enjoying such success. His parents, who moved the family to Chicago when Mauro was 7, recently moved back there. His folks keep him updated on the celebration the village, situated in a picturesque valley, is planning in his honor. Mauro, who often visits Italy, finds all the fuss very sweet.

“The mayor’s going to give me the keys to the town. He’s in contact with the president of the republic,” said Fiore. “For them, it’s amazing. It’s such a small town and seeing my name on the screen means so much to them — that somebody came from their town and is now a household name. I think it’s more important to them than me, but I think it’s great they feel that connection, that pride.”

He recalls the first time he and his family returned to Marzi after emigrating to the States. The entire village turned out to greet them in the town square.

“It was really crazy. The same thing happened when we left. Whole households of people saying goodbye, bringing us gifts, giving us cheese, to bring back. So my view of Italy always represents this wonderful place to be from.”

His connection was strengthened on summer sojourns he and his sister, who now lives in Italy, made there as kids. They stayed with relatives but everyone in Marzi was extended family anyway.

“Pretty much we spent our adolescence there. It was really a great place to be during those tricky times of being a teenager. In a small town you have complete freedom. I have quite a romantic view of my time in Italy. For me it was sort of like this technicolor landscape.”

He’s retained the language.

Emigrating to America made sense as Mauro’s mason father, Lorenzo, had two brothers who preceded him here.

“My parents felt like this was the place they wanted to come to for opportunity, more for us than anything else. It was really important we got proper education. They packed up four suitcases and sold off all our furniture. It felt like a great adventure to me.”

Growing up in suburban Chicago Mauro worked at his dad’s imported marble and tile store. An interest in still photography led him to study film at Columbia College. An immersion in art “created this passion for film,” he said, “not even thinking it was a possibility for me to make a career out of it.”

“After I graduated I took one of those trips to Europe you take after college –some kind of vision quest I suppose. It was wonderful. I think that trip really created a point of view for realizing the freedom and the passion and the possibility to choose what you really want to do in life.”

He was set to rejoin his father’s business when opportunity called in the form of friend and former Columbia classmate, Janusz Kaminski, who’d been hired on a Roger Corman ‘B” movie in L.A. Fiore leapt at the chance.

“I moved out there with a backpack and I ended up staying.”

The two bachelors became roommates. It was 1988. Within a decade Kaminski was an Oscar-winning DP and Fiore a promising cinematographer to watch.

Their first paying gig found Kaminski as gaffer and Fiore as dolly grip on Not of This Earth, featuring Traci Lords in her first legit acting role.

“We were so excited to be there, to be anywhere, it was unbelievable,” said Fiore. “We never talked about hours, we never talked about anybody taking advantage of us, we were just on cloud nine.”

A string of low budget exploitation pics followed, with Fiore and Kaminski joined at the hip as crewmates. When Kaminski’s career broke big, Fiore was right there beside him.

“When Janusz became a director of photography on projects I was his gaffer.”

A Lifetime movie they did, Wildflower, was noticed by Steven Spielberg, which got the pair hired for the Spielberg TV pilot, Class of ’61. The pilot never sold but it led to the friends getting Schindler’s List (1993). Kaminski’s black and white photography earned an Oscar. Fiore was the gaffer on that “grim, brutal” Auschwitz winter shoot that also afforded “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

“A filmmaker like Spielberg is always great to watch, great to work with because he’s always on top of it, listening, observing. He’s just really an amazing filmmaker. It was an incredible opportunity.”

That film’s prestige led to new opportunities and finally to Fiore becoming a DP. He feels indebted to Kaminski.

“Along with Janusz’s career mine sort of followed along. As he moved up I started my own films as a cameraman. It was important for me to be a director of photography. I felt pretty strong about it and Janusz was really supportive. He would always recommend me, He’s been a really great friend and mentor. The confidence he showed to be able to stand up for yourself and make decisions on your own, to instinctually create lighting and really stick by it, really influenced me.”

For Kaminski’s directorial debut, Lost Souls (2000), he tapped Fiore. “That propelled me to another budget level of films and slowly by word of mouth I started building my career.”

Even before that things began moving for Fiore when Michael Bay brought him in as an extra camera operator on The Rock (1996). What was to be a couple weeks work turned into months of additional photography — inserts, pickups, second unit shots. The same thing happened on Bay’s Armageddon (1998).

