Amid travels researching the roots of klezmer music, U.S. filmmaker-musician Yale Strom crossed paths with Ukrainian Jew and Holocaust survivor Zev Godinger, whose lively personality sparks this last part (following “At the Crossroads” and “The Last Klezmer”) in a feature trilogy about Eastern European Jewish heritage. Technically rough-hewn (vid-shot source materials remain obvious after 16mm transfer), engaging docu will play well for relevant broadcast and educational markets.
Pic starts with a joke of sorts, read by occasional narrator Leonard Nimoy: A Gypsy asks a Jew from the Carpathian Mountains how he managed to learn so many languages so well. “I had my bris (circumcision) in the Austrian Empire, my bar mitzvah in Czechoslovakia, my divorce in the Soviet Union, and I’ll be buried in the Ukraine. Still, I’ve never left my hometown.”
That gallows humor pins a once-burgeoning Jewish community’s schizoid national and cultural identity. The Ukraine once boasted Europe’s highest percentage of Jewish inhabitants, a largely agricultural, orthodox populace gradually shaved down by successively oppressive regimes. First Hitler brought his slaughter; then Stalin seized or wiped out nearly all synagogues and Jewish schools, businesses and traditions. When the oppression finally lifted (somewhat) decades later, many Ukrainian Jews opted simply to get the hell out, resettling in Israel or elsewhere.
Gregarious “Uncle Zev,” beloved by villagers of every religious and ethnic origin, stayed put. Most of his family was deported to Auschwitz; all were killed save him. He remembers thinking the smoke from charnel houses connoted “a bread factory, but it was a human factory.” Godinger survived by inflating his barely teenage form to look capable of adult workloads under the pitiless physical-exam gaze of Josef Mengele himself.
Liberated by Allied troops, Godinger went home, just missing his surviving sibs — who presumed him dead and proceeded to Israel. Thus he was stuck in the postwar USSR, where Judaism was pilloried. After immediate hardships, he built a stable home and family life selling ice cream.
Interviews with longtime and long-past neighbors underline the connection between Jews and Gypsies — both as communities persecuted in the Holocaust and as overlapping audiences and influences for klezmer music. When sometime musician Zev travels a long 50 miles back to the hometown he hasn’t visited since before Nazi incarceration, he’s stunned by how completely its Jewish past has been erased.
Zev’s delivery of a sacred Torah manuscript from the U.S. to his hometown provides the climax — though residents there have been weaned so far from Jewish tradition that the initial response is blase. Pic’s central theme is the gradual loss of Jewish life and culture from the Carpathian Mountains region; non-Jewish commentators bemoan the area’s simultaneous ebb in economic energy, pointing back to comparatively heady days when Jewish industry signaled better-stocked stores and fuller employment.
Zev, 66, is cast as “caretaker of the Jewish community” and its history-recording “gravedigger” via current mortuary employ. Despite occasional tears of remembrance, he’s an inspiringly cheerful and indomitable figurehead.
Docu has a tendency to ramble digressively at times, but remains affecting throughout. Tech values are ideally suited for broadcast formats.