Menachem Daum

August 8, 2006

Alfred Hitchcock once said, "In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director." I think about this when people congratulate us for our "brilliant" filmmaking. The truth is we were skating on pretty thin ice. Despite our best efforts things could just as easily have turned out otherwise. We went to Poland almost 60 years after the events, not knowing if the rescuers still lived in the same place or even if they were still alive.

The fact that we actually found them is, to me, a sign that we had "unfinished business," that we had an inter-generational mission to complete. We literally came at the last moment. Three of the key figures in the film died in the past year; the Polish rescuer, Wojciech Mucha, my father-in-law whom he rescued, Chaim Federman, and my father, Moshe Yosef Daum. On an upbeat note, the Muchas' granddaughter, (the one in the film who so lovingly brought her grandparents outside to meet us) got married in April 2004 and her brother got married in April 2005. I made it a point to attend both of these weddings and try to maintain a close relationship with Mrs. Mucha, as best as I can.

Some good news about Kamila, the Polish woman who takes care of the cemetery in my parents' hometown of Zdunska Wola. People often overlook her important role in the film as she tends to be eclipsed by the rescuers. However, she is the first Pole my sons encountered whose devotion to preserving the Jewish cemetery and Jewish history challenged their simplistic stereotypes of Polish anti-Semitism. For years Kamila has been caring for the Jewish cemetery with no financial remuneration. She invites local Polish high school students to the cemetery and uses it as a vehicle for teaching them about the dangers of intolerance. I am very pleased to report that Kamila has now started her doctorate in Jewish studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. She has already mastered enough Hebrew to read and record the inscriptions on the tombstones. On Sunday, July 3rd, 2005, Kamila was honored, together with other distinguished citizens of Poland who volunteer to preserve their country's Jewish patrimony. The Israeli Ambassador to Poland presented Kamila with her award.

Since the completion of the film both of my sons and their families have returned from Israel to live in the US. My oldest son, Tzvi Dovid, teaches Torah at the Jewish Foundation School in Staten Island, New York. His brother, Akiva, continues his advanced Talmudic studies at Beth Medrash Gevoah in Lakewood, New Jersey. One of the first questions audiences often ask at Q&A sessions following the film is, "What has been the impact of the trip to Poland on your sons?" I think it has had a more obvious impact on my older son, Tzvi Dovid. During his speech in the film he refers to Mrs. Mucha's parents, Stanislaw and Mariana Matuszczk, as being "of blessed memory." Now that is a phrase usually reserved for revered ancestors or pious rabbis. The fact that he applies this term to Polish farmers is an indication that his moral universe has begun to expand. The impact on Akiva is less apparent. Akiva has returned to his insular life of Torah study with great intensity. If you recall, Akiva is the one who makes a remark at the end of the film that the rescuers were the exception to the rule. He feels that if given another opportunity, most Poles would again be glad to rid their country of its Jews. But even with Akiva I see some positive movement. Just admitting that there were some exceptions is a start. I like to think that meeting the rescuers face-to-face and looking them in the eyes cannot help but have some lasting impact on him. As I say in the film, "It's like planting a seed." It takes time.

Some people want to know what impact the film has had on me personally. As best as I can tell it has made it increasingly clear to me that Poles and Jews are not all that different from one another. Despite all I had been led to believe, I am even more firmly convinced we are all basically made of the same stuff. It is clear to me there were and are saints and sinners among Poles as well as among Jews.

As a result I increasingly find myself struggling with some difficult questions. If no one's DNA is morally superior or inferior to another's, then what accounts for Polish anti-Semitism? If we are all made of the same stuff then would I have been any different in my attitude towards Jews if I had been born into a Polish peasant's family a century ago?

The answers that I come up with trouble me. The type of insular education my sons have chosen is closely modeled after the parochial education their grandparents and great-grandparents would have received in the chayders and yeshivas of Poland. What exactly were Jewish children in those schools taught about their Polish neighbors? Did their education and socialization emphasize respect for the image of God they shared with Poles and with all human beings? Sadly, I am quite certain they were not taught to respect Poles or the Polish religion, language and culture. If Jewish education had placed greater emphasis on our shared humanity I wonder how many more Poles would have come to the aid of their Jewish neighbors.

I don't really know the answer to that question and I'm unsure it would have made much of a difference. Even raising this question sounds dangerously close to blaming the victim. However, it's a question I feel we have to ask ourselves."

