October 4, 2007

Fled From Home; Now Going Back

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Writer, director and Cornell physics professor Robert Lieberman has spent much of his career thinking about the places he has lived.
“You’re supposed to write about what you know,” he said. Indeed, Lieberman has pondered his home through fiction: He has written over a dozen books, many of which are based in Ithaca, where his feature film Green Lights is also based.
But with his most recent film, a documentary, Lieberman decided to kink with the old adage and venture back to a place he left behind over 55 years ago: Kew Gardens, New York.
The result is a feature-length film, Last Stop Kew Gardens, which chronicles Lieberman’s journey back home and the rediscovery of the Holocaust survivors’ children he grew up with.
Nestled within the bustling Queens metropolis during the 1940s and ’50s, Kew Gardens was a neighborhood composed almost entirely of German and Austrian Holocaust refugees.
“Our parents recreated a Europe that had disappeared,” Lieberman said.
He remembers Viennese bakeries that lined the streets and how it seemed that everybody spoke German primarily.
Lieberman left Kew Gardens shortly after high school, not to return for over 50 years.
In 2005, Lieberman was contacted by OldKewGardens.com, a community website dedicated to the history of the town, and decided to write an article reminiscing about his childhood.
“Kew Gardens was a unique place in time, a sanctuary for refugees from Central Europe. It seemed that everybody on the streets spoke German,” he wrote in the OldKewGardens.com article. “As far as little Bobby [Lieberman] knew, everybody in the world was German speaking.”
To Lieberman’s surprise, the article triggered a wide response, as he started receiving emails and calls from those Kew Gardens “German speaking children” around the globe.
“I don’t know why I wrote [the article],” he said.
But most likely Lieberman felt nostalgic about his childhood home.
“The Kew Gardens, the home that I know and remember and almost love, was a fleeting point in time, a unique moment in history never to be visited again,” he writes in the initial article. “My parents’ generation has largely disappeared off the face of the earth. Their children are now parents and often grandparents themselves. When they — we — shed our earth suits, little if anything of the old Kew Gardens will remain, save for that which is written. Which is maybe why I went to this effort. What’s called for is not a brief essay, but a book, perhaps volumes.”
Also, as it turns out, a movie.
In the wake of the response the article stirred, Lieberman decided to organize a reunion for P.S. 99, the elementary school he attended in Kew Gardens.
He started the filmmaking process by interviewing P.S. 99 graduates at the reunion. The intention was for the project to be an investigation of the strong connection these adults felt with the community they came from. Lieberman also believes that “children of refugees and survivors” are particularly “driven” and ambitious.
After shooting hours of film, Lieberman’s editor and associate producer Richard Breyer, professor of film at Syracuse University, insisted that Lieberman shift the film’s focus. Breyer suggested the film should be about Lieberman and his journey home — not only about the Kew Gardens of the 1950s.
Although “I didn’t want to be in the movie,” Lieberman said, Breyer successfully convinced him to become the narrative thread of the film.
“Essentially, [the film is] the story of me going back to the place where I fled,” he said.
It is also about the people he left behind.
Traveling across America, and even throughout Europe, Lieberman discovered many famous and influential Kew Garden natives. Last Stop Kew Gardens features interviews with TV personality Jerry Springer, comedian Robert Schimmel, Josh Brand (creator of the TV series Northern Exposure and St. Elsewhere) and Today Show’s Rona Elliot, whom are all alumni of P.S. 99.
But perhaps more meaningful are those connections Lieberman was able to reestablish.
“I have made a lot of friends that I had lost,” he said. During the filmmaking process, Lieberman even reconnected with his estranged relatives — a cousin and her family — who lived only miles away growing up.
He said the complicated separation had to do with the Holocaust, but he gave away little and was eager to let his film do most of the explaining.