Interview by David Horowitz
Saved by Deportation co-producer Robert Podgursky speaks with WJFFblog Editor David Horowitz
I understand that your father went through this experience, and that was your inspiration for this film, but you did not use his story specifically in the film?
I did not use him personally in the film because he was very young, he was only four years old when World War II broke out, and about 10 when the war was over. Even though he remembers quite a bit, we wanted to use older subjects for the film because they would have more substantive memories and different kinds of experiences than a young child, like my father.
Can you talk a little bit more about the personal connection to the story, what your family went through, and how that relates to the film?
The story that we tell in the film, typically, was a very positive story of survival. The subjects personally escaped much of the horrors of the Holocaust, and even though they had a difficult time for the most part in the Soviet Union, and many had family members and friends who did not make it, all in all, it was a story of survival that was very positive. Had they not been deported, had these Jews remained in Poland, they certainly would have been killed by the Nazis in the camps. Growing up, my father always told us stories of life in the Soviet Union and being in Central Asia as a child. Very typically, they were difficult stories, for example, my father lost his mother to pneumonia in the second World War in Central Asia, and that was very difficult for him. But generally speaking, his story and those of other deportees that we tell are positive.
How did you find the Scharf family, who feature prominently in your story?
Actually, by coincidence. I had contacted the Ronald Lauder Foundation here in New York, which is known to provide funds to support Polish-Jewish causes, specifically rebuilding synagogues, etc., in Poland, and the head of the Foundation is Rabbi Besser, a very prominent Rabbi here in New York. I contacted him and told him about the story, he was very familiar with it because he was a Polish Jew himself, and also because he knew the Scharfs, and he recommended that I contact them. They are a very well-known family in Brooklyn, especially among the Chasidic community, and they had survived this journey. What's remarkable is that when I went to visit the Scharfs for the very first time -- there's a lot that goes into deciding whether or not you can use a character in a documentary film or not, they might have a fascinating story but there are always other issues involved, such as do they have the motivation to make a return trip, are they engaging, how would they appear on camera? It just so happened that in our very first meeting with them, they had already acquired visas for Uzbekistan! They had wanted to go back on their own, so it was almost fated, in a way, that we came upon them and that they were willing to go back and be engaged in this project. It really made the film more poignant, to go on location and see these areas that had hardly changed in 60 years. Without them, the film would have been very different.
Slawomir Grunberg (the film's director), he is from Poland also, but was living in the United States when you met him?
Yes, he's been in the States for the past twenty-some years. He has a fascinating story himself. His father is a prominent Polish-Jewish scholar in Poland. Slawomir immigrated here 20 years ago, during the time of the Solidarity crackdowns. He had made an early film on Solidarity and came to New York to screen it, and was told by the Polish government, essentially, "Don't return." He left behind his pregnant wife and a child, and he was not able to see them for five years. He was already working on documentary films, he was a cinematographer who trained at the famous National Polish Film School in Lodz that Roman Polanski and many other famous Polish filmmakers had attended.
I had seen a film that he was the cinematographer for, Shtetl, that he and Marian Marzynski, another Polish Jew, had made in 1996 or so and that aired on PBS. It was a very well-known film about these elderly Polish Jews who returned to Poland only about 10 years ago to return to their small villages where they had lived prior to World War II, and recounted what life was like, and met up with the Poles who live there now, and they shared their memories, etc. It was a fascinating film, and I'd been carrying around this idea for my documentary for some time, and when I saw Shtetl, it just kind of jelled, that's the kind of film I'd like to make. It was a good format for the retelling of this deportation story, a first-person accounting of the return, using the voices of those who survived the deportation, as opposed to, say, an academic-historical film with scholars and talking heads, etc.
What's it like for you to do a World Premiere at WJFF, having done a Works-in-Progress screening with us earlier?
It's very exciting and rewarding. I lived in DC for many years, close to 10 years, and I attended WJFF every year that I lived there, and I would watch the films there, and it would inspire me. In many ways, Saved by Deportation had its origins at WJFF, because I would watch the other films made by first-time filmmakers, and I would be inspired and say to myself, "I can do that, too!" So, premiering my film at WJFF has a special meaning for me because of my personal connection to the Festival. The film would not have been made had I not lived in DC, because the accessibility I had to people like Aviva Kempner (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Partisans of Vilna), who gave me very sage advice, and the Library of Congress, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, all these scholars and academic materials that facilitated my background research were amazing to have. I would not have chosen anywhere else to premiere the film than DC!
I understand you're going to be a father soon. What are your thoughts on that, in relationship to the genesis of this film and its story?
That's a good question, I've thought about that a lot. In a way, I'm giving birth to two children this month! The film, and my human child-to-be at the end of December. I had wanted to do this film not just because of my father, who obviously inspired it -- and it's a gift to him and to all the other Polish Jews who survived this ordeal -- but because there were no other films on this subject matter. Their experiences were so different from those of the Jews who had lived under Nazi occupation. Their stories still needed to be told, and now that it's out there and finished, and having a human child on the way, it's great because I can now pass this history down to my child in a very immediate way. This child will know its grandparents' experiences. Obviously, had my father not survived, I would not be here, nor would my child-to-be. It's important that future generations know where they come from, and the experiences and ordeals that their ancestors lived through, it will help inform their lives in many ways, as well. So this is a very sweet moment for me with this film coming out right now, when my child is about to be born. Hopefully in ten years or so, when my child is old enough to appreciate the story, we will be able to sit down and watch the film together.Mazal tov on both babies! And a last question that we're asking all our filmmakers - and this may be easy for you since you lived here - but if you could have one Washington, DC celebrity (political or otherwise) attend your screening, who would it be and why?
I reached out to the Uzbek and Tajik embassies because I thought they would especially like to send a representative to the screenings, especially in light of some of the controversy surrounding negative stereotyping in the (Sacha Baron Cohen) film, Borat. Unfortunately, both had prior commitments this weekend. I think Saved by Deportation is a nice story of inter-ethnic cooperation and friendship that really, today, we don't hear much about at all. Muslims and Jews came together in this story, and we'd obviously like to see more of that today. So it would be nice if representatives from the Embassies were there.
Visit the filmmakers' Web site for Saved by Deportation at http://www.savedbydeportation.com/
Saved by Deportation screens at 2:30pm at the DCJCC's Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater on Sunday, December 3, 2006
Interview by David Horowitz