Posts Tagged ‘JEWISH DIASPORA’

Love it was Not (2020)

Dir.: Maya Sarfaty; Documentary with Helena Citron, Roza Citron, Frank Wunsch; Israel/Austria 2020, 86 min.

Israeli writer/director Maya Sarfaty builds on her award-winning graduation short film The Most Beautiful Woman (2016) with this ‘impossible love’ story that took place in Auschwitz-Birkenau  between Helena Citron, a Slovakian Jew, and one of her captors, Viennese SS Unterscharführer (Sergeant) Franz Wunsch. Although the title suggests otherwise, witness reports from seven close female camp survivors claim ‘he loved her to the point of madness”.

And somehow Sarfaty helps, however involuntarily, to cement this statement. True, Wunsch, born in 1922 like Helena, was a sadist who beat male prisoners to death and helped at the infamous ‘Rampen’ selections. But he also risked his life to save Helena and her sister Roza (1932-2005) from certain death, literally storming into the corridor leading to the infamous “Shower Rooms” to free Roza, although he could not save her two children, much to Helena’s chagrin.

Helena and Roza were amongst several thousand Slovakian Jews deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942, before the Death Camp was fully functioning. The women helped with the demolition of older buildings and many were killed during the TNT explosions, where they were literally at the ‘coal face’. “We had become animals, ready to push our best friends to the front, just to survive ourselves”.

Helena first met Franz Wunsch on his birthday when he asked the women prisoners to sing a song in his honour. Helena chose the titular German hit song “Liebe war es nie” (Love it was Not) and Franz politely asked her for an encore. This was the beginning. Soon afterwards Helena caught typhoid, which was usually fatal, but Wunsch instructed the camp medics to look after her, and she recovered.

In an interview in 2003, Wunsch shares his memories of Dr. Josef Mengele who warned him “we are all going to be persecuted’ and promised not to denounce Wunsch, who had been wounded at the front and walked with a limp before being assigned to guard duty in Auschwitz. He found himself in active service again after the camp internees were sent on a death march. Helena and Roza were amongst the few who survived.

After the end of WWII Wunsch tried to pursue the relationship, but his letters were ignored and eventually he gave up. In 1972, Helena, who had emigrated to Tel Aviv in Israel, got a letter from Wunsch’s wife, pleading her to come to Vienna, where her husband was on trial for murder. “I know the two of you had been close, and I want you tell the court about it”. Under pressure to stay put, Helena still made the journey to Vienna and told the court about Wunsch’s crimes, but also how he saved her sister’s life. Wunsch was acquitted, the jury members, in an interview, claimed to have been on his side. “It was difficult in Austria to get a guilty-verdict in cases of concentration camp guards” said the state prosecutor of the Wunsch inquiry, very much resigned to the fact.

Wunsch’s daughter Dagmar also has her say, indignant that her father wore a medallion with two only photos: that of Helena and himself. “It should have been Mutti’s photo” says Dagmar, visibly upset. Bizarrely Franz Wunsch cut Helena’s face out of one of the photos, and superimposed it onto that of another woman, adding himself into the collage to make out they were just ordinary lovers in real life.

Artists Shlomit Goper and Ayelet Albeuda assemble a multilevel 3D photo montage together with the cuttings of Wunsch superimposed on the reality of the death camp. DoPs Itay Gross and Ziv Berkovich have taken great care filming the survivors, two of them having died before the feature was released. Helena Citron died in 2007, Franz Wunsch two years later. Their relationship in the hell of Auschwitz was a sort of ‘follie a deux’, unimaginable in the real world, rather like the death camps themselves. AS

FROM 26-28 January 2022 | JW3 Cinema LONDON NW3 | HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY

 

May God Be With You (2021) IDFA 2021

Dir: Cleo Cohen | Israel Doc

Cléo Cohen’s directorial debut is a highly personal exploration of her own identity as the granddaughter of Jewish Arabs who emigrated from Tunisia and Algeria to France during the 20th century.