A major career disappointment then led to a milestone. He was asked by Ridley Scott to lens Blackhawk Down. However, Fiore’s wife, Christine Vollmer, was pregnant with their first child and he didn’t dare risk being away in Morocco when she gave birth. “It was very difficult to not take a Ridley Scott film,” said Fiore. “But there’s things in life that are more important. I resigned myself to this career train taking a little longer.”

He and Christine, who’s from Nebraska, met on the indie pic Love from Ground Zero (1998) shot near Omaha. He was the DP. She was costumer designer.


[Right] with dir Antoine Fuqua – “Training Day”


After turning down Blackhawk Fiore interviewed for Antoine Fuqua’s L.A.-based Training Day. Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak was already on board. But Fuqua and Fiore were tight from working together on Get Carter (2000). Fuqua and Scott were sympathetic to Fiore’s plight and “a kind of exchange” was made, whereby Idziak did Blackhawk and Fiore Training Day. It proved to be Fiore’s breakthrough film.

He said he still considers it “my strongest work to this day. I feel very strongly about the photography in that film. I was really able to capture something there I wasn’t aware of at the time, just the sense of the life of the street and of that underworld cop scene and the color of those neighborhoods, some of the psychological moments in that film. It was a great experience.

“One of the great things about that film, it was a project where I could stop by the lab every day before work and look at the dailies. Everything was done photochemically, there was no digital process at all, so I was able to hold a real tight control over the film, and I don’t even know if that’s possible anymore because of digital intermediate.”

Fiore then shot two films that led to Avatar. The first was Fuqua’s Tears of the Sun. After shooting a BMW commercial for Joe Carnahan, the director offered him Mission Impossible III. The deal blew up when two weeks before the start of production in Berlin Carnahan quit over creative differences with Tom Cruise. Just having been attached to MI III though was enough for Fiore to land The Island (2005).

The look of those two films caught the eye of James Cameron, whom he said particularly “liked how I treated the jungle” in Tears (Hawaii standing in for Africa).  “It didn’t feel ever artificially lit, there was the tonality of all the different plants, people were lit with sky light and there was a mix of color on the faces. That was why he brought me in for an interview.”




By the time Fiore joined Avatar Cameron’s digital team had been prepping the project for years. The producer ran all their motion capture and 3D tests for Fiore, who wanted in on what he, Cameron and others clearly see as the future of filmmaking — motion capture, CG and perhaps 3D.

“We’ll still expose in film, but maybe eventually we’ll end up completely digital just because it’s easier for everybody to deal with all the information,” said Fiore. “It’s simply something I wanted to experiment with before it took over. It is inevitable and after working on one of the most technological films of this century I would say I’m pretty open to it. It’s here and we have to accept it.”

Avatar plunged Fiore down the rabbit hole. The new challenge excited him.

“Definitely,” he said. “I like the feeling of being completely overwhelmed on a project. That I’m going off and doing something I’ve never done before and know nothing about. It’s an interesting feeling. It’s almost like being lost when you’re traveling. The journey and finding your way is the most interesting part of that. But there’s things I can rely on of course with my lighting experience and spending all that time on sets observing things. Those things are invaluable and I think that’s the only thing you can bring to a director.”

It was one experiment after another with Avatar.

“We did various tests with the 3D camera with lights and tried to figure out what were the issues with the camera, how we were going to use it, and what would they have to modify to make it easier for me and my crew to use.”

Famous for his hands-on control, Cameron often operated the camera himself.

“Most of the time, yes,” Fiore confirmed. “Jim wants to be in there at all times. If he could do it all, he would.”

Cameron strived for a future thick with the residue of life.

“In the photography it was important we created an environment where you could feel life, atmosphere, grit, and that rougher texture of the cold steel. What was very important to Jim was to bring the two environments — of the Navi and the humans — together. The live action and the motion capture really had to meld together. If either stood aside as its own element it would be obvious. He wanted to make sure those two worlds were intertwined photographically and that you still felt they were in the same world. What we created in the live action was a platform for the motion capture, which hadn’t been rendered at that point.

“The use of a longer lens makes it feel like you’re looking through a microscope. It’s giving us Jake’s perspective, it’s told through his point of view. We didn’t use much crane or Steadicam. Most of the time we used hand-held.”

Being so immersed in the project meant Fiore couldn’t see the forest for the trees and therefore was unsure if the sum would be bigger than the parts.

“I didn’t really know from working on it if this was going to be the most amazing film anybody had ever seen or the biggest flop.”

