Filmmaker Pola Rapaport grew up in a family of secrets.
Her psychiatrist father never spoke of his life before meeting Pola’s mother. He never spoke of his family. He never mentioned that he was Jewish, though Pola figured that out when he took her to Yom Kippur services when she was 10. And just before he died of cancer in 1972 — Pola was then 16 — his last words to his wife were, "Be discreet."
Rapaport, who calls her father’s death "the greatest trauma of my life," unravels the mystery in her acclaimed documentary, "Family Secret," to air July 2 on the Sundance Channel.
Her detective work began around 1982, when she rifled through her father’s desk and found a small photograph of a beautiful, dark-haired boy hidden away in a drawer. On the back of the photo, there was a tender inscription in French: "Hugs and kisses, Pierre."
"Immediately, I was struck by the boy’s resemblance to my father," says Rapaport, now 45. "From that moment on, I felt convinced I had a brother somewhere."
But the award-winning filmmaker had no idea how to pursue the mysterious Pierre — until her mother received an odd letter, postmarked Bucharest, in the spring of 1998. "It began, ‘I am looking for the trace of Dr. Ionel Rapaport’s family’ and it was signed, ‘Pierre Radulescu-Banu,’" the filmmaker recalls. "I gasped and wondered, ‘Could it be the same Pierre from Daddy’s photograph?’" Two weeks later, Pierre, a middle-aged computer scientist, confessed he was her half-brother. Within the month, the New York filmmaker, with her camera, was on a plane to Bucharest. Pierre met her at the airport, "holding a little bouquet of flowers and looking forlorn," Rapaport recalls. He told his half-sister that he was essentially alone in Romania because his wife had died, and his son had moved to America.
In the car on the way out of the airport, he described how he had unraveled his own family secret.
His journey, like Pola’s, began with the discovery of a photograph — in his case, a picture of Dr. Ionel Rapaport. Eventually, he found a copy of his father’s obituary and spent years trying to track down his two half-sisters, who were mentioned in the article. Then, in May 1998, he found an important clue scrawled on a yellowed slip of paper in one of his mother’s books: Dr. Rapaport’s last known address. Immediately, he mailed off a letter and nervously awaited a response.
"It was the most difficult [time] of my life," because you could reject me, and then I would be destroyed," Pierre tells Pola in the film.
"Family Secret" follows Pola and Pierre as they travel from New York to Paris to Bucharest to gather information about their father. They discover that Dr. Rapaport left his hometown of Buzau, Romania, to study medicine in Paris when he was 17. During World War II, he eluded the Nazis by posing as a Christian and began a torrid affair with Pierre’s mother, a non-Jew. Ultimately, despite the birth of their son, he declined to marry her because of the religious difference.
After Pierre and his mother were repatriated to Romania in 1948, Dr. Rapaport cut off all contact with his son — ostensibly, so Pierre wouldn’t suffer anti-Semitism behind the Iron Curtain.
While Pola and Pierre still have many unanswered questions about their father, they say making "Family Secret" was cathartic. "It was a way to bring our elusive father back into the present, at least for a time," Pola explains.
Yet the message of the film, she insists, is universal. "It shows that when a secret comes out, it doesn’t destroy a family, but makes it stronger," she says.