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Not Just Talking Heads: Yiddish and Jewish Eastern Europe in Recent Documentary Films

Sandra Chiritescu

INTRODUCTION

Films and tele­vi­sion pro­grams fea­tur­ing Yid­dish — such as Menashe, Unortho­dox, Shtisel, Son of Saul, The Vig­il and many oth­ers — gar­ner pro­lif­ic media respons­es, rang­ing from incred­u­lous stereo­typ­ing to informed cri­tique. But doc­u­men­tary films in Yid­dish or about Yid­dish (and Yid­dish-adja­cent) top­ics often have a hard­er time reach­ing main­stream audi­ences. This is, of course, at least in part due to audi­ence pref­er­ences for fic­tion and dra­ma, but these doc­u­men­taries are also often not avail­able on com­mon stream­ing plat­forms. More­over, many of the most pop­u­lar films and shows fea­ture sto­ry­lines about Hasidim and ex-Hasidim — OTD nar­ra­tives,” a top­ic of peren­ni­al inter­est for out­siders look­ing to catch a glimpse of what they gen­er­al­ly per­ceive as an exot­ic” com­mu­ni­ty — while doc­u­men­taries more often avoid this nar­ra­tive view­point and its many poten­tial pit­falls.

The doc­u­men­taries select­ed for this exten­sive, though not com­pre­hen­sive, list were all pro­duced since 2015 (by a heart­en­ing num­ber of women direc­tors!) and skew towards his­tor­i­cal and bio­graph­i­cal themes. While many of them either cen­ter or dis­cuss the Holo­caust, they are by no means only about the destruc­tion of Jew­ish life in East­ern Europe. They also fea­ture dis­cus­sion of pre-Holo­caust life, high­light modes of Jew­ish resis­tance, and ges­ture towards the mul­ti­fac­eted after­lives of Yid­dish. The mul­ti­lin­gual and inter­na­tion­al scope of this list is a tes­ta­ment to the con­tem­po­rary vibran­cy of Yid­dish cul­ture across the globe. Avail­abil­i­ty of these films at fes­ti­vals and on stream­ing plat­forms will vary by coun­try and con­tin­ue to evolve as they are dis­trib­uted and licensed. In geveb would wel­come addi­tion­al bib­li­o­graph­ic work on Yid­dish doc­u­men­taries from ear­li­er years and would love to hear more about how you use doc­u­men­taries in the class­room or in your com­mu­ni­ties. What fol­lows are short sum­maries of each film; we would also wel­come reviews or oth­er pieces that engage more sub­stan­tial­ly with any of them.

Chava Rosenfarb: That Bubble of Being (USA, 2015, dir. Josh Waletzky) and Yonia Fain: With Pen and Paintbrush (USA, 2018, dir. Josh Waletzky)

      The League for Yiddish has produced a series of documentary interviews with Yiddish writers and artists in Yiddish with English subtitles. The two newest releases of this series feature Chava Rosenfarb and Yonia Fain. 


      In Chava Rosenfarb: That Bubble of Being, the noted Canadian Yiddish writer discusses her life in Lodz, Poland before the Holocaust, her years in the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen, and her career as a Yiddish writer in Montreal. In interviews with Anna Fishman Gonshor filmed shortly before Rosenfarb’s passing, she discusses writing in general and Holocaust writing, life and love, and the post-Holocaust Yiddish literary milieu in Canada. Rosenfarb is also featured reading several of her poems.

      In Yonia Fain: With Pen and Paintbrush, Sheva Zucker interviews the artist and writer. Fain discusses all periods of his long life. As he himself put it, he lived with history, with the great hopes and disappointments of his times. His journey took him to many places: Kamenets-Podolsk, his birthplace, where he was a young boy during the civil war; Vilna, with its artists, poets, Bundists, and political demonstrations; Shanghai, which provided shelter during the Holocaust; Mexico City, with its Yiddish schools whose students still remember him; and finally, New York, where he was deeply involved in Jewish cultural life. The film also features Fain’s visual artwork.

      La brigade des papiers (Belgium/France, 2017, dir. Diane Perelsztejn)

        This hour-long documentary tells the story of the so-called Paper Brigade, a group of 40 poets, writers, and intellectuals from the Vilna ghetto who risked their lives to save Jewish books and archival materials from being destroyed or shipped to Nazi Germany. The film also follows the afterlife of these saved books and documents in the YIVO archives today. This documentary complements David Fishman’s recent book The Book Smugglers on the history of the Paper Brigade.

        Dibbukim (France, 2017, dir. David Waldman)

          This 30-minute film centers on director David Waldman’s discovery of a Yiddish restaurant in the heart of Paris and the questions of absence and hiddenness this discovery raises for him. Waldman grapples with the lack of a language that he does not know but feels a connection to. The film suggests that even in contemporary Paris, dibbukim still carry forward the inheritance of lost words.