I have enjoyed attended screenings of "Hiding and Seeking" in many cities across the United States, Canada, England and Israel. But I felt most privileged to screen the film in Dzialoszyce, the hometown of the rescuers. No Jews have lived in Dzialoszyce since a handful of liberated survivors were killed in a pogrom in June, 1945. Afterwards local inhabitants destroyed almost all remnants of the town's 350-year Jewish history including the synagogue, the house of study and cemetery.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised at the screening to find the local high school teachers had prepared a special photo exhibit of their town's Jewish history. I also found a number of young people who were genuinely interested in rediscovering what they could of that long-suppressed history. They recognized that Jewish history and Polish history are inextricably entwined. In response to their interest I arranged for a historian to come from Krakow every other week to offer Jewish-Polish studies as an extra-curricular activity. About 12 students are now doing independent research, interviewing elders who remember a time when Jews still lived in Dzialoszyce. I see these young people as being in the vanguard of Polish-Jewish reconciliation.

I have begun a new film with the working title Common Ground, in which I try to get these young Poles to work together with Jewish descendents of Dzialoszyce survivors from America and Israel to restore the town's Jewish cemetery and Jewish history. In the course of doing so I hope they will not only rediscover their common history but also their common humanity.

Perhaps I'm deluding myself but I have come to believe that if Poles and Jews can reconcile, there is a possibility our example can inspire other ethnic and religious antagonists to do likewise. This belief has led me to make "Hiding and Seeking" and now Common Ground. Most likely this reflects the continuing influence of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach who, upon our arrival in Poland in 1989, told me, "We now have the great privilege of meeting the Polish people. So let's bring them a little message from heaven. Everyone knows the world we live in is not the way it should be. But no one shows us a picture of how to make this a better world. The best picture is simply when one person meets another. That's all there is to it."
- Menachem Daum, August 2006 


Hide and seek

"Hiding and Seeking" is the second in a trilogy of films about the Jewish world by Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky, who collaborated on the EmmyR nominated A Life Apart: Hasidism in America (watch film clips)

Most fathers should have Menachem Daum's problems. An Orthodox Jew and child of Polish Holocaust survivors, Daum has spent many years interviewing camp survivors about the impact of the Nazi "final solution" on Jewish religious faith. Daum worries his two sons' inwardly-focused version of Orthodoxy may be leading them into intolerance toward the world outside the confines of the yeshiva. He has similar misgivings over what he sees as growing insularity in Orthodox Judaism, both in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Daum grew up and reared his sons, and in Israel, where his sons have moved to immerse themselves in Talmudic studies.

So it's no laughing matter when Daum's wife, Rifka, comes home one night from a lecture with a tape of a rabbi openly preaching "hatred" of the non-Jewish world. Daum's first reaction is to try to raise an outcry in his own Brooklyn Orthodox community. But community leaders and media mostly ignore him. His second reaction is to consider the "ethical legacy" he might - and should - be leaving his children. So he flies to Israel, the audio tape in hand, to discuss the matter with his sons, who have adopted a strict Orthodox Judaism centered on study of the Torah and other sacred Jewish writings. Thus begins the difficult and revelatory journey documented by the EmmyR nominated filmmaking team of Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky, in "Hiding and Seeking."

"Hiding and Seeking" uncovers unsettling generational, social and philosophical rifts in contemporary Jewish life. When he plays the tape of the rabbi for his sons, Menachem's struggle becomes clear - neither son gives the tape much significance. For the older, Tzvi Dovid, it is "of course" wrong but also understandable. The younger, Akiva, has a more combative view - the rabbi is only expressing the hard truth of Jewish experience, that Jews should have as little as possible to do with the world of the goyem (non-Jews). Furthermore, the brothers question why their father should worry about relations with non-Jews. Akiva even ridicules Menachem's moral conflicts, insisting that nothing good can come from outside the complex life of Jewish scriptural study that both brothers have embraced.

For Menachem, Rifka and their parents, the struggle to reconcile the Holocaust with their faith was unavoidable. But for younger Jews like Tzvi Dovid and Akiva, the Holocaust represents the historical perversion of non-Jews. In that sense, it is not the Jews' burden. Rather, they maintain that Jews should turn away and never again trust the world of non-Jews. The sons' rejection of conciliation with the non-Jewish world challenges the moral core of Menachem's life.

