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Hiding And Seeking: Faith And Tolerance After The Holocaust

Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance after the Holocaust
A film by Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky, First
Run Features; Edited by Zelda Greenstein; Music by
Shlomo Carlebach and John Zorn. Limited Run,
February 6 -12, 2004, The Quad Cinema, 34 West
13th Street, NY, NY 212 255 8800

 

Poised between imminent moral danger and the irrepressible drive to do the right thing, director Menachem Daum and cinematographer Oren Rudavsky have seared together a complex portrait of an Orthodox family who confront their painful past in the new documentary, Hiding and Seeking. This engaging film recently opened the New York Jewish Film Festival sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum. It follows director Menachem Daum’s journey to a small town in Poland with his wife Rivka and
his two adult sons Tzvi Dovid and Akiva. Their objective is to locate the family (or their descendents) who hid Rivka’s father for close to two years during the Holocaust. The
underlying motivation was to somehow say “Thank you” for the gift of life itself.

Daum’s quest in Poland is on the behalf of his father-in-law to express gratitude, hakoras hatov, for being saved from almost certain death. Beyond this he has his own agenda on the trip that is perhaps more urgent in scope and intent. Daum, the product of a yeshiva education and Brooklyn College, hopes to save a generation, starting with his own sons, from religious
extremism that seems to be flourishing.

In the opening moments of the film Baum worries about Judaism being “hijacked by extremists.” During his visit to his two sons and their growing families in Jerusalem, well established in the yeshiva world, Baum becomes convinced that his concerns are unfortunately
well founded. He hears a tape from a rosh yeshiva within their community declaring, “We must have hatred of the goyim…” citing a “long cheshbon” and “the need to build an impenetrable barrier” between them and us. Daum is shocked and sees these rigid prejudices, echoed by his
sons, as worse than the prevailing self-imposed ghettoization of the yeshiva world. For Daum, these ideas clearly exclude the potential for G-dliness in all mankind, making a mockery of Abraham’s pleadings for the few righteous men of Sodom. More importantly, Baum feels
these attitudes are dangerous because they inherently deny his own family’s history. He tells his sons, “You would not be here except for the kindness of a Christian.” Nonetheless, his sons remain unconvinced, secure in their suspicions of the non-Jewish world.

Baum stands alone between the cloistered insularity of his sons and the well-founded bitterness of his own father and his father-in-law. His father, an Auschwitz survivor, stubbornly kept his faith, refusing to question G-d’s motives throughout his suffering. As for the goyim, he was equally sure, convinced in his hatred of the Poles, that the only Christian he would trust was a dead one. His bitterness against goyim was absolute, in spite of the fact that after the war he and his family found refuge in America, a Christian country.

His father-in-law, Chaim, has deeply ambivalent feelings. He fully appreciates that the Polish family risked their lives to save him, knowing that the punishment for harboring a Jew in those years was certain death. Simply put, they saved his life and the life of his two brothers, hidden for close to two years on their farm. There were searches, even close calls as the Nazis searched the barn and haystacks in which they were hiding. They remained steadfast. Nevertheless, he tells his son-in-law apprehensively, “Don’t go there…they forgot already.” He
pleads, “Don’t tell them I’m alive…I promised them the world…can I support them…Please be careful.” We can fully understand his conflicted feelings of gratitude at being saved with the desperate desire to continue in some kind of normalcy with the life granted. Perhaps it might be better to leave the past in the past.

Thus Daum stands alone, stubbornly convinced that if he can find the actual source of some kindness, a historical evidence of Polish Christian chesed, then he can begin to pierce the wall of distrust and hatred that continues to exist between Christian and Jew.

We return to Poland with him and his family, encountering a sincere Polish researcher. She holds a master’s degree in Jewish cultural studies and is deeply interested in not only the history but also the fate of the Jewish people. Her job is to document, through interviews
with Poles, what happened in those terrible years. She seems to care.

Next the Baums go to an abandoned Jewish cemetery in Zdunska Wola, looking amidst the toppled tombstones for the graves of his grandparents. Through the skilled simplicity of the cinematographer, the process of searching for names in the overgrown cemetery reaches a dramatic climax as one of the more skeptical sons exclaims, “I found it!” A piece of emotional resistance is pierced. We see the Baum family, after having paid their respects, moving slowly away from the gravestone, now marked with a flickering yahrzeit candle. A vital
connection has been made.

The connections dramatically move forward as we drive into Dzialoscize, the Polish town where Rivka’s father lived. The shul is in ruins; only the outer walls still standing. The family makes the bracha over a ruined shul, Baruch Dayan haEmes ,and weep as the terrible history
overwhelms them. Rivka is devastated as her family’s past seems to come alive in the ruined synagogue.

Now Daum begins his search in earnest, following his father-in-law’s directions to locate the farm, driving through bucolic country roads until they arrive at an isolated farm. After a few hesitant questions through an interpreter, an ancient grandfather and seemingly even more ancient grandmother appear. They are bent over with age but remember the names of the Jewish brothers from so long ago. Yes, yes … they were young then and remember that their parents had hidden these Jews. They remember bringing them food and how scared they were
when the Nazis came to search…yes, they remember.  Rivka and her sons have come face to face with Stanislaw and Honorata Mucha, simple Poles who had helped save their father’s life, over 55 years earlier. There are tears and then, after awhile, questions. Why did their parents
risk their lives to save Jews? The answer was simple; “We were close to the Jews, we traded with them. We had pity on them.” A simple act of chesed.

Daum and his family emotionally thanked the elderly Poles, and a year later Yad Vashem awarded the Muchas’ and Honorata’s parents (posthumously) with the Righteous Gentile Award in a moving ceremony in the Dzialoscize town hall. As part of their expression of gratitude, the Daum family established a fund to ensure the education of the Mucha grandchildren. When one of the Daum sons speaks of the Polish couple who saved their grandfather as “angels” there isn’t a dry eye in the house. Later in that trip, the Daums visit the graves of Honorata’s parents. Frum Jews paying their respects and expressing their deepest gratitude in a Polish Catholic cemetery is a fitting and moving final image of this extraordinary documentary.

Hiding and Seeking is, in both its subject and presentation, one of the most effective documentaries in recent years. It explores in image and narrative the complexities of what it means to be a religious Jew, how events of the Holocaust reverberate in the present and,
perhaps most movingly, the complex reality of “them,” Polish Christians that we might have thought were all anti-Semites. Black and white opinions shift into many shades of gray.

Was Daum successful in teaching his sons a lesson in hakoras hatov, and with it the legitimacy of tolerance? From the final comments of Tzvi Dovid and Akiva, perhaps not, but acts of decency, like hakoras hatov, have slow and long lasting consequences not always immediately
apparent. Coming into direct contact with the kindness and decency of non-Jews, likewise, has a gradual influence on ingrained attitudes of mistrust. This documentary, firmly shaped to express the opinions of Daum and Rudavsky, presents us with as many questions and
dilemmas as it does convincing images. Other images that can be interpreted as Polish hostility or mocking curiosity lurk occasionally in the background while the hesitancy of Jewish grandparents and grandchildren to acknowledge a debt of gratitude are troubling and left unanswered. What makes Hiding and Seeking so compelling are in fact the unanswered questions, surely the hallmark of all honest documentaries just as such dilemmas are the very texture of life itself.


Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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