When he finally saw the finished product he was rather in awe of what Cameron’s perfectionism and insistence wrought.

“It’s amazing to see the commitment to a vision, the imagination and the amount of discipline he put into that project every day. You can’t argue with it. It’s there in the film and it’s an amazing accomplishment. He’s really created another world there almost like Walt Disney. Yes, it’s predictable and, yes, we’ve seen these storylines before, but the experience of the film takes you away from all that. It’s tough to criticize. I mean, the entire planet is interested in this film. It’d be like criticizing the way Mickey Mouse is drawn — it’s history at this point.”

Mauro is forever part of that history now.

His next feature is Real Steel, a futuristic boxing drama in which human-like robots do battle. The Disney-Dreamworks project stars Hugh Jackman and shoots in Detroit. Fiore worries being typecast as an action cinematographer but is guided by how strongly he responds to a script. He said despite its set-up Real Steel tells “a really good, heartwarming story” about a father and son who bond through boxing.

If Fiore should win the Oscar his undercover life in Omaha will be over. But aside from travels for films and occasional TV commercials, he’s settled in Omaha. He’s even shot a spot for the Omaha Film Festival, where he’s been a panelist.

He finds it “pretty unbelievable” that he, Oscar-winning editor Mike Hill and Oscar-winning screenwriter Alexander Payne “all find ourselves here.” He said hopefuls should glean from that that film careers are “completely attainable” wherever one resides.

“Every day I’m not directing, I feel like I die a little,” – Alexander Payne: after a period largely producing-writing other people’s projects, the filmmaker sets his sights on his next feature

Film director thinking over the next scene - 2...

Image by greekadman via Flickr

“Every day I’m not directing, I feel like I die a little” – Alexander Payne:

After a period largely producing-writing other people’s projects, the filmmaker sets his sights on his next feature

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in a 2006 issue of The Reader (


Appearing calmer than he did in 2005, when still in the exhausting grip of Sideways mania and the fallout of his divorce from Sandra Oh, a relaxed Alexander Payne was back in Omaha the past couple weeks, eager to resume work. For those curious about what’s he been up to since Sideways, he answers, “I got busy.” It’s why he’s been out of touch so long. “It’s not just a line, I’ve been busy,” he reiterates. True enough, but aside from a short film project he did in Paris he’s largely been embroiled in work not his own. And that drives him crazy.

He’s helped produce two feature films out this year. The Savages stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney. The King of California stars Michael Douglas and Evan Rachel Wood. Payne’s a close friend of the filmmakers. He’s an executive producer on Savages, written-directed by Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills), the wife of Payne’s writing partner Jim Taylor. He’s a full producer on King, whose writer-director Michael Cahill was a film school buddy of Payne’s at UCLA.

Payne’s been collaborating on the script of Taylor’s first directing job, The Lost Cause. The pair also did a rewrite on I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry before Adam Sandler signed on opposite Kevin James and “brought in his own people” to, as Payne put it, “Sandlerize it and, quite frankly, dumb it up.”

The real news is the Omaha native has finally fixed on what his next film will be and it turns out it’ll bring him back home, perhaps by the fall of 2008. He won’t say much else other than he and Taylor are well along on the script, a first draft of which they hope to complete this year. The idea for it is one he’s kicked around a while but it was only last year he “began to think of it in a new way” that made it click. In the past he’s referred to the concept as a vehicle for expressing his dismay and disgust with American attitudes and policies. He won’t go as far to call it politically charged, but he gives the impression it will be a pointed satire.

“All I know is I hope it will be funny,” he said in what’s become his stock answer to queries about his works in progress. “The only thing I’ll tell you is what’s new about it for Jim and me is it has a little bit of a science fiction premise, which functions more as a metaphor than a…anyway, that’s all,” he said, catching himself in mid-teaser lest he reveal too much of the still fragile script.

Also new is that “Omaha figures a lot in this one,” he said. “As we have it currently configured about a third of the film would shoot here, but it’s a much longer film than any I’ve made before, so even a third of the film is a good hunk.” He would never consider covering Omaha somewhere else. “I believe in place,” he said.

