Editor’s Note: In the coronavirus crisis, we know that certain population groups are at particular risk. New York’s elderly population need extra special care. Their stories should also be celebrated. Greenwich Village resident Monika Hankova reached out to us with this story, a documentary project she has been working on about an almost 100-year-old New Yorker and Holocaust survivor. He passed away last year but his story lives on through Monica’s documentation.
“The Man with a Beautiful Smile” is my very personal project. I’m a documentary historian, researcher and photographer and for almost four years I’ve been documenting a life George Sachs, a nearly 100-year-old New Yorker. The aim of this documentary-in-progress is to provide a micro-historical insight into not only the everyday life of this man in the 21st century, but also his dramatic personal trek through the 20th century.
George Sachs and his brother on the Baltic Sea in 1923. Photo courtesy Monika Hankova.
This unique and winding journey began in Prague, in what was then Czechoslovakia, continuing through Theresienstadt concentration camp and forced labor camps, before reaching the final destination – New York City. It is the story of an emigrant from the heart of Europe, a man who lost his whole family during the Holocaust and fled his homeland with his beloved wife when totalitarian Communist regime took over in Czechoslovakia in 1948.
George Sachs in Prague in 1941. Photo courtesy Monika Hankova.
The documentary offers an intimate look at the everyday reality of a senior’s life in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the reflections of an elderly but exceptionally vital man, who comments on the world with a great portion of human kindness, graciousness and wisdom, as well as his own special humor. What was his personal journey like – what were his hopes, desires and expectations? How did his identity evolve, along with his religious and political beliefs, and how did he rate the contemporary political scene and the direction the world is heading in general? After all, it is also the story of a Jewish immigrant in the Trump era – one who is sure that today’s America isn’t the America where he arrived in 1949 and realized his “American Dream”.
George in New York City in 1950. Photo courtesy Monika Hankova.
What role has New York itself played in his journey through life, a city where a major part of the population is made up of immigrants from all over the world, the city where he started a new life and a family? This “quintessential New York story” is about personal history, memories, growing old and an ordinary, though full and inspiring life. It encourages one to think about the values prevalent in the world today, but most of all it is an uncommonly inspirational and heartening tale.
George Sachs in Zabar’s in 2016. Photo courtesy Monika Hankova.
This is accompanied by an intimate set of photographs capturing the ordinary details of daily life in his Manhattan apartment located just across Central Park, and, last but not least, historical footage from his big personal archive built up over a lifetime of shooting short films and taking photographs. The pictures I have taken feature everyday life of an elderly man struggling with disabilities which come with an advanced age. Yet, this man is disrupting commonly-held expectations of what this society thinks of elderly people. It’s a different look at growing old in this challenging city. It can make everyone a little bit more human, especially in these days. And, this is actually the aim of my project: to change people’s lives with example of his life and attitude.