Examining a shared history through a festival lens
Last fall, I was invited to show my documentary “Raquel: A Marked Woman” in Eastern Europe, including Poland, Romania and Ukraine. I wondered whether the gap left by the annihilation of local Jewish communities, followed by decades of silence and secrecy behind the Iron Curtain, is the same in each country.
My documentary tells the story of a young Jewish-Polish mother, Raquel Liberman, who left Warsaw in 1922 with her two young children to follow her husband to Argentina. What happened next is an ordeal many young women suffer today. An international crime organization, made up of Jewish-Polish immigrants, entrapped and enslaved her into the sex trade. These men recruited young Jewish women from the shtetls (small Jewish villages) in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century. The organization, headquartered in Argentina, ensnared Raquel in its web and destined her to a life of suffering.
In my film, the “bad” guys are Jews. I ask audiences to move past the familiar demonization or idealization of Jews and see them as human beings with all their human foibles. This exercise is challenging for a conventional Jewish-American audience. Because these East European countries are only now beginning to reconcile their shared pre-World War II history with Jews, I was curious about their reaction.
It was a great opportunity to present subject matter that local audiences could relate to — given its historic and present-day relevance to the Eastern Europe sex trade. I realized that bringing Raquel back to her home country of Poland would also be a chance to engage with local audiences and understand the cultural and environmental landscape from which my heroine came — a culture that had been fertile ground for the Holocaust.
Before embarking on my mini-tour, I thought I would experience the consequences of the Russian propaganda machine — a generation too old or too complacent with its secrets. But the opposite seemed to be true. Most young people feel a kinship to Jews and Jewish culture. Yes, it’s now “hip” to be a Jew. This led me to ask: Is the recent resurgence of interest in Jewish culture and traditions in Eastern Europe based on curiosity or atonement?
“Raquel” was scheduled for two film festivals and two community screenings, all run by non-Jews. These audiences are trying to come to grips with their history and the reformulation of their identity. In Warsaw, a city that was leveled during the war and eerily rebuilt by the Communists, the audiences’ surprising focus was not on the “bad” Polish Jews, but on Raquel’s courageous journey from enslavement to heroine.
Krakow’s Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, an old town dating back to the 12th century, is seeing a Jewish revival of sorts. Many young Polish people are finding out that their grandparents converted to Catholicism and never spoke about their origins — either for fear of persecution or guilt by association.
This unique population was represented in the questions it raised: “Did the Catholic neighbor, who became the foster parent to Raquel’s two young boys, ever tell them that they were Jewish?” “Why did Raquel leave her children with a non-Jew?”
In Bucharest, Romania, the event planners were eager to educate Romanian non-Jews about Jewish life, culture and Israel. Why? The new generation of Romanians is completely unaware of its relationship to its Jewish past, and Israelis run many of the country’s mid-level businesses. The focus of the audience was twofold. First, was I afraid for my life in exposing this Jewish mafia? Did I have the mafia’s list of members and was I going to publish it? Second, the audience deeply identified with Raquel’s story and shared how its country is living through what was depicted in the film: girls being trafficked in and out of Romania for sex.
The final screening took place in Lviv, Ukraine. All but one of the synagogues is still standing, and years of Soviet rule obliterated the population’s enmeshed history with the Jews. In Ukraine, the truth is hard to find and its re-creation is a feeding machine of propaganda and fears. The questions that surfaced were about what happens when there’s a gap in knowledge, as in Raquel’s story. For 70 years, her children and grandchildren remained completely in the dark. How does the gap in knowledge get filled when much of the information has been buried or is dismissed? Was it possible for Raquel’s descendants to make sense of her story even if the information was buried?
At the end of my trip, both as Raquel’s storyteller and as a second-generation Holocaust survivor, I asked myself questions similar to what my audiences asked. How do you build a story when there’s a gap in history? How do you create an identity when much of your history is buried in secrecy or dismissal? In my films, I have explored the notion of active recalling, engaging and, ultimately, taking responsibility for our past. What happens when those who held the memories die off, as in the case of Raquel? Who is responsible for the telling of their story?
The new generation in these countries surprised me. What at first seemed such a peculiar reality — Eastern Europeans hungry to find their connection to Jewish history — has now made me realize that we might be struggling with a similar goal.
The journey through these lands has opened my heart to a past we share. We are forever tied to a communal history. It is no longer about victims and perpetrators. It is about our humanity. It is about a world that requires us to see beyond our fears, to question our lessons, and to open our hearts — as I know Raquel’s story has opened audiences’ hearts to the reality that too many young women are still being trafficked today.
Gabriela Bohm is a filmmaker in Los Angeles.