In the intimate confines of the family homes Cohen plays devil’s advocate, questioning the time honoured subject of Jewish identity and the relationship between Arabs and Jews in the Maghreb. What emerges is a generational conflict, as well as a very subjective view of the past from the older generation’s perspective.

Cohen starts with a provocative bon mot in the opening titles which manages to ruffle a few feathers back home: What is the shortest joke in history?: “A Jew met another Arab.” When defending the Arabs’ view of history she is told: “Defend the Arabs and you’ll see what happens to you”. When she answers back: “the worst massacre of Jews took place in Western, Christian Europe” a swift reply comes: “If the Arabs were organised, they would have done the same to us. Cleo does not feel Jewish at all when her grandma Denise tells her “the Arabs got what they deserved.”

In an attempt to gain context she then speaks to Richard Cohen (to whose memory the film is dedicated) former lawyer for the FLN in Algeria. He nods, too weak to answer in full. And Daniel Shebabo is equally frank: “The French got the Jews on their side during the wars of Independence in the Maghreb – separating them from the Arabs via the Cremieux Decree, which made Jews French overnight in 1960. I still remember the pride my mother felt. It caused some confusion with other Pied-Noirs, but my mother said we are Pied-Noirs. My family never mingled with Arabs.”

Denise Houri, is firmly in the Jews’ camp and considers herself ‘in exile’ from her native Tunisia. “It was hard finding ourselves in another country. But we can’t go back, the old country won’t be the same any more. Memories stay still in time. You are often disappointed if you go back. Alain went, he sent photos”. Nevertheless, Cleó is planning to visit Oran in Algeria. Denise is hard-line when it comes to Cleó’s duty regarding her own (as yet unborn) children: “You will be the guide for the people of Israel, on their behalf. You must pass that on to your children. Transient Jewish identity is a value. They should never marry an Arab. I practice my religion at home. Cultural blending is not a good idea.”

Daniel Shebabo talks about the thorny issue of identity: “Identity is never a foregone conclusion. It can always be undermined by yourself or others. I am re-assured by being Jewish, but I do not distance myself from others. The more you are re-assured, the better you can accept others with different identities. In Tunisia I mainly lived with Muslims.”

The director wanders around Denise’ flat, resting in the huge bath tub, and reading Albert Memmi’s classic of 1957 ‘The Colonizer and the Colonized” from his perspective as a French-Tunisian writer of Jewish origins. She reflects that “Arabs are not just Tunisians, there are Christian Arabs, Muslim Arabs and Jewish Arabs too. We are not Muslims, but we are Jews with an Arab culture and identity. Our mother tongue is Arabic, but we are Jews. I am an Arab by culture, but not a Jewish Arab.”

A highly personal feature which nevertheless touches on ideological conflicts, not only between Jews and Arabs, but also within the Jewish communities themselves. An important film that attempts to shed light on the complex the issues surrounding cultural and religious identity, antisemitism, racism and colonialism. AS

SCREENING DURING IDFA 2021 | INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL AMSTERDAM 2021

Blue Box (2021) Hot Docs 2021

Dir.: Michal Weits; Documentary about Joseph Weits; Israel 2021, 83 min.

Israeli director/co-writer Michal Weits sheds light on a fragile episode Isreaeli history. Examining the Jewish National Fund’s Blue Boxes – part of a successful fundraising campaign to support the purchase of land in Palestine – in which her grandfather took an active part – Weits comes face to face with her own family history that unveils a painful and enlightening exploration of a nation’s past but also some unpleasant home truths.

There’s nothing more depressing than discovering skeletons in your own family cupboard. But this is exactly what happened when Weits delved deeper into the story of her mythological family figure: in this case her own great grandfather, Joseph Weits. Born in 1890 in the small Russian town of Boremal he emigrated to Palestine in 1908 where he joined the struggle for independence helping to lay the foundations for the new State of Israel. He is known as the “Father of Trees”, planting over 80 million trees in the Jewish state.