                  I Must Tell (Russia/Lithuania, 2017, dir. Sergei Kudryashov)

                    Marija Rolnikaitė (known as Masha) documented life inside the Vilna ghetto as it was happening; she was one of only a few children and adolescents to do so in a diary. This documentary is based on an eight-hour interview with Rolnikaitė about her experiences during the Holocaust. The film combines footage of the interview with background information on Holocaust history, archival footage, photographs, poetry, paintings, and music.

                    Impuros/The Impure (Argentina, 2017, dir. Daniel Najenson)

                    This documentary film brings to life a less-celebrated chapter of Argentinian-Jewish history of the early 20th century. The Jewish community of Buenos Aires referred to the network of Jewish brothel owners and pimps, operating under the name Zvi migdal, as “the impure” (tmeim). The documentary tells the story of Jewish women from Eastern Europe who worked as prostitutes in Buenos Aires and were labeled “impure” and buried outside the Jewish cemetery. The film pairs this narrative with the story of a contemporary former prostitute in Buenos Aires engaged in activism to improve sex workers’ circumstances.

                    Black Honey (Israel, 2018, dir. Uri Barbash)

                      During his lifetime, Abraham Sutzkever refused to be featured in a documentary. Close to a decade after his passing, Black Honey tells the story of one of the greatest Yiddish poets of modern times. Sutzkever led the Paper Brigade underground movement that saved Jewish manuscripts from the Nazis in the Vilna ghetto, was airlifted out of the forest by the Soviets to escape the Nazis, testified in the Nuremberg Trials, and immigrated to Israel in 1947. In Israel, Sutzkever continued to champion Yiddish culture, publishing prolifically and editing the important literary journal Di goldene keyt. This documentary is part of a series dedicated to Jewish writers.

                      Who Will Write our History? (USA, 2018, dir. Roberta Grossman)

                        This award-winning documentary tells the story of Emanuel Ringelblum and the Oyneg Shabes Archive. Ringelblum sought to document the history of Polish Jewry and life in the ghetto, an effort for which he enlisted a sizable group of writers, journalists and volunteers working in secret. With 30,000 pages of writing, photographs, posters, and more, the Oyneg Shabes Archive is the most important cache of in-the-moment, eyewitness accounts from the Holocaust. It documents not only how the Jews of the ghetto died, but how they lived. The film is based on the book of the same name by historian Samuel Kassow and features both interviews with scholars and reenactments of Ringelblum’s life in the ghetto.

                        Beyle: Artist and her Legacy (USA, 2019, dir. Christa Whitney and Liz Walber) and Ver vet blaybn? Who Will Remain? (USA, 2020, dir. Christa Whitney and Emily Felder)

                            The first two in what promises to be an ongoing series of documentaries produced by the Yiddish Book Center, these films feature the poet and artist Beyle Schaechter Gottesman and the poet Avrom Sutzkever.

                            Schaechter-Gottesman was born in 1920 and raised in Czernowitz by her father, a proud Yiddishist, and her mother, a well-known folksinger. After surviving the Holocaust in Europe, she raised her children in Yiddish in a small community in New York City known as Bainbridgivke. She began writing to provide material in Yiddish for her children’s study and play. Schaechter-Gottesman, who was recognized as a Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts, had a lasting impact on many Jewish artists and scholars; her poems and songs are part of the fabric of postwar Yiddish culture worldwide. Many members of her family continue speaking, writing, and working in Yiddish to this day.The film features exclusive interviews with Beyle, her son, and her granddaughter as well as with scholars of Yiddish culture.

                            Avrom Sutzkever (1913–2010) was an acclaimed Yiddish poet—described by the New York Times as the “greatest poet of the Holocaust”—whose verse drew on his youth in Siberia and Vilna, his spiritual and material resistance during World War II, and his post-war life in the State of Israel. Attempting to better understand her grandfather, Israeli actress Hadas Kalderon travels to Lithuania, using her grandfather’s diary to trace his early life in Vilna and his survival of the Holocaust. Kalderon, whose native language is Hebrew, must rely on translations of her grandfather’s work, but she is nevertheless determined to connect with what remains of the poet’s bygone world and confront the personal responsibility of preserving her grandfather’s literary legacy. Woven into the documentary are family home videos, newly recorded interviews, and archival recordings, including Sutzkever’s testimony at the Nuremberg Trials. Recitation of his poetry and personal reflections on resisting Nazi forces as a partisan fighter reveal how Sutzkever tried to make sense of the Holocaust and its aftermath. As Kalderon strives to reconstruct the stories told by her grandfather, the film examines the limits of language, geography, and time.

                            Vie et Destin du Livre noir - La Destruction des Juifs d’URSS (France, 2019, dir. Guillaume Ribot)

                                In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the well-known writers and war journalists Ilya Ehrenburg and Vassily Grossman, together with a number of other Russian writers, documented the destruction of Jewish life in the Soviet territories in the so-called Black Book. However, the manuscript was not published until decades later, and its contributing authors were persecuted, assassinated, or muzzled by Stalinist authorities as part of a political repression of Holocaust memory. The manuscript of the Black Book was found only after the dissolution of the USSR and subsequently published by Ilya Ehrenburg’s daughter. This documentary by Guillaume Ribot and Antoine Germa traces the history of this book and its authors through a combination of archival footage and voice-overs from fiction and non-fiction texts by the protagonists. The film also features substantial discussion and footage of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.

