Alfred Hitchcock once said, “In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director.” I think about this when people congratulate us for our “brilliant” filmmaking. The truth is we were skating on pretty thin ice. Despite our best efforts things could just as easily have turned out otherwise. We went to Poland almost 60 years after the events, not knowing if the rescuers still lived in the same place or even if they were still alive. The fact that we actually found them is, to me, a sign that we had “unfinished business,” that we had an inter-generational mission to complete. We literally came at the last moment. Three of the key figures in the film died in the past year; the Polish rescuer, Wojciech Mucha, my father-in-law whom he rescued, Chaim Federman, and my father, Moshe Yosef Daum. On an upbeat note, the Muchas’ granddaughter, (the one in the film who so lovingly brought her grandparents outside to meet us) got married in April 2004 and her brother got married in April 2005. I made it a point to attend both of these weddings and try to maintain a close relationship with Mrs. Mucha, as best as I can.
Some good news about Kamila, the Polish woman who takes care of the cemetery in my parents’ hometown of Zdunska Wola. People often overlook her important role in the film as she tends to be eclipsed by the rescuers. However, she is the first Pole my sons encountered whose devotion to preserving the Jewish cemetery and Jewish history challenged their simplistic stereotypes of Polish anti-Semitism. For years Kamila has been caring for the Jewish cemetery with no financial remuneration. She invites local Polish high school students to the cemetery and uses it as a vehicle for teaching them about the dangers of intolerance. I am very pleased to report that Kamila has now started her doctorate in Jewish studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. She has already mastered enough Hebrew to read and record the inscriptions on the tombstones. On Sunday, July 3rd, 2005, Kamila was honored, together with other distinguished citizens of Poland who volunteer to preserve their country’s Jewish patrimony. The Israeli Ambassador to Poland presented Kamila with her award.
Since the completion of the film both of my sons and their families have returned from Israel to live in the U.S. My oldest son, Tzvi Dovid, teaches Torah at the Jewish Foundation School in Staten Island, New York. His brother, Akiva, continues his advanced Talmudic studies at Beth Medrash Gevoah in Lakewood, New Jersey. One of the first questions audiences often ask at Q&A sessions following the film is, “What has been the impact of the trip to Poland on your sons?” I think it has had a more obvious impact on my older son, Tzvi Dovid. During his speech in the film he refers to Mrs. Mucha’s parents, Stanislaw and Mariana Matuszczk, as being “of blessed memory.” Now that is a phrase usually reserved for revered ancestors or pious rabbis. The fact that he applies this term to Polish farmers is an indication that his moral universe has begun to expand. The impact on Akiva is less apparent. Akiva has returned to his insular life of Torah study with great intensity. If you recall, Akiva is the one who makes a remark at the end of the film that the rescuers were the exception to the rule. He feels that if given another opportunity, most Poles would again be glad to rid their country of its Jews. But even with Akiva I see some positive movement. Just admitting that there were some exceptions is a start. I like to think that meeting the rescuers face-to-face and looking them in the eyes cannot help but have some lasting impact on him. As I say in the film, “It’s like planting a seed.” It takes time.
Some people want to know what impact the film has had on me personally. As best as I can tell it has made it increasingly clear to me that Poles and Jews are not all that different from one another. Despite all I had been led to believe, I am even more firmly convinced we are all basically made of the same stuff. It is clear to me there were and are saints and sinners among Poles as well as among Jews.
As a result I increasingly find myself struggling with some difficult questions. If no one’s DNA is morally superior or inferior to another’s, then what accounts for Polish anti-Semitism? If we are all made of the same stuff then would I have been any different in my attitude towards Jews if I had been born into a Polish peasant’s family a century ago? The answers that I come up with trouble me. The type of insular education my sons have chosen is closely modeled after the parochial education their grandparents and great-grandparents would have received in the chayders and yeshivas of Poland. What exactly were Jewish children in those schools taught about their Polish neighbors? Did their education and socialization emphasize respect for the image of God they shared with Poles and with all human beings? Sadly, I am quite certain they were not taught to respect Poles or the Polish religion, language and culture. If Jewish education had placed greater emphasis on our shared humanity I wonder how many more Poles would have come to the aid of their Jewish neighbors. I don’t really know the answer to that question and I’m unsure it would have made much of a difference. Even raising this question sounds dangerously close to blaming the victim. However, it’s a question I feel we have to ask ourselves.”
I have enjoyed attended screenings of Hiding and Seeking in many cities across the United States, Canada, England and Israel. But I felt most privileged to screen the film in Dzialoszyce, the hometown of the rescuers. No Jews have lived in Dzialoszyce since a handful of liberated survivors were killed in a pogrom in June, 1945. Afterwards local inhabitants destroyed almost all remnants of the town’s 350-year Jewish history including the synagogue, the house of study and cemetery. I was therefore pleasantly surprised at the screening to find the local high school teachers had prepared a special photo exhibit of their town’s Jewish history. I also found a number of young people who were genuinely interested in rediscovering what they could of that long-suppressed history. They recognized that Jewish history and Polish history are inextricably entwined. In response to their interest I arranged for a historian to come from Krakow every other week to offer Jewish-Polish studies as an extra-curricular activity. About 12 students are now doing independent research, interviewing elders who remember a time when Jews still lived in Dzialoszyce. I see these young people as being in the vanguard of Polish-Jewish reconciliation. I have begun a new film with the working title Common Ground, in which I try to get these young Poles to work together with Jewish descendents of Dzialoszyce survivors from America and Israel to restore the town’s Jewish cemetery and Jewish history. In the course of doing so I hope they will not only rediscover their common history but also their common humanity.
Perhaps I’m deluding myself but I have come to believe that if Poles and Jews can reconcile, there is a possibility our example can inspire other ethnic and religious antagonists to do likewise. This belief has led me to make Hiding and Seeking and now Common Ground. Most likely this reflects the continuing influence of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach who, upon our arrival in Poland in 1989, told me, “We now have the great privilege of meeting the Polish people. So let’s bring them a little message from heaven. Everyone knows the world we live in is not the way it should be. But no one shows us a picture of how to make this a better world. The best picture is simply when one person meets another. That’s all there is to it.”
— Menachem Daum, August 2005