LOS ANGELES – Every survivor of the Holocaust has a distinct story and one of the most remarkable is told in the movie Run Boy Run.
The tale of an eight-year old boy who escapes the Warsaw Ghetto and for three years survives on his own in Nazi-occupied Poland could easy defy belief, if the survivor were not still alive and ready to document and detail his experiences.
At the center of Run Boy Run is the lad born as Israel Fridman, but nicknamed Srulik, the son of a baker in the Polish village of Blonie.
In 1942, the now eight-year old Srulik is smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto and hunkers down, wet, cold and hungry, in a vast Polish forest.
He first falls in with a band of orphaned Jewish youngsters who raid Polish farms for food and wood, but when that falls apart, Srulik again strikes out on his own.
Knocking at the doors of Polish farmers to ask for shelter in return for work, Srulik encounters rejections and even beatings, but finally is taken by Magda, the wife and mother of Polish partisans (portrayed by Elizabeth Duda in a stellar performance).
Magda is warm-hearted, brave, but above all practical. Knowing that Srulik will have a better chance of survival as a Catholic boy than as a Jew, she renames him Jurek, teaches him the Hail Mary prayer, gives him a crucifix and, above all, warns him never to take down his pants, or relieve himself, in front of a Pole.
Despite all precautions, word spreads in the village that Magda is hiding a Jew, the SS raids and torches her home, and after some heart-stopping escapes, the boy is again on the run.
Finding work on one farm, the boy’s arm is caught in a wheat-grinding machine and has to be amputated. Even after this horrendous accident, Jurek survives to welcome the Russian liberators and, still passing as a Catholic, spends the next three years in an orphanage in Lodz.
In one of the film’s few light episodes, Jurek earns extra food from sympathetic adults by spinning wild stories about how he lost his arm, first blaming a German tank and finally assuring his listeners that Hitler personally cut off his arm.
In 1948, he is tracked down by a Jewish search agency and, despite the boy’s initial denials that he is a Jew, he eventually returns to his ancestral roots.
The film essentially ends there, but in a phone call to his home in Shoham, a Tel Aviv bedroom community, Yoram Israel Fridman – formerly Srulik and Jurek – told the rest of the story.
With his daughter, Michal, translating and filling in for her 79-year old father, Fridman continued his life story from his aliya in 1948 to the present.
After arriving in Israel as a functional illiterate, Fridman took an intensive six-month ulpan course in Hebrew, then started his formal education and eventually earned a master’s degree in mathematics.
In 1963, he married Sonia, who was born in Russia during World War II, and the couple now has two children and six grandchildren.
Fridman retired from his position as math teacher 11 years ago and now enjoys his life as family patriarch, ardent basketball fan, and tutor to his grandson in his math homework.
Some years ago, he told his wartime story to Israeli author Uri Orlev, who wrote the book in the form of a thriller for young readers – the same way Fridman recounts his experiences for his children and grandchildren, Michal said.
Fridman’s children attribute his survival to considerable luck, but mainly to his inherent resourcefulness – the same trait he displays in diapering and tying the shoelaces of his youngest grandchildren with one hand, after rejecting a prosthesis following a short trial period.
In January, the family attended the premiere of Run Boy Run at the Jewish Museum in Warsaw. They liked the film and appraised it as 90 percent factual.
Veteran German director Pepe Danquart was attracted to the film’s theme, because it viewed the Holocaust through the eyes of an innocent, yet adventurous, child.
“The Holocaust is still topical, still relevant,” he said in a phone call from Germany.
“But six million dead Jews is an abstract figure, especially to kids. Yet they can be reached through a well-told adventure story.”
Danquart, who won an Oscar in 1993 for his short film Black Rider, had considerable difficulty finding the right actor for the central role of Srulik/Jurek.
“Two weeks before we were to start photography, I had interviewed 700 youngsters without finding the right one,” he said. Just then, he discovered not only the one actor he was looking for, but two in identical twins Kamil and Andrzej Tkacs.
With the huge physical and psychological effort the role demanded, the twins could spell each other in front of the cameras.
North Germany’s fields and forests largely stood in for the Polish landscape, impressively rendered by cinematographer David Gottschalk.
One notable aspect of the movie is the depiction of Poles and Germans. There are Poles who risk everything to help Jurek; and others, like a Polish doctor, who refuses to treat a Jew after the boy had his arm ripped off in the farm accident.
In contrast, there is not a single good German in the German director’s movie.
Danquart explained that he didn’t want to diffuse the film’s central theme by including an Oskar Schindler or a music-loving Nazi officer, as in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist.