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" A film for the ages." - William Bernstein, The American Society for Yad Vashem
A greatest source of the Holocaust comes from testimonies of survivors through memory reconstruction in documentary films.
Filmmaker Donna Kanter always wondered what happened after they rebuilt their lives with post-war children who inherited their trauma. Did the children fill in the blanks if their parents could not speak about their experiences? Or were they inundated with harrowing images?
In Los Angeles, California, Fred Zaidman’s mother Renate spoke often of her pain but without full facts. His father Wolf virtually shut down. From the contradictions of too much emotional information and only scant clues, Fred lost a sense of belonging that disassociated him from his present.
Now, in his early sixties, Fred embarks on a journey to discover what had happened to his family in Poland during the Shoah. His primary goal is to find a single photo of his grandparents. With only the will to push his limits, Fred constructs his family tree.
Then, he is dropped into an unknown that will reconnect him to his past. With helpers abroad, he begins to unshackle his own pain and construct his future. Finally, from Atlanta, a Baptist minister leads Fred to a graveyard in Poland where he will rescue from oblivion a single family’s fate.
And in his quest for details that endow his identity, Fred draws us into an experience that transcends the larger catastrophe – the will to love.
Photo: Fred Zaidman's parents Renate and Wolf in the Bergen-Belsen, Germany DP Camp. Renate is pregnant with her first son, Martin.
I was born in Harlem, New York, the middle of three sisters, our mother from Manhattan and father from Savannah, Georgia, with their roots in Russia-Poland, Austria-Hungary, and Spain.
Raised in Los Angeles in an atmosphere of comedy writers, I gravitated to news reporting at KING TV, Seattle, becoming Executive Producer before joining Newsweek, ABC as a foreign editor, and producer at NBC News. I eventually scratched my funny bone when George Schlatter hired me on his reality comedy series.
After launching 14 series and creating FBI procedurals, I joined the Directors Guild workshop, Personal Filmmaking For Professionals. ` I made the documentary LUNCH, featuring my father Hal Kanter with 11 comedy legends who had been meeting together for 40 years.
Fred Zaidman was the first to notice LUNCH on my website. We formed a collaboration on The Presence of Their Absence, which traces Fred’s “inherited trauma” and search for his roots in the ashes of the Holocaust. It is a privilege to tell his astounding story.
I graduated UC Berkeley, earned my M.A. in Italian literature from the University of Florence and Middlebury College, and completed doctorate requirements with interest in WWII Italy’s Resistance.
A member of the AFI's Directing Workshop for Women, I support women filmmakers. As Treasurer of the TV Academy, I led executives in the formation of our investment policy, and was Governor of the Writers Peer Group. I'm a member of the DGA, WGA, AFTRA, and IDA.
Photo: Donna at a memorial site in the former Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp.
I am the son of Holocaust survivors who suffered from the pain inflicted upon them during the Shoah. A pain so excruciating, they avoided talking about their parents and siblings who had perished. Perhaps they were protecting me or protecting themselves, or both.
I grew up in Los Angeles among Polish and Yiddish-speaking families, unsure if I belonged in the "old" world, or "new". I began working when I was 12, selling maps to movie stars' homes, and developed my competitive edge in sports, which came naturally. I owned a lighting business and now manage my properties.
My passion in life, volunteering to help the underserved, is inspired by the compassion my parents instilled in me with acts of kindness for the less fortunate, despite all that they had gone through.
But something always gnawed at me from deep down inside. I wanted to know who my grandparents, aunts and uncles were, what they looked like. What were their names? Where did they live? What did they do? Questions I couldn't ask until later in life. An invisible wall seemingly impenetrable separated my past from the present.
To spare my parents more distress, I promised myself to wait until they had passed away to search for answers I had desperately yearned for. They had provided enough basic information for me to begin building a family tree from a tiny twig on a short branch..
I was hesitant to let a film crew follow my foray into the unknown. But it led to an incredible journey that has yielded a plethora of information, meeting new relatives, trips to Poland, Israel, and Germany, and a surprise that I invite you to discover with me.
I hope my experience inspires your own searches for answers that resonate for future generations. Now, my passion for helping others has added a new element that has changed my life for the good.
Photo: Among 3,000 graves in the Jewish Cemetery of Radomsko, Poland, Fred Zaidman found...well, wait and see.
(L. to R.): In Radomsko, Poland, we put down cameras to help clean a mass grave with Baptist minister Steven Reece, our guide to Fred's spectacular discovery.
Sound and second cameraman Eric Ibarra is a 2014 Emerson College graduate who has lived in Hong Kong, Manila, Montana, and now is honing his craft in Los Angeles. He has been a lead teacher through Digital Dragon, and co-founded Everland Pictures.
Cameraman and editor Edward Garcia, a graduate of Emerson College, moved from New Hampshire to Los Angeles in 2015. He has worked as a cinematographer, film editor, visual effects artist, as a contract teacher for Digital Dragon, and in post-production for international clients.
