Many Jewish people, including myself, avoid Holocaust movies because it is far too painful to watch the dehumanization of those we love. Still, facing what is painful is an important part of life. “Lion of Judah” is not an easy film to watch, but for the next generation it will be a valuable resource for educating children in a world without survivors. More importantly, it is centered on the incredible, Leo Zisman, the Lion of Judah.
An unsinkable man with a zest for life, Leo shares the most intimate details of his life in the Kovno Ghetto and more than one concentration camp. It’s shocking to hear stories of incredible brutality told by this rather gentle and humorous man to young listeners on a March of the Living trip.
Although the film would have been magnificent with Leo just sitting in the comfort of his home and telling his story, the movie also features the perspective of the group of students. One student had recently discovered she was actually Jewish, others knew they were, but had no idea what it meant. There were also non-Jews in the film crew. It was a very diverse group of people who journeyed back to Eastern Europe to follow Leo’s life path through a manmade hell.
Many of the students are truly stunned with what they found. Without giving too much away, the group encounters truly virulent Anti-Semitism, and finds themselves face to face with the images of genocide. One tragic scene shows “man on the street” interviews in Poland about Jews. Most of the young Polish interviewees seem resentful of Jews and try to minimize the nation’s collective guilt over the genocide. While a few express and show sympathy, most are tired of the subject. In contrast, the Jewish group members seem to be genuinely shocked at how little they knew about the Holocaust and are desperate to understand.
A strange connection is made for one participant when he actually finds a bone fragment scattered in the dirt making it clear that the verdant fields around him are graveyards. Leo is disgusted with the cleanliness and sterility of the camps turned museum, and reminds them how filthy it was when in use.
One of the most powerful ways the movie helps move the journey along is interjecting actual footage of the Holocaust, highlighting Leo’s descriptions in a way that truly chills the heart. Although the moviemakers insist they took the least graphic clips, the scenes are heartrending and parental discretion should be advised as some of the scenes will bring an adult to tears. Yet, few moments can compare to when Leo breaks down and describes how a “German take(s) a baby, maybe a month old, and rip it up like a chicken…” Quite a few in the audience, including myself started to cry, as Leo tries to wrap his mind around how a man could do that to such an innocent.
Although the question is never answered, it is clear that the students take the message. When they came back home, each seemed to have formed a deeper connection to what it means to be Jewish. Instead of wallowing in sadness, the movie ends optimistically and with the message that in spite of the horrors found in it, the world is a beautiful place. When one hears Leo still able to joke after all he has seen, one can have hope for the future.
Leo’s story is so incredible that I recommend not only seeing the movie, but getting a copy of Mr. Zisman’s book, Ani Ma’amin. The story of his survival is so miraculous, Leo has to actually count the ways in which he cheated death. Although every story is incredible, my personal favorite is how Leo rallied his fellow children to march into Auschwitz in formation, singing Ani Ma’amin as a show of defiance. An angel must have put it into his head, because not only was it a way to keep up morale among the Jewish students, it also impressed the Germans enough to allow them to live. I will remember that story for the rest of my life, and sang Ani Ma’amin to myself the entire way home.
The movie has its flaws; the score is overly dramatic and should have made better use of silence. I applaud the producers for not going the traditional Klezmer route and trying to use something more original. At its best, there is actual street music from Poland to highlight the culture, but at dramatic scenes, the music is heavy thudded sounds that scream, “here is a dramatic scene.” Considering the film is showing a gas chamber, there is little need to add to the effect.