                                          Four Winters: A Story of Jewish Partisan Resistance and Bravery in WW2 (USA, 2020, dir. Julia Mintz)

                                            This documentary tells the stories of the Jewish partisans who took up arms against Hitler’s war machine. Despite extraordinary odds, over 25,000 Jews fought the Nazis and their collaborators from hiding places in the forests of Eastern Europe. These determined men and women, many barely in their teens, engaged in acts of sabotage, blowing up trains, burning electric stations, and attacking armed enemy headquarters. The last surviving partisans tell their stories to director Julia Mintz, who shines a spotlight on their bravery through interviews, archival footage, and historic war records.

                                            Oylem (France, 2020, dir. Arthur Borgnis)

                                              In the limbo of Yiddishland, two men share fragments of their lives. Mendele grew up at the end of the 19th century in a shtetl. Respect for religious rules, Torah study, and feasts punctuated his daily life until he discovered socialist ideas, in which he perceived a new, more modern form of messianism. Young Yitskhok lived in the Vilna ghetto. He overcame his fears and doubts, refusing to consider himself a victim. Oylem is a kind of “ghost story for grown-ups,” as the Yiddish narrative of Mendele and Yitskhok takes us on the trail through this world. This documentary features Yiddish narration overlaid on footage of landscapes in Eastern Europe. To watch a discussion with the director, click here.

                                              Shtetlers (USA, 2020, dir. Katya Ustinova)

                                                The documentary Shtetlers tells the story of shtetlekh in the former Soviet Union. Only a few survived the Holocaust, all located in what is today Ukraine and Moldova. In those small and remote towns of the Soviet interior, older Jewish traditions continued for decades in the second half of the twentieth century. These tight-knit communities supported themselves by providing goods and services to their non-Jewish neighbors. Jewish religion, Yiddish language and folklore, ritualized cooking, and elaborate craftsmanship were practiced, treasured, and passed on through the generations until very recently. The film follows nine very different people, now scattered around the world, who once belonged to the Jewish and non-Jewish parts of these shtetl communities. To watch an interview with the director, click here.

                                                The Young Kadyas (Germany, 2020, dirs. Yvonne Andrä and Eyal Davidovitch)

                                                  In this documentary, 25 girls from Israel and Germany set out on a summer’s journey to learn and sing Yiddish songs based on the poetry of Kadya Molodowsky and set to music by Alan Bern. As they learn their new repertoire, the teenagers also have to learn to grow together and find unity between their two distinct choirs. The documentary suggests that despite their differences in religion, culture, and language, their shared love of singing gives hope for a new, peaceful, and better world. To watch a discussion with musician Alan Bern about the film, click here.

                                                  Yiddish (France, 2020, dir. Nurith Aviv)

                                                    This hour-long documentary shot in French, English, Hebrew, and Yiddish and filmed in France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, and Poland draws a picture of the contemporary landscape of Yiddish scholarship and Yiddishism. Seven young interviewees—some Jewish and some not—share their love for the Yiddish language. They each relate their connection to a particular poet they love from the period between the two World Wars, a time that saw a great flowering of Yiddish culture and creativity, including modernist, avant-garde poetry. The poets discussed in the film are Celia Dropkin, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Anna Margolin, Peretz Markish, Avrom Sutzkever, Debora Vogel, and Yehoyesh.

                                                      Song Searcher (Russia, 2021, dir. Elena Yakovich)

                                                      This documentary tells the story of Moyshe Beregovsky’s lifelong search for “authentic” Yiddish folk music and of his unique archive, which was presumed to be lost forever. Beregovsky, a musician and scholar, criss-crossed Ukraine with phonograph in hand during the most dramatic years of Soviet history in order to record and study the traditional music of Ukrainian Jewry. His work began in the 1920’s and led to his arrest and imprisonment in a Stalinist labor camp in 1950. The documentary was filmed on location in Ukraine and many other countries and is loaded with rare, unique video footage and archival audio materials. The documentary features historical images, interviews with surviving eyewitnesses, and scholarly commentary. The music recorded by Beregovsky is heard throughout the film, either in its original archival version or performed live by contemporary klezmer musicians.

                                                      MLA STYLE
                                                      Chiritescu, Sandra. “Not Just Talking Heads: Yiddish and Jewish Eastern Europe in Recent Documentary Films.” In geveb, November 2021: https://ingeveb.org/blog/not-just-talking-heads.
                                                      CHICAGO STYLE
                                                      Chiritescu, Sandra. “Not Just Talking Heads: Yiddish and Jewish Eastern Europe in Recent Documentary Films.” In geveb (November 2021): Accessed Nov 29, 2021.

                                                      ABOUT THE AUTHOR

                                                      Sandra Chiritescu

                                                      Sandra Chiritescu is a PhD Candidate in Yiddish Studies at Columbia University.