The Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive is located in the Jack Valenti Pavilion, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In mid-2019 they contacted me and asked whether I would be willing to describe my experiences in the production of one of my films that are stored in their archive.
I jumped at the chance, and here are my recollections of one memorable film that involved the city of Jerusalem.
FOR ABOUT 15 years, in the 1980s, I had the privilege to design, write, produce and direct fundraising films for the Jewish Agency. These were important short film productions that were used, before the advent of the general use of computers and social media, to send visuals and videos, to raise funds.
Most of the films revolved around the essential work that the agency was doing and dramatized its accomplishments in Israel that were made possible by the funds the agency was able to provide.
These, were, essentially, documentary films, appeals to Jewish audiences for generous donations. After several years of these films, I felt that it was, perhaps, time to consider making the appeal in a different form – from a different point of view, from a different direction.
At a 1987 meeting with the agency staff, I suggested that the next film ought to be off the beaten track that we had followed for so many years and, instead, dramatize how Israel and Jerusalem have become the symbols of the redemption of the Jewish people after the destruction of the Holocaust.
We hoped that in response the audience would be inclined to make more generous contributions in order to support the further recovery of Jewish values and the continued growth of the State of Israel.
After some discussion (there were several strong voices in favor of the old format), my concept was accepted, and I was invited to prepare a proposal and a budget with a maximum expenditure of $10,000. That does not sound like a lot of money, but around 1990 it was a reasonable fund, and, besides, I did not make these films to make a profit.
OK – NOW that you have painted yourself into a corner, how do you proceed? Several fortuitous events came about to show me the path.
First, I learned that the agency was going to sponsor a group of “young Jewish professionals” on a visit to Eastern Europe (Poland, Romania and Soviet Union) and Israel. I asked the client to add me and an assistant to this group. The request was granted.
The next piece of good research was a discussion with a friend, an expert in the Israel music field. He promised to send me a tape of a recording session he just produced with an Israeli clarinetist by the name of Giora Feidman. (The session was issued in 1990 on a CD titled The Magic of Klezmer.)
The tape simply blew me away! Here was this magician on the clarinet who could, in one moment, make the instrument sound like the pleading voices from the Auschwitz crematoria and then, in the next, produce melodies of joyful celebrations. Here was the “from destruction to redemption” I was looking for!
I contacted the agency and asked it to see whether the participation of Feidman and his music could be added to the project. Permission to use the music off his CD and his participation for a couple of days of filming in Israel were all that was needed.
Two or three weeks later I had the confirmation that Feidman would be happy to participate in the project.
To conserve funds, I engaged only one freelance film photographer to assist me. He was a talented and highly regarded documentary cameraman.
A few days before our departure I was surprised to learn that the Communist-controlled government of Poland required a visa even for a US citizen. I rushed to get the application papers, filled them out and dropped them off at the Polish Consulate in New York.
I supplied the photographer with the same papers and asked him to attend to this urgent matter.
He asked: “What do I write where they ask for my profession?”
I advised him to do what I did – write “businessman” in that space, a safe, noncommittal description my father often used as we were attempting to flee the Holocaust.
Shortly before departure I received my visa. I called the cameraman who told me his visa was denied – he wrote “cameraman” on the application and the ever-vigilant and suspicious Communist regime turned him down. I was very upset and asked him to make arrangements to meet me in Romania, and I would shoot the footage in Poland and Russia.
Now I had to rush out to rent a good 16-mm. camera, buy film stock and become familiar with the equipment. I also added two props – a useless old clarinet and a Russian-style cap. Those were the only props I required.
In the East European “destruction” portion of the film, Feidman would appear only as a shadow. This decision was necessary because, first of all, he was not available to travel with us. I also felt that having the clarinetist appear only as a shadow in the “destruction” portion of the film would be an appropriate and dramatic symbol that fits into the message of the film – the sad music would be performed by a clarinetist, a shadow, who was no longer with us.
The trip started in Warsaw and visits to several sites in the infamous Nazi-created Warsaw Ghetto area. When we encountered a memorial or a particularly poignant location, I would ask one of the men in our group to don the “Russian” hat and pretend to be playing the clarinet. I then placed him in a position where he would cast the sun’s shadow that enabled me to compose a scene of his shadow and the object of interest. In this fashion, Feidman and his music would be “with us” as we moved from place to place and from country to country.
We visited the large Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw, and I was truly moved as I filmed the graves of some of the greatest Jewish minds that I studied in the Jewish Gymnasium (High School) in my hometown of Brno, Czechoslovakia, in the late 1930s.
Then our bus drove to Krakow and we visited the beautiful, small and ancient synagogue, where the retaining walls were made up of broken Jewish gravestones.
The sites offered many opportunities to film pertinent scenes with the “Feidman” shadow. On the way we encountered a small Jewish village cemetery where more poignant scenes were captured.
We ended the day with a visit to Auschwitz, the dreaded Nazi death factory. Here the challenge was to select the two or three scenes that would best summarize something that was, essentially, impossible to depict.
The following day we landed in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, where I was supposed to meet up with the cameraman that I hired. The hotel advised me that the cameraman had registered the day before but had not slept in the room the previous night.
When he finally showed up he explained that he had been arrested while filming some severely earthquake-damaged buildings in the city. He was doing this as a favor for a friend. You just don’t do such things in a paranoid Communist-ruled country. The police arrested him, wanted to seize his camera, but finally relented and agreed to release him if he surrendered his film supply. Thereafter he used the film I had brought. I made a note not to engage this naive man ever again.
