October 17, 2018

Honor Thy Parents

Blythe Danner, David Lascher and Kevin Zegers star in “A Call to Remember.”In “A Call to Remember,” which airs on Aug. 30 on STARZ! and Aug. 31 on the encore cable channel, we meet David and Paula Tobias (Joe Mantegna and Blythe Danner), survivors who lost their first spouses and children in the Holocaust. They are, nevertheless, attempting the semblance of a normal life in suburbia, raising two boys who want only to assimilate, to become Americans.

The younger ditches bar mitzvah practice for Little League; the older brother yearns to move out of his parents’ home and partake of the 1960s counterculture.

Then comes the telephone call that will change their lives forever. Paula learns that one of her lost sons is, in fact, alive and living in Poland. The aftermath nearly tears the family apart.

This telefilm is perhaps one of the most detailed TV renderings of the effects of the Shoah on survivors’ children, the so-called Second Generation. Not surprisingly, it is based on a true story: the childhood memories of screenwriter and co-producer Max Eisenberg.

“I wanted to show the aftermath of ‘Schindler’s List,'” says Eisenberg, 48. “I wanted to talk about the children who have inherited all of the pain of their parents, and to come to terms with issues I have been wrestling with my whole life.”

“A Call to Remember” is unabashedly autobiographical, Eisenberg says, save for the fact that he was, in real life, an only child, growing up on Maryland Drive in Los Angeles’ Fairfax district. His parents’ names were David and Pola, and, like the fictional sons in the movie, he was frustrated when they refused to talk about their pasts, even to reveal the names of their murdered children. Eisenberg discovered pictures of his siblings in hidden photo albums, but when he asked about them, his parents said that he could never understand, for what did he know of suffering?

He did not learn much more when the fateful telephone call came about his half brother (around the time Eisenberg was abandoning bar mitzvah practice for baseball). For several months, his mother lived in a blissful “fantasy state,” until she learned that there had been a clerical error and that her son had indeed died in the Holocaust. She took to her bed, attempted suicide, and was tormented for the rest of her life.

Max Eisenberg (left) and Jack Bender.In the film, after the bad news arrives, the family must deal with the death of hope and with the real truth of their lives. It’s not the glory of family reunification as depicted in Barbara Lebow’s 1985 play, “A Shayna Maidel,” or its TV spinoff, “Miss Rose White,” but the stark, unromantic reality of life after the Holocaust.

All the Second Generation emotions that Eisenberg experienced during this time are portrayed in the film: his anger at a half brother who seemed to be the “perfect child”; his unconscious feeling that going to Vietnam would prove his own ability to withstand torture; the sense that his adolescent angst could never measure up to the suffering of his parents; the notion that he must make something of himself to make up for all those who were lost.

Instead, Eisenberg escaped to the stage in the drama department at Fairfax High, where he could become someone else for a time. He also escaped to the assimilated Jewish home of his friend Jack Bender (the director of “A Call to Remember”), where there was a Christmas tree and no aura of the Holocaust.

But even after his parents died in the mid-1970s, Eisenberg did not escape their legacy. “Though they were no longer alive, it was as if I was out to show them how much I could suffer,” he says. “To feel closer to them, I created my own hell, my own Holocaust, and I went on a five-year, self-destructive mission of drinking, drugs, gambling and spending money.”

Therapy pulled him out of that black hole and helped him make peace with his late parents. And by 1978, Eisenberg had sold his first TV story (for “The Paper Chase”), co-written with his best friend, Bender.

Eisenberg was finally ready to tell his family story on television six years ago. By then, he was a successful TV writer, cranking out scripts for “Home Improvement” and “Beverly Hills, 90210,” and was lamenting that his own children would never know their grandparents.

But everywhere he peddled the script, he says, it was deemed “too Jewish.” Someone suggested that the story could work if it were a sort of “Jewish ‘Dallas,'” and Eisenberg disgustedly admits that he “almost sold out.” Then with “Schindler’s List,” Shoah stories were in vogue; Mantegna and Danner signed on; and the shoot last year was almost a family affair. Bender had known Eisenberg’s parents and so had co-producer Ronna Slutske, who was Eisenberg’s girlfriend in junior high.

“I really wanted to honor my parents, to be respectful but also truthful,” the writer says of the film. “Of course, I was really nervous and frightened when my aunt finally came to see the movie. I was relieved when she came up to me afterward, with tears in her eyes, and told me my parents would have loved it. It’s as if I’m saying to them, ‘You see, I did care, and I really did understand.'”