Theofanis Orfanos knew that if he was going to survive, he had to escape. While German Nazis were relocating prisoners in the Geislingen an der Steige forced-labor camp, he hid in an outhouse. There, he sat, waiting for the chatter of SS officers outside to subside. When it did, he made his move.
Orfanos ran until he reached the Neckar River in southern Germany. He jumped into the freezing waters, swam across, and continued running until he was stopped by two armed soldiers, who, he feared, were Nazis.
Once they stopped Orfanos, he realized they were French. They took him to a nearby police station, and told him where to seek shelter and food. After being captured at 15 in his hometown of Athens, Greece and surviving 18 months of Nazi captivity, Orfanos was finally safe.
Orfanos is now 92. His journey through captivity, escape, and readjustment after the Holocaust has been chronicled by Emilio Guido, a communications and media studies student at Northeastern, in the newly released documentary, Laugh Now: A Perspective on Life, Liberty & the Holocaust.
“I tried to paint how thin the line was for him, like how close he balanced that line of life and death,” Guido says as he recalled Orfanos’ nephew pointing out all of the family members who wouldn’t be alive if Orfanos had not survived. “There were so many times where if something else happened, he could be dead.”
The Nazis invaded Greece in 1941. During their occupation of Athens, Orfanos helped resistance groups by delivering guns, messages, and other materials they needed. When Orfanos left his home on a brisk morning to look for bread, Nazis stopped him, and took him to a town circle where 300 others sat.
A Jeep arrived. Nazi informants stepped out. They walked around the prisoners and pointed out who had been helping the resistance groups. 32 people were executed.
Orfanos was pointed out, too, but it was because he was donning a bright red and blue soccer jersey. They called him a Communist. Orfanos explained that he was a fan of the local soccer club, which surprised one of the informants. He was spared, and Orfanos says he has no idea why. They took him away, and transported him north, from camp to camp, until he arrived to Geislingen an der Steige.
According to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, the term Holocaust is defined as “the murder of the Jews in Europe by the Nazis.” The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum extends its definition of the Holocaust to “any persons, Jewish or non-Jewish, who was displaced, persecuted, or discriminated against due to the racial, religious, ethnic, social, and political policies of the Nazis.”
Guido, in his making of the documentary, followed the latter definition.
“I chose to use the word ‘Holocaust’ because that’s what Theo experienced,” Guido says. “Everything that the word connotes, he endured and overcame.”
The documentary pairs Orfanos’ vivid account with archival footage of World War II, as well as various reenactment scenes shot by Guido. After spending the past nine months interviewing, filming, and producing the documentary, he says what stood out about Orfanos was his upbeat spirit, and most of all, his laughter.
“There’s no hatred in Theo’s heart toward any other human beings over the things that he’s experienced,” Guido says. “The title of the documentary is Laugh Now because Theo himself is laughing many times when he’s telling all of his stories.”
Two months after his encounter with the French soldiers, Orfanos returned to Greece, where his family didn’t recognize him at first. More than a decade later, he left for the United States in search of new opportunities.
He shined shoes for a stint in New York City before moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts. He bought a shoe repair shop in downtown Boston, where he worked for several years, in addition to picking up several other odd jobs around the city.
Eventually, he moved his entire family from Greece to the U.S. Now, Orfanos spends most of his retired life at his Arlington home.
With such an ending, Guido says the documentary is not just a story of surviving the Holocaust; it’s also a story about the American Dream.
“It’s important to tell these stories so that we can understand the world before us and remember that humans have overcome such strife,” Guido says. “Theo’s story is just that. However, this is not just a reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust, but also a source of inspiration.”