In "Hiding and Seeking," the oldest generation - the grandparents who experienced the death camps - shares a view much closer to that of Tzvi Dovid and Akiva than Menachem. Only Menachem's mother rejected blind faith in a God who would subject His people to such terrors; the other grandparents re-embraced their faith. They also frankly hated their persecutors, whom they tended to group with all goyem. Menachem's father felt so strongly that, after coming to America, he gave up a good job in upstate New York and moved to Brooklyn so he could raise his family in an Orthodox environment. In the film he unapologetically expresses his antipathy to non-Jews, especially the Christian Poles who, in his view, had a hand in the camps and murders of his family and other Jews. When Menachem's explains to his father-in-law, Chaim, that he and Rifka are taking Tzvi Dovid and Akiva to Poland to seek the family's history, the old man warns Menachem against going to Poland, saying that all Poles are dangerous and treacherous. (Yet in an eerily touching moment, Menachem's wheelchair-bound father remembers exactly his old address in Poland as his "home," which he belatedly wants to see again.)

Rejecting his father's faithful hatreds Menachem has evolved for himself, as did many first-generation Holocaust offspring, a conciliatory "Jewish humanism." He saw in the Holocaust the lesson that only by seeing the spark of God in all human beings could humanity progress. He took much of his inspiration from the teachings and music of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (featured in concert footage in the film). This vision of conciliation among all humanity as the highest fulfillment of his Jewish faith has guided Menachem through his life. Is it possible that his sons could find his worldview - his ethical legacy - irrelevant?
The trip to Poland brings generational tensions into relief with a string of revelations as the Daum band searches the Polish hinterland. Using old maps and accounts, Menachem leads the family to the ruins of Poland's formerly rich Jewish life. He's determined to perform appropriate Jewish prayers at such sites but, his posting of a paper with names and a prayer in the rubble of a former synagogue only elicits exasperation from Akiva. A visit to the broken-down graveyard where Menachem's grandparents are buried, however, elicits more respectful attention from his sons, and the beginning of the realization that their dad may be on to something.

Also on the agenda is to find some memory or evidence of the rescue of Rifka's father, Chaim, and his two brothers, who spent 28 months hidden in a pit under a haystack in the farmyard of a non-Jewish Polish family. The story of this Polish family, who at ultimate risk to itself fed the Federman brothers and bluffed their way through German searches, inevitably grows in significance in the running argument between Menachem and his sons. Surprisingly, after nearly 60 years, the very farm where the Federman boys were saved remains intact; even more surprising, the same Mucha family lives at the farm. The Daums first encounter the granddaughter. Then, astoundingly, they learn that her grandparents, the very people who as newly-weds helped save the three brothers, are still alive. The granddaughter brings out first her grandfather and then her grandmother. The grandmother - remembered by Chaim back in New York as a fetching girl - is now old and bent nearly to the ground but is sharp as a tack. She remembers everything.

What follows is the heartening and heartrending rediscovery of a passage in the family's history. The story suddenly acquires immediate and tangible force. For the Daums, the encounter is steeped in unanticipated emotion - and the realization of a long unpaid debt. For the Polish rescuers, there is a kind of wistful reception of visitors long past expected. A story never before fully told - of individual humanity in the face of collective brutality - gets fully aired at last in "Hiding and Seeking." It isn't a simple story, for humans and their motives never are. On the other hand, actions taken at mortal risk often tell simple truths. "A person saved is a world saved," says Rifka, quoting a Jewish proverb.

The rescue of the Federman brothers by a Polish peasant family, seen up close, forces everyone in the Daum clan to react. The family finds a way to repay its debt, but, not surprisingly, the meaning of the Muchas' act ripples with different effect through family members. Do the Muchas prove or disprove the rule? It's a question the Holocaust raised for all humanity, and is a question that even Tzvi Dovid and Akiva cannot escape.

"Hiding and Seeking" is the second in a trilogy of films about the Jewish world by Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky, who collaborated on the EmmyR nominated A Life Apart: Hasidism in America (watch film clips).

"Menachem and I began by working on a segment about Holocaust survivors and faith for PBS' Religion and Ethics Newsweekly," recalls Rudavsky. "It soon became clear to us that Menachem's own fears and struggles over the direction of the Orthodox world were a window on contemporary Jewish life."

"With 'Hiding and Seeking,' I believe we are getting to the heart of the matter," adds Daum. "Not answers, but certainly the questions that will bear heavily on Judaism in the 21st century."