Behind an Alum's Award-Winning Documentary


Heather Dune Macadam (US’78) recently won the Human Rights Award for her documentary 999: The Forgotten Girls. Chronicling the first Jewish transport to Auschwitz consisting of 999 young women and girls, the film is currently featured in various film festivals and won Best Documentary at the Miami Jewish Film Festival.

Macadam spoke with the Purpose about this groundbreaking work.

Heather Dune Macadam-Saban

How did you find this story?

I found the story through Rena Kornreich Gelissen, the subject of my very first book, Rena’s Promise, A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz. I went to Slovakia in 2012. Rena had just passed away and it was the 70th anniversary of the first transport. So I decided to make the journey following the first transport to Auschwitz.

While in Slovakia, I learned of another survivor, Edith Grossman. She was married to a famous screenwriter and novelist named Ladislav Grossman—he won the 1966 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Edith went to Auschwitz with all of her classmates and friends—200 young women from her hometown—on that first transport. Her testimony is the backbone, the impetus, for the film and the book.


What was the research process like, and what has the reception been?

There were interviews, archives, texts, and boots on the ground—going to the places that I was writing about. That meant going into literary archives and visual archives all over the world: Germany, Russia, Slovakia, Israel, England, United States, France. You name it, I was there.

And then, I interviewed survivors all over the world—in Australia, New York, Israel, Slovakia, Canada. The survivors emigrated all over the world, so it really does touch just about every country. It has a very wide-reaching audience. As Edith says to us in the book, “War serves no one. Everybody loses in war.”

We just had this Beverly Hills screening, and there were a lot of young women in the audience. The young women really responded to it. At the end of the film, there were three young Ukrainian refugees waiting for me, in tears, to hug me and thank me for making a film about young women surviving war. That meant the world to me.

What is your biggest takeaway from researching and telling this story?

The biggest takeaway from the story of 999 and my new book Star Crossed is sisterhood and the power of young women to support each other and help each other through impossible circumstances.

In Star Crossed, these young women are so amazing. They create classes in Parisian prisons for learning languages, for dance, for exercise, anything to keep their minds active and alleviate boredom and depression. And I found that so fascinating—the importance of community, connection, and inspiration.

To me, that's the most important thing today, especially when we face a world where there is a rise of fascism. I believe that fascism comes out of an inability to question what we call in Christian Science the mesmerism or animal magnetism that comes from following the masses. And the only way we avoid following the masses is to question, to think, and to see with clear vision.

How did Principia prepare you for your diverse and creative career?

I went to four high schools, and Principia was the last one. The first thing that happened at Principia was I discovered I was intelligent! That was due in large part to the fact that the Principia teachers treated me differently than my other teachers had. They treated me with respect, like I had something to say. Jack Eyerly and Mary Kessler (US'45, C'49) were two of my favorites. My biology teacher Ted Munnecke (C'57) taught me a great deal about research. And then of course, Sandy (Orr) Charles (US'55, C'59) was my dance teacher.

I think they saw in me a creative spark, somebody who liked a challenge. When Mrs. Charles suggested I choreograph a dance for the talent show, I loved it! I knew I wanted to express myself artistically and dance became that channel. It really helped me hone my energy and my artistic focus.

Jack Eyerly taught me to think analytically—how to question everything, not accept my perceptions as being the be-all and end-all, but to accept possibility and be open to it.

I remember him saying that he had seven stations on his car radio, all tuned to a different kind of music. He felt it was important to listen to all kinds of music—to be exposed to things you wouldn’t normally listen to. He introduced me to Billie Holiday, which was life changing. I'll never forget listening to Strange Fruit in the Principia library with my headphones on just in tears. I was so blown away by her voice and her lyrics and the power of her artistry.

I was constantly pushing the envelope, asking questions in class, and he allowed that. He had us analyze what our motivations were and he pointed out that my definition of fun was being challenged. So if something's hard, I really enjoy it. That it's still true. I would rather not watch, I would rather be challenged!