December 9, 2018

Filmmaker Explores Shoah’s Aftermath

Writer-director Jon Kean documented the harrowing experiences of six female Holocaust survivors in his 2007 documentary, “Swimming in Auschwitz.” A decade later, his sequel “After Auschwitz” focuses on the aftermath of liberation, emigration and ultimately, how the same six women rebuilt their lives in Los Angeles.

“I’d never thought of liberation as being a sad day, that’s how naïve I was,” Kean told the Journal. “Liberation was awful for these women. That’s what drove me to make this film. I wanted to see the world through survivors’ eyes. When you’ve seen such tragedy and trauma you’d be forgiven if you gave up. But it’s the exact opposite with these women.”

After interviewing his subjects for the second time, Kean had 30 hours of emotional testimony to condense into 80 minutes. “I knew them so well that we could get to the core of things so quickly. They trusted me,” he said.

The finished product tells “an emotional story that covers history, sociology, psychology and Los Angeles in the 20th century — how Angelenos welcomed these survivors and either made life easier for them or more difficult,” he said.

Kean partnered with the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust to raise funds for the film, promote it and get it screened for young people who might not be familiar with the story. “They know the Holocaust happened but don’t know the facts,” he said. “I’m putting together a curriculum guide with the museum for the next school year. That’s where we can really affect people.”

Growing up in Philadelphia in a family with “a very strong Jewish identity but not as strong religiously,” Kean, 50, became interested in the Holocaust early on.

“In another five years, the eyewitnesses to the greatest horror of mankind will be gone.” — Jon Kean

“The father of one of my best friends was an Auschwitz survivor, and I remember him coming to our Hebrew school and talking with us. The ‘Holocaust’ miniseries came out when I was 11, and it was so powerful to me. I was transfixed by it,” he said. “My bar mitzvah speech was about Simon Wiesenthal and hunting for Nazi war criminals. I got to meet Simon 10 years ago in Vienna.”

Kean earned a degree in economics from the University of Pennsylvania but joined a friend in an acting class on a whim, moved to Hollywood, and landed roles on TV shows, including “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Clueless.” Moving behind the camera, he co-wrote and co-directed the 1999 comedy “Kill the Man,” but failed to get subsequent scripts produced. “I wanted to do something that was more meaningful,” he said.

Kean is considering Rwandan genocide survivors as his next subject. “There is an urgency right now,” he said. “It’s not just people forgetting the Holocaust, it’s people forgetting what’s happening right now.”

That urgency exists on another level, with the Shoah generation disappearing. Three of “After Auschwitz’s” six subjects have died.

“In another five years, the eyewitnesses to the greatest horror of mankind will be gone,” Kean said, noting that Renee Firestone, 94, “travels all over the United States and speaks almost every day because she knows she has to do it now. Erika Jacoby [age 90] does the same.”

Kean said he knows “there are a lot of people who won’t see the film because of the word ‘Auschwitz.’ But to me this is a post-Holocaust story, a story about overcoming trauma. Everybody can relate to that.”

“After Auschwitz” opens May 4 at the Laemmle Music Hall and Laemmle Town Center 5 theaters. Some screenings will feature a Q-and-A session.