April 16, 2007

Cornell Cinema

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At the beginning of Saved by Deportation, a documentary by Slawomir Grunberg, one of the films’s featured subjects, Asher Scharf, reflects on his incredible journey and comments: “When it’s meant to be that you should be alive, you stay alive.” This simple quote is a summary of the enduring faith of Asher and his fellow peers who survived the dark years of World War II and the Holocaust through a strange twist of fate.
After the initial Nazi invasion of Poland, the nation was partitioned by the Soviet and German regimes. In 1940, Stalin ordered the deportation of numerous Poles under his control to the Soviet Union’s interior in order to work in labor camps. Of the approximately 500,000 Polish citizens transported, 200,000 were Polish Jews. The deported wound up in numerous labor camps spread across the Russian interior, where the motto was: “You get used to this life, or you drop dead.”
However, this harsh policy became a gift of life for many of the Jewish prisoners who were saved from the Nazi death camps. When the camps granted them freedom, the refugees had to embark on foot, train or any other means through Central Asia in search of a way home to safety. Along their journey, the prisoners fought off disease and hunger, but remarkably managed to raise their children, get married and, most importantly, maintain their faith.
The idea for this — in the words of the director — “biblical seven year” project was posed to Grunberg by Robert Podgursky, a co-producer of Saved by Deportation whose father was deported to the labor camps. Grunberg, a Polish Jew himself whose father also survived the Nazis in World War II, became intrigued with the project. In a recent interview, Grunberg commented: “In some ways this film tells his story too.” Grunberg’s efforts have yielded a wonderful, provoking film that has won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Washington Jewish Film Festival.
The film’s strongest asset is Grunberg’s decision to revisit the sites of the Polish Jews’ exodus across Central Asia with Asher and Shifra Scharf — a married couple now in their 80s who survived the experience. It’s one thing to watch a documentary that features interviews and archival footage. It’s a completely different experience when you can watch an 80-year-old man visit the same room in Russia where he huddled against the cold winter, or when Asher and Shifra revisit the places of their courtship and marriage that took place in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. As Asher and Shifra reach out and interact with people who — 60 years later — live and work in the same coal mines, apartments and shelters, they also reach out to us as an audience.
A constant theme through the film is the strange nature of fate. Originally, the Polish Jews sent to Siberia believed that they were issued a death sentence, when in fact it was a roundabout gift of life. This strange result is even more difficult to fathom considering that the exiled Jews had no role in planning their own salvation. On the contrary, many initially tried to escape the deportation. It is a tremendous question of faith to ask why one has been saved when so many others have not. Even more amazing is how so many survivors look back on the hard experience as a gift. One survivor commented: “I think that it is only there that I became a human being.”
A secondary theme is present in Saved by Deportation, one that even Grunberg was surprised to discover as he filmed the documentary. It is the remarkable human kindness that often coexists with our history’s darkest moments. All of the survivors note the incredible charity that they encountered during their exodus through present-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. 60 years later, Asher and Shifra encounter the same kindness in nations which our media and popular sentiment suggest would be the most hostile for Westerners, let alone Orthodox Jews. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, Asher exchanges stories, prayers and tales of his grandchildren with a Tajik man. Like the subject matter of Saved by Deportation, it is a wonderful, human proof of genuine faith and kindness, even in the face of extreme differences and challenges.
Cornell Cinema will be showing Saved by Deportation on Thursday, April 19 at 7:15 PM in WSH with local filmmaker Slawomir Grunberg, editor Christopher Julian and soundtrack composer Robby Aceto.