Wanted: Seeking people present at the creation

‘The Youth of 1948’ project documents the experiences of those living in Israel during the last days of the of the Mandate period, the War of Independence and the state’s creation.

Noemi Schlosser (photo credit: KELSEY JORISSEN)
Noemi Schlosser
(photo credit: KELSEY JORISSEN)
Listening to an old woman’s stories in a friend’s living room a little more than a year ago was enough to transform Noemi Schlosser from a vivacious actress, playwright and theater producer to a video historian driven to record the memories of everyone she can find who was present at the creation of the State of Israel.
Sleeping little, eating only once a day and constantly on the move, Schlosser has embarked on a project she calls “The Youth of 1948,” designed to document the experiences of anyone who lived here in Israel during the last days of the Mandate period, the War of Independence, and the creation of the state. She is motivated particularly by the necessity to record these memories while her elderly narrators are still here and able to tell them.
Ironically enough, she was probably not the most likely person to be struck by the desire to do this. Her initial idea, in fact, was to use the old woman’s stories as material for yet another new play.
Schlosser was born 38 years ago in Belgium into what she calls an artistic family.
“My great-grandfather took the first picture of [writer] Franz Kafka. His best friend was [Austrian composer] Arnold Schoenberg. It was a Viennese, Prague, bourgeois, artistic, wealthy Jewish family.”
After surviving the war and the Holocaust in London, Schlosser’s father, a communist, returned to Czechoslovakia, which he left in 1968 during the “Prague Spring.” After a period in Vienna, he arrived in Belgium, met Schlosser’s mother and stayed, teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. Perhaps inevitably, his daughter was drawn to the arts.
“From the age of six I knew I wanted to do theater,” she says, “and I have been in the direction of theater all my life.” She studied theater and began performing in four languages around the world, including the United States.
Although not religious, Schlosser describes her family as culturally Jewish.
“My mom wasn’t Jewish, although she was the one who raised me Jewish, because my father, the communist, couldn’t care less. But I was always very aware of my Jewishness, and always very pro-Israel.”
She was also aware of her marginality.
“In a non-Jewish world I was a ‘filthy Jew,’ and in a Jewish world I was a ‘shiksa.’ I was always half-and-half, and that’s what pushed me even more to go into the world of theater, where I could embrace being different.”
Schlosser formed a theater company and wrote plays with mostly Jewish-related themes.
“Totalitarian regimes, immigration in the 1930s. It’s always part of what I do, because you can write what you know, and I know how to be Jewish in a non-Jewish world.”
Her first visit to Israel was in 2008.
“I was reunited with part of our family in Israel through Yad Vashem. We didn’t know they survived, they didn’t know we survived. Yad Vashem made the connection through our family tree, and that’s how I arrived in Israel for the first time. To meet them.”
Since 2014, she has spent most of her time here in Israel.
“I feel better here,” she declares. “I wrote most of my last four plays here. I came here to write. It’s been a good place to be creative.”
Little did she suspect when she arrived here, however, what she would create in 2016.
“On Holocaust Remembrance Day last year, I was in someone’s living room, and the grandmother was talking about her life in the Holocaust but also about her arrival in Israel. She talked about her bittersweet memories about her first years here – the period of austerity, the unity of those times, and so on.
“I’m proud of my knowledge of Jewish history, but I realized then that I knew very little about that era, and the bittersweetness of that period was something that really appealed to me dramaturgically. My ‘grandmother’ here in Israel – she’s actually my grandfather’s cousin – was in the siege of Jerusalem and had told me about it before. So when I listened to that woman on Holocaust Remembrance Day I thought I should talk to some other people.”
Schlosser began her work thinking she was gathering material for a play. “Because that’s what I do. I figured it was better to listen to a couple of these people than to do library research. These people were living history, and could provide great material for a play. Through social media I met the grandparents of a couple of friends. I went with my little notebook, and soon realized that the stories I was listening to needed to be heard by more people, not just myself.
“A couple of people suggested I do a documentary.
I thought, well that’s not what I do. I do theater. But one morning I woke up and told myself that if I could find a camera, I’d start filming. Then one of my best friends in Belgium, who also films most of my projects, gave me a HD film camera and I started filming.”
Thus was born “The Youth of 1948” project. On the day that Metro was able to catch up with her, Schlosser had completed more than 50 video interviews of elderly individuals she describes as “famous people, infamous people and regular people who were children at the time.”