Edward is also a musician, with talents on the guitar, piano, trumpet, and digeridoo.
Photo: Fred Zaidman on the right.
Our beacon to Fred's final journey, Steven D. Reece leads The Matzevah Foundation to care for and restore Jewish cemeteries in Poland and commemorate mass grave sites.
An ordained Baptist minister, Steven earned his PhD in Leadership at Andrews University.
He was a photojournalist living in Poland when serendipity led him to one of 1,200 neglected Jewish cemeteries. He was impelled to remember and honor the Jews who had thrived in Poland before the Nazis murdered 3.5 million of them.
Poland is the ancestral home to 80% of North American Jews. Steven is developing a model for how they can partner with Poles to care for the cemeteries and open the complex path of reconciliation.
He is a certified teacher of the Holocaust through Yad Vashem and Tel Aviv University. A Texas native, he lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
For more about Steven's unique work:
We were honored by the Directors Guild of America's debut screening of The Presence of Their Absence on Friday, May 11, 2018.
Congratulations to participants, with thanks to guests for your incisive questions during the Q&A with moderator Lynne Littman.
Our next 2018 screenings were courtesy of The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) and The American Society for Yad Vashem on August 19 at the RealD Theater, at the Writers Guild Of America, West and the Skirball Cultural Center on October 2018. Discussions with Donna Kanter, Fred Zaidman, and minister Steven Reece followed the screenings. Also, in Atlanta, Nashville, New York City, Bard College, Staten Island in August and November 2019, and Manhattanville College in February 2020, with gratitude to our sponsors!
We welcome comments on our BLOG below!
Photo: Fred Zaidman at the gate of the Anne Frank Memorial Museum and former Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, Germany.
Our first stop in Warsaw seeking Fred's ancestral roots is at The Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute.
Anna Przybyszewska-Drozd, head of the Genealogy Department, and Matan Shefi, researcher of Jewish genealogy, set Fred on his path - even if it might mean going everywhere to find nothing,
Anna studied archaeology and worked in documentary film. Her passion is psychology, finding and connecting pieces that make up a family's history.
A Jerusalem native, Matan moved to Warsaw to deepen his relationship with his Polish roots. He was an officer in the Israeli navy and studied European History and Humanities at Hebrew University.
For 20 years, The Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute has helped people search their family history. Contact them with what you know and they'll help! http://www.jhi.pl
You never know where you might find help with your own search for connections to family history in Poland.
Seeking clues to his paternal roots in the Zaglembie region, Fred struck gold when he found Adam Szydlowski in the town of Bedzin.
Before the Shoah, Fred's father Wolf was a young man in Bedzin, when half the town was Jewish. Today there are three Jews.
Adam is a community leader helping to restore Jewish life in Bedzin. The initial search for Fred's relatives leads the new friends to a whole other quest.
His mind reeling from first findings, Fred will take a break to join Adam's grand opening of Bedzin's first Jewish business in 75 years.
At Yad Vashem - The World Holocaust Remembrance Center - in Jerusalem, Holocaust Historian Gideon Greif guides Fred through the mystery of what happened to his family in Poland's Zaglembie region. Here, he tells Fred a little-known fact about tattoos at Auschwitz.
Gideon Greif specializes in the history of the Auschwitz concentration camp and its Sonderkommando. His book We Wept Without Tears inspired Hungarian director László Nemes to create the film Son of Saul, which won the 2016 Oscar for the best foreign language film.
Dr. Greif has been Professor of Jewish and Israeli History at the University of Texas. He earned his master's degree in Jewish History at Tel Aviv University and PhD from the University of Vienna.
His first trip to Israel for a long-awaited meeting, Fred will call it a reunion with cousins he never imagined existed.
After two years of seeking Birencwaigs from his father's maternal branch, Fred finds two cousins named Efrat and Gali in the USA.
Their father, Fred's second cousin - Itay Beery - and his wife Eitana open their hearts and home to more cousins - all Israeli Birencwaigs and Beerys, with prestigious careers, warmth, and humor.
Researcher Sarafima “Sima” Velkovich has assembled a book of Fred's family journey during and after the Holocaust. We need only to see their faces when Sima presents Fred with a startling revelation.
Since its inception in 1993, among many scholarly projects, Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research has supported worldwide research on the Holocaust and related topics.
Yad Vashem - The World Holocaust Remembrance Center - has created an international network of researchers to help children of survivors reconstruct their own stories from its vast archives:
In Atlanta, attorney David Markowitz thought for sixty years that there were just four people in his family - his brother and his parents...
...until Fred finds a photo of David's grandmother.
As the two new cousins meet in Atlanta, unravel the mystery, and tell their stories of growing up as children of survivors, a bond is forged, memories unfold, and a surprise appears in David's photo album.