Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Town Called Brzostek [2014]

MPAA (UR would be PG-13)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
Official website

About the Town of Brzostek
Sztetl.org.pl article about the town [EN] [PL]*
Wikipedia article about the town [EN] [PL]*

Related Articles on the Rededication of Brzostek's Jewish Cemetery
Times of Israel (C. Webber) article
New Jersey Jewish News (J. Ginsberg) article
Dziennik Polski (P. Franczak) article*

A Town Called Brzostek [2014] (written and directed by Simon Target) is a truly lovely English Language / Polish subtitled documentary that played recently at the 2015 (27th annual) Polish Film Festival in America here in Chicago.

The film's about the recent rededication of the Jewish cemetery in the town of Brzostek in south-eastern Poland largely on initiative of former Oxford University professor Jonathan Webber whose family, Jewish, had roots in the region.  Indeed, one of the main points of the film was that 85% of the world's Jewish families have roots in Poland and yet almost universally those roots are remembered very negatively.

Yet all three of the families, one from Australia, one from Paris, France and one from the States who came back to Brzostek found themselves surprised at the welcome that they received.  Some 80% of the town, since WW II, entirely Polish, came to the Jewish cemetery's rededication, including the town's parish priest, who participated in the ceremony.  

Prior to World War II, 1/3 of the town's residents were Jewish.  Jonathan Webber noted that when the town responded to an initiative of the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw to celebrate the United States 150th Birthday, the giant "birthday card," signed by all the town's school children clearly indicated that the town's school was integrated with children with traditionally Polish and Jewish names thoroughly / randomly dispersed throughout the card.   The town at that time was thoroughly Polish / Jewish.

Irving Wallach who came to the re-dedication ceremony from Australia met Taddeusz (a now man in his late 70s) who was the grandson of Maria Jałowiec who hid Wallach's mother (then a teenager) for 18 months in her barn after the SS, in 1942, came into town, called the town's Jewish community to assemble in the town's square and then led the all to a forest outside of town where they were all shot. (Wallach's mother had been able to break away from the group and run for her life away from where it was being led).  Taddeusz, who was only 8 at the time, knew that his grandmother was hiding her as well as another young Jewish woman (who had also managed to run away from her death) in their barn, and yet _kept the secret for the entire time that they were there_, this despite their own house having been used by the SS as a command center for several weeks at some point during the course of the war.

The French family was surprised to find the mill that their family how owned just outside of town, though no longer operating, still in good condition, one of the family members saying somewhat sadly, "I wish this place was closer to Paris" (where they now lived).

The re-dedication ceremonies did include a visit to the mass grave where the vast majority of the town's Jewish community had been murdered, the commemoration there attended again by the town's Catholic priest as well as another priest from a neighboring village.  The ceremonies concluded with a town potluck where the town's mothers basically cooked every single dish that was present in a recently published regional Jewish cookbook and the town's school kids (now all Catholic or at least non Jewish) put on a concert for the attendees playing Jewish regional folksongs including, of course, Hava Nagila.

This was a surprising (and honestly _very nice_) film.  The screening at the PFFA here in Chicago, attended by the film's director Simon Target, was again very well attended and was certainly one of the most interesting / compelling of this year's offerings at the ever excellent (and honestly ever surprising) Polish Film Festival of America.

Great job / congratulations to all! 

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser.

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