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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, 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. Raised in Los Angeles among comedy writers, I gravitated to news reporting and documentary filmmaking.
After launching 24 documentaries for networks and digital platforms, I made LUNCH, featuring my father Hal Kanter with 11 comedy legends who had been swapping stories over matzo ball soup for 40 years.
Fred Zaidman, the first to notice LUNCH on my website, shared a gripping story. It is a privilege to share his odyssey as a son of Holocaust survivors
A member of the AFI's Directing Workshop for Women, I support women filmmakers. I was Treasurer of the TV Academy, and s 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 in silence about their pain and losses during the Shoah. Perhaps they were protecting me or protecting themselves, or both.
Growing up in Los Angeles among Polish and Yiddish-speaking families, I was unsure if I belonged in the "old" world, or "new". I began working when I was 12 and developed my competitive edge in sports. 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 for the less fortunate.
But something always gnawed at me deeply. I wanted to know who my grandparents, aunts and uncles were, an invisible wall separating my past from the present. I began building a family tree from a tiny twig.
My foray into the unknown led to an incredible journey: a plethora of information, new relatives, and a surprise that I invite you to discover with me. And I hope my experience inspires your own searches.
Photo: Among 3,000 graves in the Jewish Cemetery of Radomsko, Poland, Fred Zaidman found...well, wait and see.
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 the Oscar winning film Son of Saul.
His first trip to Israel for a long-awaited reunion with cousins Fred never imagined existed.
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.
Yad Vashem 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.
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 of their lives, a bond is forged and a surprise appears in David's photo album.
(L. to R. with Fred): 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 has lived in Hong Kong, Manila, Montana, and is honing his filmmaking craft in Los Angeles.
Cameraman and editor Edward Garcia, New Hampshire native and graduate of Emerson College, works in Los Angeles as a cinematographer, film editor, musician, visual effects artist, as a teacher for Digital Dragon, and in post-production for international clients.
Our beacon to Fred's final journey, Baptist minister Dr. Steven D. Reece leads The Matzevah Foundation that cares for and restores Jewish cemeteries in Poland and commemorates mass grave sites.
As a photojournalist living in Poland, serendipity led Steven to one of 1,200 neglected Jewish cemeteries. He was impelled to 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 partnering them with Poles to care for the cemeteries and open the path of reconciliation.
For more about Steven's unique work:
We were honored by the Directors Guild of America's premiere of The Presence of Their Absence in May 2019 with moderator, filmmaker Lynne Littman.
With gratitude to our sponsors for our next screenings: The Holocaust Museum Los Angeles and American Society for Yad Vashem, the Writers Guild Of America and Skirball Cultural Center. We headed to Atlanta, Nashville, New York City, Bard College, JCC Staten Island, and, in 2020, to Manhattanville College, The International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, and CHAIM - Children of Holocaust Survivors Association in Michigan, and to Tel Aviv Cinematheque for our international premiere.
Photo: Fred Zaidman at 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,
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.
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.
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.