In Bucharest we were invited to attend Saturday morning services led by the famous Rabbi Moses Rosen, the chief rabbi of Romanian Jewry between 1948 and 1994. He delivered his sermon alternately in fluent English and native Romanian. After the services we were invited to meet the congregation in a festive, joyful ceremony.
From Bucharest we flew to Kyiv which is now the capital of Ukraine but was then a part of the Soviet Union. The object of this brief trip was to visit Babi Yar, the site of the horrible massacres of Jews carried out by German forces and by local Ukrainian collaborators during World War II. The massacres took place in September 1941, killing approximately 33,771 Jews.
The location remained unmarked for decades, but in response to international pressure, an impressive monument was finally erected. However, the memorial was without any mention of Jews.
Our group decided to make a point by donning skullcaps and reciting the kaddish, a confirmation of Jewish faith. This threw our government-assigned “guide” into a frenzy to stop the proceedings. We completed the prayer, removed the skullcaps and boarded the bus for the airport in order to return to Bucharest.
From Romania we departed for Israel, where I, at last, met with the “star” of the film, Feidman.
We had a very pleasant conversation in which I thanked him for his participation and explained that we had two days in which to capture the scenes in which he was to appear and play. I expressed my desire to film one crucial day in Jerusalem and one day in the vicinity of Tel Aviv.
We also discussed costume, and he kindly agreed to wear our prop “Russian” hat.
His cooperation and eagerness to make the film a success almost moved me to tears.
In anticipation of the very tight two days with Feidman, we made advance arrangements at all locations where he was involved.
I feared that the “Wedding Scene” would be a severe problem. Who would agree to allow us to invade their wedding to film a part of the film?
Here, I learned, that I had grossly underestimated the popularity of Giora Feidman. Wedding planners fell over each other to secure his appearance at one of their weddings. Now my problem was to make a choice among all the offers.
Feidman got into the spirit of the scene and played nonstop for over an hour while the wedding party sang, clapped and danced. I suspect that, these days, there is a couple somewhere in Israel that is telling their grandchildren that the great Giora Feidman played at their wedding – and for free!
There were two essential scenes that were particularly challenging. I needed to devise an image to dramatize the liberation of Jerusalem.
Of course, my first thoughts were of the Western Wall. But the authorities were horrified when I suggested that Feidman would play his clarinet. So, instead, I decided to have him play on top of the ancient wall that surrounds the Old City.
Here I encountered a severe problem because Feidman, I learned to my surprise, suffered from a severe case of acrophobia, the fear of heights. He refused to walk up to the top of the wall until we found a spot where the wall was wide and had a set of stairs. Nevertheless, I had to hide behind him during the filming with a firm grip of his belt so we could film the scene.
And then there was the challenge of the closing scene. Ah, “the closing scene”! That was, perhaps, the most difficult creative challenge. How do I summarize what we had presented so far? How do I dramatize, symbolize and sum up our hope and desire for the continued growth and survival of the Jewish nation, of Israel and of Jerusalem – all in one meaningful scene?
Suppose, I mused, we turn Giora into a modern-day “piper of Hamelin” and have his music attract a horde of children and cause them to celebrate, to have fun?
And then I recalled my visit to the Knesset some years earlier, where a beautiful large menorah is the center of an outdoor plaza – and, at last, I had my closing scene. Why not have Feidman play as children come running from all over, surround the menorah and spontaneously start a joyful dance around the plaza to his optimistic music? Problem solved.
When it came to the soundtrack, Lou Jacobi was the only person I wanted to narrate the film. Jacobi (born Louis Harold Jacobovitch) was a prolific character actor who garnered critical acclaim in dramatic and comedic roles in films, on Broadway and on television. I knew his talents, having directed him in a couple TV commercials. He spoke with a distinct accent – not the typical Jewish accent featured in comedies; his was just different.
I contacted his agent, and just a few days later I had his participation. I sent him a copy of the script and a CD of the guide track I had recorded. When it came time to record his voice, we did it all in one take and only one take – and we were done. In his usual professional manner, he did it perfectly the first time around.
Editing was a challenge – do we use the guide track I recorded, use selections from the CD of Feidman’s recordings, or try to use both?
My feelings were clear – the music and the added sound effects must guide the edit. This was the more difficult way to do it, and there were several episodes where we backed up and did alternate versions of a section. The work took a little more time than expected but it was worth it.
In the final review the editor decided to leave my voice reciting the biblical segments at the start and the end of the film. That is how the track ended up.
One more item needed to be decided – titles – if any. I wanted to give Feidman and Jacobi a credit line, but when I brought this up at a meeting, a young know-it-all attendee stated firmly: “If you give Jacobi and Feidman a credit line you have to do it for everyone who contributed to the film.” I was asked to prepare such a list. I sat down and made a list of every individual or organization that I could truthfully state had assisted us in the project, and presented the list to our client.
The reaction, understandably, was: “We can’t put all those names on the film,” and a few minutes later it was decided that the film would have one credit at the start (producer/director) and one at the end (the logo of my company).
Months later I was gratified to learn about the fine response the film had received, and today I am pleased that, several decades later, the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive still has requests for copies of From Destruction to Redemption.
Those wishing to see the film may visit the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive and search for the film by name.