Payne’s growing place in the industry, which avidly awaits his next film, was made tangible a couple years ago when he, Taylor and producer Jim Burke formed the production-development company Ad Hominem. In the process they struck a first-look deal with Fox Searchlight Pictures that gives the studio first dibs on any projects the filmmakers develop. A producer on ElectionBurke was brought in to manage the Santa Monica-officed Hominem’s small staff. Taylor also has a support person in New York, where he lives. Fox Searchlight did such a good job handling Sideways that Payne inked the studio pact, a move he’d avoided doing until now.

“We’d been talking about it for a while,” Payne said, “but it wasn’t until after Sideways we decided to take the possibility more seriously. Actually, Jim (Taylor) is the one who kind of spearheaded it. I’ve never wanted to have one of these deals before because you never know whom you’re dealing with exactly and I’ve never had as harmonious a filmmaking experience as I had with Sideways and Fox Searchlight. We’d be happy to make another movie with them. They were great. Jim really thought it (the deal) would be a good idea and he was right.

“A first look deal is where a studio just kind of pays for some overhead and you have people working for you in an office and in exchange they (Fox) get first right of negotiation…first crack at anything we do. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to make it, but they get a short window of time in which to decide if they want to do it and, if not, it’s in effect a free ball. And it just kind of formalizes good will and relationship between filmmakers and studio. Besides..the company allows Jim and me to have extra eyes and ears out there reading books or accepting scripts, taking phone calls. Otherwise, we’re doing it all ourselves and not getting our work done. It’s just sort of there to facilitate us.”

Hominem serves another purpose, one taking more and more of Payne’s time, namely to help nudge friends’ projects from limbo to realization. He said the company gives he and Taylor a framework to “on a very selective basis help, enable or foster…those films getting made. And we’ve done one so far, Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages…She was having a very hard time getting that film off the ground, even with the wonderful cast of Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman. So, finally our agreeing to come on as executive producers helped it reach the tipping point to getting it made.”

He said the resulting film, shot mainly in New York and a bit in Sun City, Az.,  is “ultimately funny and sad and real. Great performances. They’re very human.”

Sporting a Hydra-head of overflowing locks, Payne broke his long silence to sit down for an exclusive interview with The Reader at M’s Pub in the Old Market. It felt like catching up with someone returned from an odyssey. That’s how removed he’s been from the media these past several months. It’s not that he disappeared in the wake of Sideways, the little picture that blew up bigger than anyone expected and deservedly won Payne and Taylor Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay. But after the barrage of press junkets, film festivals, awards shows and requests came at him faster and heavier than for any of his earlier films, he did retreat inward, largely avoiding any public life.

Two summers ago he spoke of “trying to get away from letting myself be trapped by the demands of others on my time.” This time, he said, “I’m trying to be a private citizen.” He’s managed to avoid the tabloids but he’s had mixed success with the bit about getting back to work.


Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.



Tamara Jenkins



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Alexander Payne’s post-“Sideways” blues


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Alexander Payne‘s post-“Sideways” blues

In the Wake of  His Oscar-win the Filmmaker Draws Inward to Reflect on the New Status He Owns and What It May Mean

©by Leo Adam Biga

Excerpt from story published in a 2005 issue of The Reader (


Alexander Payne’s Oscar win for Sideways officially anointed him a member of American film royalty. His ascendancy to Hollywood’s ruling class, no matter how short-lived it proves, increased the already intense courting of him that began when the picture morphed from nice little adult comedy to big fat hit. With his coronation complete, everybody wants a piece of him, all of which makes the reflective Payne deliberate ever more carefully about his next move.

On a recent Omaha visit, the filmmaker looked tired describing the deluge of requests, deals, offers and scripts he gets these days. This followed an exhausting awards and festival season that saw him do extensive media. He presided over the A Certain Regard jury at Cannes. As the breakup of his marriage to actress Sandra Oh goes through the courts, he’s in the process of moving. With so much in the offing and at stake, grabbing at just anything would be a mistake.

After all, when the world is offered up on a silver platter, you don’t bite off more than you can chew. As Payne recently put it, “You eat too much birthday cake and you get sick.” With “a whole new level of having to deal with stuff coming at me,” he said, he’s taking a step back to “catch my breath” and to go into “life maintenance” mode before “getting back to work.”

“I’m just surrendering for about four more months. I’m really not doing anything for a feature film, other than thinking and reading some scripts that come in,” he said. “I’m getting a knee operation. I’m moving from one house to another. Dealing with the divorce. I’ve a little more travel to do. After I do this life stuff then I’ll start to think about what my next film is, because once you start a feature film you’re scuba diving under water for two years. The rest of your life goes away, which I prefer. I prefer to be scuba diving.”

He almost forgot to mention an international project he’s part of called Paris, I Love You. This anthology or omnibus film will interweave 20 commissioned shorts, each a rumination on Parisian culture, by some of world cinema’s leading artists, including Payne, into a feature-length tribute to the City of Light. He’ll shoot his five-minute segment there, specifically in the 14th Arrondisement, in September.

“From where I am in my life right now, the idea of making a short film in a distant city sounded appealing,” he said. “And part of the reason is precisely that I don’t know Paris well at all.”

Paris sojourn aside, he’s retreating for the moment to let things die down and sink in before taking the plunge again.

The eminence attending Oscar has vaulted Payne into rarefied company. It began as soon as he accepted his statuette. “People wanted to hold it. It was a little like handing over the ring in Lord of the Rings. Then, other people didn’t want to touch it thinking it would jinx their own chances of winning one day,” he said, “It’s too early to tell whether it has changed my own perception of my worth.” He expressed mixed feelings about what it all confers.

“On the one hand, I think, Oh, I guess I’m a ‘made guy’ now. On the other hand, I think, Oh, I’ve won an Oscar, mainstream seal of approval. What did I do wrong?”

The real question is where does he go from here and how does he remain true to himself amid all the swirl?

This is not entirely new territory for the writer-director. Even with only four features to his credit, he’s enjoyed an exulted position for some time now. He was a previous Academy Award nominee for Election. His About Schmidt was selected for the main competition at Cannes, closed the 2002 New York Film Festival and received several Oscar nominations in addition to grossing more than $100 million. Moreover, Schmidt proved to Hollywood insiders that Payne could shepherd a successful vehicle with a major star — Jack Nicholson — thereby making the filmmaker more packagable. As Payne said, “Anymore, I view success as a commodity to help get the next film made.”

Often overlooked in his rise up the industry ladder is the “sell-out” work he and writing collaborator Jim Taylor, the co-Oscar-winning scenarist of Sideways, do as script doctors. They did rewrites for mega-hits Meet the Parents and Jurassic Park III. They just finished their latest job-for-hire on Universal’s I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, a comedy about a pair of Phillie firefighters who feign being a gay couple, all the way to the altar, to qualify for job health benefits unavailable to single straight men. “We want to rename it Flamers,” Payne said, smiling.

Then there’s what he calls the Sideways “tsunami.” Even though he went through the gauntlet on Schmidt, he was taken aback when Sideways hit. Its success, and all the attention it brought, he said, has been “the most disorienting” experience of his career. Before its general release, he perceived the project as “a nice little movie.” He politely turned down a request from the Cannes Film Festival to submit the pic for competition, explaining to officials, “I don’t think it’s big enough.’” His view was reinforced when it was “turned down for competition” in Venice. So, when the buzz ignited, he was naturally surprised.

“I was caught off guard for the amount of stuff coming at me. I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but it’s put me in a highly reactive rather than active mode. Like, much more of my time is spent answering inquiries about using me than doing my work. It’s meant a lot of travel. My number of e-mails has increased vastly. Also the number of requests I get to read scripts and to do things for charity.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s been great. I’m grateful. I have interesting access to people nowadays. But nothing in life is clean cut. It’s all a mixed bag. Like all these people asking, ‘Will you read my script?’ I don’t even have time to go to the gym. If I say no to being on a charity’s board of directors, does it mean I’m an asshole? When Jim and I started we never hit anybody up for anything. It’s like, not cool.”

An example of the heat surrounding him, even pre-Oscar, came at a University of Nebraska at Omaha symposium he gave in December, when an overflow crowd of students, aspirants and acolytes energized the Eppley Auditorium, charging the air with adulation and fascination. Sure, that was on his home turf, but cut to a scene six months later at the prestigious Walker Art Center in Minneapolis for a June 3 program kicking off a week-long retrospective of his work. Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio film critic Kenneth Turan interviewed Payne on stage of the Walker cinema before a full crowd every bit as juiced as the one in Omaha. Yes, Payne’s a hot ticket wherever he goes these days.

As his fame grows Payne finds some see him differently. “They see me in a new context. Not everybody. Not close friends. That doesn’t change. But sometimes, I experience the perception of others change more than I change. I’m like, ‘Are you sure it’s me? I mean, I didn’t return your phone calls before.’”


Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.

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