(JTA) — Filmmaker Kahane Cooperman hasn’t written an Oscars acceptance speech yet, but she likely will before the Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 28.
Not to jinx things or appear overconfident, Cooperman told JTA in a telephone interview, but “on the chance it happens, for fear of leaving someone out.”
Her film, “Joe’s Violin,” is up for an award for short documentary — a category typically ignored by viewers more interested in what Emma Stone is wearing. It’s a 24-minute, five-handkerchief weeper; a joyous paean to the human spirit and a testimony of how simple acts of kindness can have important and far-reaching implications.
The (appropriately) short version of the film’s story: The eponymous Joe is Joe Feingold, a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor from Poland. About three years ago, the lifelong violinist realized he no longer had the dexterity to play up to his standards.
“I had some good ideas of how a violin should be played,” he said in a separate telephone interview from his home in New York. “And I couldn’t [do it anymore]. The violin was here, in its case in my apartment, and I thought I should make some use out of it.”
He considered selling the instrument, but then heard an announcement on WQXR, the New York classical music station. Working in conjunction with the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation — an outgrowth of the film that won Richard Dreyfus an Oscar — the station was looking for used instruments to be donated to needy New York City schoolchildren.
So Joe hopped on a bus and went to the collection point at Lincoln Center, where he left his treasured violin. Matters may have stood there were it not for the fact that Feingold and his instrument had a fascinating past and the recipient, Brianna Perez, 12 at the time, had this potentially amazing future: Two strangers connected by a fiddle.
Feingold was born in Warsaw in 1923. After the Nazis invaded in 1939, word reached the family that his father was about to be arrested. So Feingold and his dad fled to eastern Poland, then under Russian rule. But the Hitler-Stalin pact changed everything. Father and son were sent to separate Siberian labor camps and, while they both survived, Feingold’s mother and one of his two brothers who stayed behind did not.
After the war, Feingold made his way to a displaced persons camp in Germany. One day he was at a flea market and saw a violin — like Proust’s madeleine, it brought back memories of happier times. Lacking money, he bartered a carton of cigarettes for the instrument.
Why a violin?
“Because I had a violin since childhood,” he said. “I loved the violin. I studied it. I played it. I wasn’t a great violinist, but the music I made, it meant something to me. I missed it.”
Music was central to his prewar life, Feingold said. His mother sang — especially the songs of Edvard Grieg — and the family performed weekly for guests.
In the film, Feingold downplays the significance of his donation.
“I thought it was just a violin,” he said. “It was a simple thing. I don’t use it. Let someone else have it.”
But during our conversation — perhaps because he’s had time to reflect, or perhaps because he wants to promote the documentary — he offers a different perspective.
“I always thought it should mean something to the person who gets it, just as it did for me,” he said. “It played such a great role in my life. When I found out that the violin was given to a girl in the South Bronx, that’s exactly what I dreamed would happen.”
That girl, Brianna, is an old — or, at least, middle-aged — soul in a youthful body. She was a student at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls, a K through 8 school where every pupil is taught violin from day one.
Relatively quickly, she grasped the significance of the gift.
“That violin has so many secrets that nobody knows,” Brianna says in the film.
Cooperman calls Brianna “the most amazing 12-year-old.”
“She had an innate respect and profound understanding of why this violin was meaningful beyond just a musical instrument,” added the filmmaker, a first-generation American whose father left Germany in 1934.
Cooperman heard about Feingold’s donation during a promotional segment on WQXR in 2013, which sparked the idea for the documentary.
As such, the earlier parts of the violin’s odyssey are told in a voice-over at the beginning of the film. But the viewers see everything else: We are at the assembly where a teacher chokes up as she tells students about the violin, its donor and announces Brianna will receive it. We are there when Feingold reads the letter Brianna wrote inviting him to the school. We watch him at a different assembly addressing the students and, later, as he listens to Brianna play the special Grieg number she painstakingly practiced.
Did any of the events take place because there was a camera there to film it?
Cooperman says no, this violin and its tale would have been treated specially even if she wasn’t on hand.
“I think everyone knew that while all the 3,000 instruments donated in this drive had a story, there was something compelling about this one,” she said. “It stood out from the pack.”
Cooperman launched the film while still working as a co-executive producer on “The Daily Show,” a gig she got 18 years earlier because of her background as a documentarian. She quit the job, she said, to return to her roots.
“Making money was never part of this for me,” Cooperman said. “It was a labor of love.”
In fact, Cooperman and her producer, Raphaela Neihausen, needed Kickstarter to crowdsource the funding — it’s unlikely that all 277 backers of the film will be in the planned Oscar speech.
“I do not see ‘Joe’s Violin’ specifically as a Holocaust film — for me it’s more about human connection and hope,” Cooperman said. “But I am very proud that through Joe, we hear a first-person account [of what happened], especially when there are fewer and fewer voices left.”
Typical of short doc nominees, the film is available online at www.JoesViolin.com.
(JTA) — A Holocaust survivor sang the national anthem before a Major League Baseball Game between the Detroit Tigers and Tampa Bay.
Hermina Hirsch, 89, performed the national anthem on Saturday at Comerica Park in Detroit, fulfilling a long-time dream.
Hirsch told local television station WWJ in an interview in April in which she called on the ball club to allow her to sing that she would not be nervous singing in front of thousands of baseball fans.
“If I lived through the concentration camp, it couldn’t be that bad,” Hirsch said. “I don’t want to die before I sing at a baseball game.”
After an outpouring of fan support, Hirsch was asked to sing at a game.
Hirsh, who was born in Czechoslovakia, lived through a series of Nazi camps beginning in 1944, at the age of 17. She was liberated in January 1945.