But further examination of his extensive diary, reveals Weits senior was also the “Father of Transfer”: helping Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to ‘legally’ annexe villages and towns of Arabs, who had to flee after the “War of Independence” in 1948. The majority of the Weits family reacted with an outright denial of the facts.

When Joseph Weits arrived in Palestine, Arabs outnumbered Jews. In 1933, nearly a million Arabs lived with several thousand Jews in what was then the British Protectorate of Palestine. Both sides were unhappy with the status quo, and Jews started to pour into the country, after the rise of fascism in Europe. Zionists, encouraged by Theodor Herzl, tried to organise a steady Jewish immigration. In 1937, the British had plans to partition Palestine in two states. Joseph Weits was aware that the number of Jews living in Palestine would determine the nation’s future size. So he bought villages and land from ‘Effendis’, who lived outside Palestine, and sold the land of their small-holders. He also encouraged to buy directly from Palestine farmers, paying with the money of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which had been founded in 1901. In his diary Weits writes: “The man was selling his homeland, and the Jews are buying it up. And: “It’s Them or Us. We want to be clear: There is no room for both of us. If the Arabs remain, the country will be crammed and impoverished. The only solution is Israel with no Arabs. There is no room for compromise. Transfer them all!”.

At the beginning of WWII, two of Joseph’s son, Raaman and Sharon, joined the British Army, whilst the third, Yehiam, was a member of the Zionist Underground, and later killed. After the end of WWII, and the discovery of the Concentrations Camps, Joseph writes: “Building the state of Israel will be our revenge”. After the War of Independence in 1948, nearly a million Arabs fled into neighbouring countries, only a few thousand staying put. Meanwhile, the Jewish population had risen to replace what had been an Arab majority.

In Haifa, only a few thousand were left of the once burgeoning Arab population. Joseph was leading the ‘transfer’ of properties, even though “Jaffa’s silence frightens me”. By annexing land and buildings, creating a “Transfer post factum”, the Arab exodus was made permanent. The members of the Transfer Committee, Joseph was one of them, had four guiding principles: 1. Preventing the Arabs from returning to their land; 2. Assisting the Arabs to settle in other countries; 3. Settling Jews in several villages and cities; 4. Destroying as many Arab villages as possible through military action”;

Old newsreels show the bulldozers doing their job. The UN resolution 194 stated clearly that all Arab refugees could return to their properties. Weits and his committee avoided the consequences by selling 250, 000 acres of land from the absentee landlords to the JNF, since the latter was not beholden to International Law. At this point, the filmmaker is confronted by a family member: “I have no idea how this this Transfer business worked. I am not comfortable with you doing this. You would have done the same had you been around in 1948/9. I want no part of this film”.

But Joseph Weits was less in denial than parts of his family: “There are 52 refuge camps, surrounding us. The Prime Minister thinks, the problem will go away with time. But they are surrounding us with hate, they will not desist in years to come. They will be a barrier to peace making. The illusion of occupation is convenient, but the intoxication of our victory has muddled our long term thinking. We have the land, but we did not pay the Arab refugees for their land. If we paid with the blood of our soldiers to get peace, why do we not pay with money now”. In 1966, 2.4 million Jews lived in what was Palestine, in contrast with just half a million Arabs. Joseph Weits left the JNF after 35 years. He was isolated, not even asking for advice anymore. “The West Bank annexation is a burden, now and for the coming generations.”

His great grand-daughter, the filmmaker, and her family have to live with the demystified Joseph Weits: yes, he planted 80 million trees, but he was also the “Father of Transfer”. But his fate is the fate of the nation he served, where good and evil live side by side for the coming generations to solve. With an insightful array of historical documentary material, this is a honest account of a family who grew up believing in the mythos of greatness. AS

SCREENING DURING HOTDOCS FILM FESTIVAL | CANADA 2021

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