The Eternal Kaddish

“Kaddish,” which originally premiered in 1984, is an intimately powerful documentary about the effects of the Holocaust on its first- and second-generation survivors.
August 18, 2022
Yossi Klein Halevi with his father Zoltan

“There’s something special about this little people, the Jews,” said Zoltan Klein, in the newly restored and digitally remastered documentary “Kaddish.” “This little people, if united, can withstand anything.”

But his son, a young Yossi Klein Halevi, was not buying it. He was raised on his father’s bedtime stories of his grandparents’ extermination at Auschwitz, along with 400,000 Hungarian Jews, with his father only surviving by burying himself and two friends in an underground “bunker” for six months. Those stories led to recurring nightmares of being chased by Nazis on the Coney Island boardwalk. The Nazis would always kill him while everyone else kept eating cotton candy.

In fact, young Yossi was angry that his father hadn’t gone back to slaughter as many non-Jewish Hungarians as possible. The stories also led to a foreboding sense of doom. Young Yossi thought life, safety—”all was an allusion.”

“Kaddish,” which originally premiered in 1984, is an intimately powerful documentary about the effects of the Holocaust on its first- and second-generation survivors. In 1976, filmmaker Steve Brand spent five years chronicling the lives of the Klein family—Zoltan, Yossi, his mother, Breindy, and his sister, Karen. The film, which went on to win a Special Jury Award in Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, movingly contemplates how trauma is passed down from parent to child. 

The film was initially intended to tell the stories of several survivor families. Brand began with the Klein family. Midway through the filming, Zoltan died. So the focus of the film became, in effect, surviving the death of a survivor. Now, almost 40 years later, the film has become “a metaphor for the passing of the survivor generation,” Yossi has written. 

After surviving the underground bunker, Zoltan managed to emigrate in 1950 to Brooklyn’s Borough Park, the largest Orthodox community of survivors in the United States. He met and married Breindy, who was also Hungarian but had emigrated before the war.

Yossi’s childhood was dominated by his father’s belief that the Shoah could recur at any time. It was not a happy childhood.

At first, Zoltan didn’t see the point of bringing Jewish children into the world. But Breindy insisted. Three years later, Yossi was born. As with many survivors, having a family helped Zoltan reintegrate into society. But while other survivors did not talk about it openly, Zoltan wanted his son to be “emotionally prepared.” For many coming of age in the 1950s and ‘60s, the postwar years were a time of stability and calm, but Yossi’s childhood was dominated by his father’s belief that the Shoah could recur at any time. 

It was not a happy childhood. In the film, Yossi says that his own emotions were so repressed that “it was as if my real life was underground.” His mother tried to compensate by reading the kids Dr. Seuss books.

Despite these efforts, Yossi’s life was shaped by horrific events that he could only imagine. While he desperately wanted to break away from the legacy—“I just want to be normal”—he also idolized his father.

As a child, Yossi and his friends organized civil defense units, planning escape routes through Borough Park’s sewer systems. In the sixth grade, Yossi became a writer and activist, forming a Zionist discussion group and joining the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. He led student delegations to confront Jewish establishment organizations in New York and eventually the Ovir—the Soviet migrations office—in Moscow. 

He was arrested multiple times. “I didn’t want to be a spectator,” says Yossi. “So I became a professional Jewish demonstrator.”

But young Yossi was also quite anxious, worried that they were “constantly on the verge—of annihilation or revelation.” He couldn’t think ahead—the opposite of what his father wanted. He worried about what’s not portable—and about the challenge of a world where there are no longer survivors to bear witness.

He also saw in the 1980s “apocalyptic times”—a “soullessness,” a sense of “decay”—as well as fascism on both the right and the left. “Everything that made the Holocaust possible,” says Yossi.

“The world knew what was happening to the Jews and did nothing—for six years.”

When his father passed away in 1978, he was numb. “When you grow up surrounded by death, you’re not stung by it.”

Yossi Klen Halevi on a New York subway, 1984

But after attending the 1981 World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Jerusalem, Yossi began to find a new perspective. “When there was no order, my father created his own order. That’s what I wanted to do.” In 1982, Yossi Klein Halevi finally made Aliyah. In 1983, he married and had three children.

Each child has watched “Kaddish” so that they could “hear and know the story of their grandfather.”

“Sadness is part of our collective memory,” said Yossi. But he began to make the eternal Kaddish–shifting his focus from being perpetual victims to being resilient survivors. Jews today are all “monuments to survival.”

In the discussion organized by Mosaic Magazine after viewing the newly restored film, Yossi said the film was about “how memory is transmitted—how individual identity is formed in resistance” to family and generational trauma. 

For his father, “Israel represented the future—his way of returning to the Jewish faith.” Israel provided “comfort—a center of moral imagination.” Israel made it possible for survivors to believe they were chosen for a specific reason—to come to terms with “the unbearable notion of chosenness.” 

“There’s something about the Jews that doesn’t make sense,” said Yossi. “The story of the Jewish people is surreal. But religion is irrational enough to explain the Jewish story.” 

While the younger Yossi worried about Nazis on Coney Island, Yossi today, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and the author of four books, is worried about the return of organized Jewish anti-Zionism in the United States. “Anti-Zionists are restoring the conditionality of Jews.”

“During the six-day war, America fell in love with Israel—with Israeli heroism and self-reliance. But today the victim is hero, and we refuse to play the role of victim, rejecting self-pity.”

Today, Yossi is focused on “who we are as a people—what has helped us endure. What is eternal about Judaism? The Jewish insistence on life.” While history remains “an open wound,” Yossi also aspires to create a “post-Holocaust” Judaism: “What it means to survive. It’s about moving the focus from Egypt to Exodus.” 

“There is wisdom in ritual,” said Yossi. “The Kaddish is a song of praise.” Repeatedly saying the Kaddish, Yossi explained, forces the mourner to continuously and publicly praise G-d. As a result, the prayer itself “becomes an affirmation of life.”

For more information about the film: kaddishdocumentary.com

Karen Lehrman Bloch is editor in chief of White Rose Magazine.

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