She reportedly has been a Tigers fan since moving to Detroit with her husband in 1953. The couple immediately began attending baseball games
Hirsch has been singing the national anthem for years during regular meetings of Holocaust survivors in the area.
Famous Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt opposed criminalization of Holocaust denial in a debate at the Oxford Union Society last month, which is shown in the video below. Even after years of fighting a libel suit filed against her in 1996 by Holocaust denier David Irving, Lipstadt says she is not in favor of laws against Holocaust denial.
“I support this motion Mr. President, because I am convinced that freedom of speech means nothing unless it includes the freedom for offensive people to be offensive,” she says. “We who are offended by them, must accept that, as a cost of living in a free society.”
In the video, she details her strong opinions on freedom of speech and why Holocaust criminalization will not benefit the cause against Holocaust deniers.
“Who would define Holocaust denial? Who would write the legislation?….And then who rules? A judge who knows no history? A jury?”
Irving sued Lipstadt in 1996 because she referred to him as a “Holocaust denier” in her book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory”. After six years of court battles, Lipstadt won the suit.
The film “Denial”, which is currently in production, is based on her experience in court and stars the British-Jewish actress Rachel Weisz. Lipstadt is a contributing editor at The Forward.
BOSTON — A celebrated Israeli novelist is among the winners of this year’s Sydney Taylor Book Award for Jewish children’s books.
The Association of Jewish Libraries on Thursday announced the selection of Aharon Applefeld, an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor who has written about the genocide extensively.
He won the award for older readers for “Adam and Thomas,” his first book for children, along with illustrator Philippe Dumas and translator Jeffrey M. Green.
The fictional story, about two young boys who survive the last winter of the Holocaust hiding in the woods, is based on Appelfeld’s own story of survival.
Last week, the book also garnered a runner-up prize from the the American Library Association’s Mildred L. Batchelder Award for children’s books that have been translated.
Laura Amy Schlitz won a Sydney Taylor Book Award for “The Hired Girl,” a novel for teens that recently won the Scott O’Dell award for historical fiction. The Association of Jewish Libraries described the book as a sensitive story that “tells how fourteen-year-old Catholic Joan Skraggs becomes a hired girl to a Jewish family where she learns and grows in unexpected ways.”
Newman, the acclaimed author of many Jewish and secular children’s books, learned about the story of Ketzel in 2008 from a column by her rabbi. “I knew this was a children’s book just waiting to happen,” Newman wrote in an email to JTA.
Five Sydney Taylor runner-ups were also named. For younger readers, the books are “Everybody Says Shalom,” by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by Talitha Shipman, and “Shanghai Sukkah,” by Heidid Smith Hyde, illustrated by Jing Jing Tsong.
The winners will receive their awards in June at the Association of Jewish Libraries conference and participate in a blog tour from February 7-12.
The first question I asked Budapest-born Geza Röhrig, star of László Nemes’ viscerally gripping film “Son of Saul”, was: “How did you come to the role — and why?”
In the film, Röhrig inhabits the body of a Sondercommando who helps “clean up” after the disposal of convoy after convoy of victims and spends wordless hours in a race against time and his own extermination at Auschwitz-Birkenau — in an attempt to give a proper [Jewish] burial to a young boy he assumes to be his son.
Prefacing our conversation, I told Geza that now as the only survivor of a near 200-strong extended family who knows how, when and where each family member died or was executed — what I saw in this film—and his portrayal in particular — proved an additional dimension to the concept word/memory made flesh.
Budapest-born Röhrig, who graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2004 as a Judaic Studies teacher answered: “I met [Hungarian-Paris-raised] director Nemes in 2007. He sent me the script. It was not like any other Holocaust movie. Its scope is reduced to one day — October 7, 1944 — Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was like an inner body-outer body experience — an Escher montage.”
Masha Leon: “You must have seen a roster of Holocaust-related films to get to the heart of this theme. Did you see [the 2002] film “The Grey Zone” about the Sonderkommando revolt?”
Geza Röhrig: Yes…but English was not a language at Auschwitz [and] that movie was not sympathetic to the Sonderkommandos (prisoners who worked in the crematoria and disposed of the gassed victims). I moved mountains to meet a [still alive] Sonderkommando. Found a 93-year old Greek to help me prepare for the role, but mostly I relied on literature. I researched personal accounts and found 1000 pages—some hidden at trials of criminals when former Sonderkommandos [themselves] did not even tell their families what happened.
“I was not so interested in their thoughts and feelings, but in the precise function — how did they do what they were doing-with hair, with bodies, with teeth — so I could picture what a day of death could look like.
“I’ve been haunted by this for decades. I went to Poland at Krakow University when I was nineteen… I wrote two books on this topic. It’s a part of me that has never quieted down… I lost my father at four. He died unexpectedly. My uncle did not let me go to the funeral. I did not have closure with my father…In the film I do everything I can to bury the boy. It enabled me to come to terms. It took forty-four years to put my father to rest by me playing every thing I could do for this boy.
“I came to the U.S. fifteen years ago. I am a married father of four. Left them all behind in New York. Like the Olympics—it’s hard to focus. Shooting in Budapest during 24 days, I tried not to socialize — did not come out of the role.
“The hardest thing for me afterward…I kind of continued to live [in] 1944 when I [really] wanted to adjust to my life in 2015. As weird as it sounds, I missed the camp, I missed Saul-hell itself. One aspect of the concentration camps that attracted me is how our lives—wealth and connections—good looks…carry you just so far—shallow unessential factors that did not matter in the camp. What mattered at Auschwitz was your character… what were you made of…I was melancholy afterwards. Auschwitz remained a reality outside.”
We agreed to continue the conversation at a later date.
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