Sebastian in West Virginia asks: Mr. Daum, as an educator, and more importantly, a new father, I was touched by your devotion to your sons’ moral, ethical, and spiritual formation. Given what I perceive to be your remarkable abilities as a moral educator, how can parents help their children to better sift through the information (often reinforced by seemingly credible TV/radio/print media) that causes them to see people from other “worlds” as enemies?
Menachem Daum: Dear Sebastian, congratulations on becoming a parent. I’m flattered that you consider me to be a remarkable moral educator but the truth is that I muddled through parenthood and made many mistakes along the way. All I can suggest is the obvious; try to set a personal example to your children of your own openness to people from “other” worlds. Look for opportunities to encounter such people together with your children. These encounters don’t have to be as dramatic as what you saw in Hiding and Seeking. More important is the personal example of acceptance that you will be setting for them. Good luck.
H in Canada asks: What advice do you have for writing my own “ethical will”?
Daum: Dear H, in response to your inquiry I found a number of promising websites and books that purport to help one write an ethical will (see especially www.ethicalwill.com). I have even come across advertisements for professional consultants in this area, although I doubt this is really necessary for most of us. In order to put an ethical will together you have to be willing to face your mortality, something many of us expend inordinate amounts of energy trying to avoid. Once you’re past that hurdle you will need to do some soul searching to articulate your credo, the values your life experience has taught you are most meaningful. The reward for doing this inner work is the satisfaction of knowing an ethical will is one of the greatest gifts you can leave to your children and grandchildren. Best wishes.
Lynn in Pennsylvania asks: How were you treated by the Polish people that were not part of this special family? Were they warm or did they laugh and show disrespect? We enjoyed this very powerful film, we cried with your families.
Daum: Dear Lynn, my life has been enriched by some of the wonderful Poles I have encountered since my first visit to Poland in 1989. I have been there eight times, always walking about openly with my Jewish skullcap, and only once encountered anyone who exhibited outward signs of antagonism toward me because I’m a Jew. Occasionally I see anti-Jewish graffiti in places where no Jews have lived since the Holocaust. It was explained to me that much of this graffiti is the work of rabid soccer fans. Wishing to insult their opponents they call them “Jews” as a way of referring to their lack of athletic prowess. Whether or not this is true I believe a more tolerant outlook has taken hold among much of today’s Polish youth. Young people in Poland today are much less paranoid about who is a “true Pole” than their pre-WWII forbearers. They are no longer fearful of constantly being swallowed up by Russia or Germany. Most young Poles are confident, see themselves as part of a western democracy, part of NATO and the European Union. All this contributes to a new mentality of openness and holds the promise of a better future. Be well.
Tiffany in Nebraska asks: I was moved by the generosity of spirit of the filmmakers, so it was no surprise to me that Shlomo Carlebach was of some influence to them. Most people I know who were touched by Rabbi Carlebach function much the same way. So having sadly missed the era of Carlebach, I was wondering: who has taken his place? Does such a Jewish leader exist like that today? I figured if anyone knew, it might be you. If such a Jewish leader exists today, I would like to meet him.
Daum: Dear Tiffany, as you may know, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was a Jewish spiritual revivalist who sought to eradicate the barriers separating people from one another, especially those dividing Jews from non-Jews. In the course of his lifelong spiritual journey Carlebach came to the simple yet profound insight shared by the great mystics of all religions; that all people are deeply and Divinely inter-connected. Until his death in 1994, Carlebach performed all over the world for Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike.
Initially I was drawn to Rabbi Carlebach by his charisma and his extraordinary talent as a Hasidic singer and storyteller. Over time I became even more influenced by his strong sense of connectedness to every single human being. For me, having been raised in an insular Hasidic world, his approach was novel and bold. Of course, it is easier to develop a theology that embraces the “other” if you are willing to fudge on your own religious truths. However, Rabbi Carlebach provided me with a role model of someone who embraced the outside world while retaining an uncompromising, one could even say fundamentalist, faith in the veracity of Orthodox Judaism.
At some point I hope to produce a biographical documentary of his complex life and legacy. Until then you can find out more about Rabbi Carlebach, his message and his music here.
Since his death I have been searching for someone in the Orthodox Jewish world to replace him but have had limited success. Nonetheless, I found a number of rabbis who have grappled with broadening Orthodox Judaism to be more embracing and respectful of “the other.” Among others, these include Rabbi Johnathan Sacks, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg (listen and read along to an interview with Rabbi Greenberg) and Rabbi Saul Berman. Best wishes.
Bob in Canada asks: Do you think your father-in-law would have answered the same way if he was in his twenties? I have faith that some Jews would have also saved others if the situation was reversed. I saw and heard of great acts of courage while hiding in Budapest as Christians.
Daum: Dear Bob, I sometimes hear audiences gasp in condemnation when my father-in-law says he would not have acted as heroically as his rescuers did, that he would not have risked his life for others. It is easy to be smug about how hypothetically righteous and altruistic we would have been in Nazi-occupied Europe 65 years ago. And I’m sure there were great acts of courage performed by both Jews and Gentiles. But how many of those who condemn my father-in-law lose much sleep over genocides taking place today in places like Darfur in the Sudan. Getting involved in stopping such crimes against humanity doesn’t require risking one’s life or one’s children’s lives as the actions of the Muchas did. Personally, I respect my father-in-law’s honest acknowledgement of our human weaknesses even as we pray for the strength to rise above them.