Her most recent interview was of Rafi Eitan, former Palmah soldier, intelligence officer, government official and leader of the Mossad team that captured Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1960. Eitan recalled his time in the Palmah and how he earned the sobriquet ‘Rafi the Smelly,’ crawling through sewers to blow up a British radar station on Mount Carmel.
The focus of Schlosser’s criteria for interview subjects is specific. She is interviewing and constantly on the hunt for everyone born in 1940 or before, and who lived through the Mandate period, through the War of Independence and the creation of the State of Israel and onward up to around 1951.
“I want people with memories of actual firsthand experiences,” she says, not hearsay, not what their parents or someone told them. I don’t care if they were men, women, or children at the time; or if they were left- or right-wing; Lehi [the Stern Group], Irgun [Zva’i Leumi], Hagana or Palmah; Ashkenazi, Mizrahi or Yemenite. I am trying to get as broad a perspective as possible.”
How does she find her interviewees? “I put it on social media. Usually it’s the grandchildren answering me. I started a Facebook page, and people not only contact me but share it. It goes organically.
I’ve had people writing me from Toronto, Buenos Aires, Switzerland. They write wanting me to come and interview them. I now also have a website in addition to the Facebook page.” She updates the Youth of 1948 Facebook page every day and the website once a week.
Fluent in French, Flemish, Dutch, German and English, Schlosser has thus far conducted most of her interviews in English and French, and in Hebrew with an interpreter. She does all of her interviews directly and does not use Skype or other remote platforms. She endeavors to be conversational, making the encounter more like a “schmooze” between friends than a formal interview. She spends the first few minutes making her interviewees comfortable with her, even while setting up the camera.
“Every story is different,” she explains. “Interviewing someone who made aliya and lives in Jerusalem is likely to be different from interviewing some born and raised in Haifa. What happened in those cities during that period was very different. As far as their story goes, I know what to ask. I might also ask them in advance to think about their experiences. I try also to make it as personal as possible, so they don’t just tell me general history. I get them to think about friends, when they first fell in love, even the food they ate. A kibbutznik is going to have very different memories than someone who lived in Tel Aviv and served in the Hagana.”
Schlosser documents a particularly compelling story of a woman who at the age of 14 joined the Stern Group.
“She tells about her code name and how she met her husband, how he changed his code name so they could be ‘Ilan’ and ‘Ilana,’ how they got married, how no one was allowed to take pictures during the ceremony because everyone was wanted by the British, and how, the next day, they went to a photographer and had a picture taken in her wedding dress and in his wedding suit. She showed me that picture. It’s a very moving story and one that will touch people’s hearts.”
She recorded another story of a 104-year-old man whose mother back in Poland didn’t love him.
“She preferred her other sons, his brothers, who were scholars. He would go out to play with gentile boys and teach them how to fight. But his grandmother told him that he would grow up to be a general. And he in fact became a general in the Hagana.”
Schlosser hopes to document the experiences of as many people as she can find as quickly as she can.
“I am creating a full archive that will be donated to the National Library in Jerusalem. I am also making a full-length 90-minute movie, containing kind of the ‘best of’ from among the interviews. Then five or more smaller documentary films on specific themes, like the siege of Jerusalem, ‘illegal’ immigration during the Mandate period, the war through children’s eyes.
Each of these documentaries will have a ready-to-use educational package, for teaching in schools. That will be done in conjunction with an organization called the Israel Forever Foundation. There will also be a traveling photo exhibit, done in cooperation with photographer Aviva Klein.”
Her major problem is a lack of funds – she has had no income since beginning “The Youth of 1948” – and a lack of time. She knows that some of her interviewees, in their 90s and above, will likely not still be around to see any of the documentaries.
“What scares me a lot is the knowledge that when this movie comes out, some of them will not be here anymore. That makes it more urgent to record these stories and to do a good job.”
Schlosser’s eyes begin to well up.
“Sometimes I do an interview with the family members present and it’s the first time they’ve ever heard the story. I feel humble and grateful. I think I am very, very lucky to be hearing all of these stories. I really want to do my best in the ways I’m going to give them to the world. It has made me very respectful of our elders.
If because of all these stories young people will more readily give up their seats on buses to elderly people, that will be another victory.”
To suggest someone to be interviewed, to assist in transcribing interviews, or to contribute time or funds to the project: www.theyouthof1948project.com