In the context of genocide, almost any individual survival story can sound like fantasy fiction. Here’s one for the books: A Polish-Jewish survivor of Buchenwald returns to a small town in Germany after WWII, marries and raises children with a Gentile woman, and closes the door on his past and any relatives left alive. Oh, and the town he settles in was built on the ruins of the concentration camp where he was held captive. His kids play there. With that, Feiv’ke Schwarz, subsequently Peter Schwarz, might have vanished from history. But the repressed tends to return, especially when subsequent generations hungry for knowledge and identity get busy excavating the past. Yael Reuveny is one such digger, and her compassionate but tough-minded documentary “Farewell Herr Schwarz” (opening Jan. 9 in New York) should have enormous appeal for those who don’t like their Holocaust stories coated with spurious sentimentality.
Reuveny had more than one personal stake in finding out what happened to Peter. For one thing, the young filmmaker is a Jewish Israeli who also chose to live in Germany. That’s a big enough deal for her parents, who, 70 years after the war, retain all the ambivalence of their generation toward all things German. Had Reuveny’s maternal grandmother lived to learn of Yael’s choice of a new home, it might have been a dealbreaker for her. For Michla Schwarz was not just a Holocaust survivor — she was the sister of Feiv’ke Schwarz.
As Michla told it, after the war she ended up in the Polish city of Lodz, where an acquaintance told her he’d run into Feiv’ke and would bring him to meet her the following morning at the train station. Her brother never showed up, and Michla left for Israel, where she married, started her own family, and (unless you count the nocturnal screams common in any household of survivors) mostly kept her grief to herself — even after she got the news in 1987 that a grave marked “Comrade Peter Schwarz” had turned up in a cemetery near the small East German town of Schlieben.
Reuveny, on the other hand, spent five years running around Europe and Israel in search of answers to the mystery of why Feiv’ke walked out on one life, took up another in the world of his tormentors, and tried never to speak of the past again. “Farewell Herr Schwarz” defines what a good Holocaust documentary should be, but only rarely is — a question without definitive answers, sustained by informed conjecture and with due diligence to collateral emotional wreckage. In Reuveny’s subtle hands, any uplift to emerge from this extraordinary tale is earned, not gratuitously extracted.
The director, who appears in the film mostly to pose questions, looks to be only in her mid-20s. But she’s a sophisticated storyteller who feels no obligation to chronological order, and a nimble juggler of telling visual details and multiple perspectives, her own included. Reuveny has an instinctive feel for the drama of ordinary lives, and her palpable compassion for all those caught in the wake of Peter’s decision to turn his back on his past — his children and grandson, her own family, Peter, herself — doesn’t stop her from wading into dangerous territory as needed.
“You think your father would want that?” she asks Peter’s grown son Uwe when he declares his intention of moving his father’s remains to a Jewish cemetery under his birth name. What Peter was thinking when he made his choice remains a mystery: Curiously, his wife hardly rates a mention beyond one old photo of an apparently happy couple. “Farewell Herr Schwarz” is about the variable meanings of his decision to those who survive him. And much more: This modest little film about two families with missing pieces carries within it the tortured history of two countries and several generations, struggling for new ways to remember the past and live the present. For Reuveny, who calls Germany home today, there’s also a bold and rarely asked question, “How much am I allowed to forget?”
“Farewell Herr Schwarz” ends with tentative bonds of conciliation and family renewal, but the film offers no false answers to the terrible conundrum of remembering and forgetting catastrophe. Yet there is potent commentary in an early scene in front of a row of neat little houses with well-tended gardens in Schlieben. There, a genial older German man blithely tells Reuveny that his current home once served as barracks for “the foreign workers.” Then he catches himself and hastily amends the phrase to “prisoners.”