David in New York asks: We lost many relatives in the Holocaust. This film is one of the most affecting I have ever seen and G-d Bless these two inspired men who had the vision to do something so unusual. I, and I am certain thousands of others, would like very much to write to these brave Poles and thank them via a personal letter and perhaps send a gift. PLEASE send me their address and post it for others who feel as I do.
Daum: Dear David, since the film was completed about two years ago I have visited the Mucha family four times. They are proud people who will not ask for help although I can plainly see they can use it. If you would like to send some money for me to pass on to them on my next visit to Poland I will be glad to do so. Please send checks for this purpose to me at: Menachem Daum, 1819 55th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11204. Thank you for your concern.
Elizabeth in Utah asks: Is there a fund set up for donations, regarding the cemetery being cared for? I felt like crying when I saw your grandchildren playing on the slopes, and you turned and looked at a sliver of human bone protruding from the dirt. Something must be done.
Daum: Dear Elizabeth, thank you for your interest in the nearly forgotten Jewish cemetery in Dzialoszyce. Whenever I go there I hear the voices of thousands who are buried there asking that their final resting place should not be forgotten. If you would like to help me in this effort, tax-deductible contributions can be made out to the Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies. Please write “Dzialoszyce account” on your check and on your cover letter or note. Please send to The Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies, 787 Delaware Avenue, Buffalo, NY 14209. Thanks for your concern. P.S. Those were local Polish kids playing in the cemetery you saw, not my grandchildren.
Jess in Nevada asks: I think this documentary is one of the best I’ve EVER seen. I have a degree in Film & TV and I’m currently working on my own family documentary. My question is one of funding and pre-production. How did you begin to put this together? Did you fund it yourself throughout or apply for grants? Did you have to shoot video for a “pilot-like” treatment prior to funding?
Daum: Dear Jess, I generally discourage people from considering independent documentary filmmaking as a career (unless they are independently wealthy). I tell them that only a small percentage of such films that get started are ever completed, and of those that do get completed how few ever get a sizable audience. I tell them about the difficulties in raising money from funders who are unwilling to take risks on such costly projects that have such minimal chances of success. Even after raising some money, many times the only way to complete the film will be to forego paying yourself. Sometimes you have to do more than that and dip into your own limited resources to finish the film. If despite my bleak warnings the inquirer stubbornly persists then, and only then, do I try to advise him or her as best as I can.
You mention your interest in doing a family documentary. Please be honest and ask yourself why anyone else should care about your family? What are the larger issues your family story can shed light on? Do you have engaging characters whom the audience can empathize with? And most important, do you have a compelling story that will hold your film together? If you are comfortable with your answers to these questions you might be on to something. My experience has been that funders generally want to see a sample of your work-in-progress so you will probably have to finance that initial effort yourself or get a small grant to get off the ground. In my case, I got a modest start-up National Endowment for the Arts grant that I used to create a work-in-progress sample. I then used the sample, together with a previously completed film I had made and a proposed treatment to get an Independent Television Service production grant. Over 600 experienced filmmakers applied to ITVS during that funding cycle and I was fortunate to be one of only seven that got funded.
Despite my words of caution, I hope I have been of some help to you. Best wishes.
Shelly in Texas asks: Thank you for making this film. Will you make another?
Daum: Dear Shelly, I believe Poles and Jews have a special opportunity to set an example of how to stop the intergenerational transmission of ethnic and religious hatred. Therefore, I’m currently working on a follow-up film whose working title is Common Ground. Like Hiding and Seeking much of this new film also takes place in Dzialoszyce, Poland. When 30 emaciated Jewish survivors straggled back to this town right after the Holocaust, four of them were murdered and the rest fled. No Jews have lived there since. During the post-war Communist era local inhabitants destroyed most of the evidence of the town’s 350 years of Jewish history, such as the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery.
While I was fruitlessly searching for even one tombstone or remnant of the Jewish cemetery I had this feeling that those buried there were pleading with me. They were asking that at least their final resting place should not be forgotten. I felt the best way to honor them was to use the restoration of their cemetery as a vehicle to bring Poles and Jews together. So far I have been greatly encouraged by the genuine interest I found among some Polish students and their teachers in rediscovering Dzialoszyce’s long suppressed Jewish history. Many of them recognize that Jewish history and Polish history are inextricably entwined. I now face the task of educating Jewish survivors and their descendents to view the new generation of young Poles with a more open mind. Some Jewish survivors are critical of me, unable to believe today’s young Poles are any different than the generation of Poles they remember with much bitterness. I must overcome their suspicions and convince them to entrust the stewardship of their hometown’s Jewish history to these young Poles. Eventually, I would like to bring together the Polish students of Dzialoszyce with the Jewish descendants of the town’s survivors.
For my experiment to succeed I need to convince young Jews and Poles to face ugly truths and abandon beautiful lies, to face history as it was rather than as they would like it to be.