Agnieszka Holland Shines Light on Heroic Poles

“My first reaction was, ‘I can’t do it!’” Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland told me during our chat about her film “In Darkness,” which opened in New York on January 27 and has been nominated for an Academy Award. “I was attracted to the main character, the ambiguous Leopold Socha,” who in 1943, in Nazi-occupied Lvov, Poland, hid a group of Jews for 14 months in the sewers beneath the city. “First he hid them for their money, and when that was gone he continued hiding them because of his humanity. The line between good and bad is like walking a high wire,” said Holland, best known for her 1990 film “Europa Europa,” which won a Golden Globe Award for best foreign language film. “Socha was a nicer man than portrayed in the film [by Robert Wieckiewicz],” she added. One reason for making the film, Holland said, was “because there is such a silence about good Poland. There is a new generation… younger historians and deeply researched books.” She suggested I contact the only survivor from among the Jews whom Socha hid in the sewer: Krystyna “Kryzia” Chigier-Keren, who was 7 at the time.

“We shot for 45 12-hour days,” Holland said. “It was winter and wet. The obstacles included languages — Yiddish, German, Polish, Ukrainian and Russian. I made two critical choices: The Jews were not angelic. I would not sugarcoat any of the characters, [some of whom were] former con men or black marketers. My second choice was to limit the depiction of the atrocities. Audiences already are aware of the horrors, and some events were too horrifying to attempt to re-create and would have been an act of disrespect.”

In the film’s press kit, screenwriter and executive co-producer David Shamoon describes his eight-year journey “to writing the film that took me to the sewers of Lviv [the Ukrainian city’s current name]. Inspired by an article about ‘The Righteous’ by Sir Martin Gilbert that catalogs those incredibly courageous individuals who risked not only their lives, but also the lives of their families, by helping Jews escape the Nazis, Shamoon cites “a galvanizing sentence: ‘A Polish Catholic thief hid a group of Jews in the sewers of Lvov, which he knew well because that is where he hid his loot and got a job as a sewer worker.’ I contacted Sir Martin, who directed me to the 1991 book ‘In The Sewers of Lvov’ by Marshall Roberts and out of print. I bought the last copy from Amazon. As a screenwriter [I found] the story was irresistible.”

I emailed Gilbert in London to tell him that Shamoon credits him as the inspiration for the film, which is dedicated to Marek Edelman, a leader of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. He replied, “I had no idea about the reference to me.” In a follow-up e-mail, he wrote, “I have just returned from Lviv, where I found the manhole cover through which Socha’s people emerged finally into the light.” Gilbert also informed me that after the war, “Socha died in a traffic accident.”

During a long-distance phone conversation, sewer survivor Chigier-Keren told me: “The film was done very realistically. What happened to me was painful. But in the sewer it was easier to be with my mother, father and brother than [above ground] alone, taking care of my little brother. I left Poland in 1957 and went to Israel. I am a dentist. I graduated from Hadassah in Jerusalem.” Her husband, Marian Keren, told me, “Before the war, we both lived across the street from each other in Lvov — she at Kopernicka Street, No. 12, I at No. 17. We never met until Israel, where we married.

During an interview in the early 1990s, Benjamin Meed, founder in 1981 of The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, told me that he was angered by the blanket condemnation of the Poles. Meed, who was himself hidden by a series of Poles, said, “People don’t realize that it took 10 Poles to hide one Jew!”

Jewish Labor Committee Dinner Touts Its History and Honors Labor Leaders

“For 77 years, the Jewish Labor Committee has stood for Jewish values which continue to guide us,” JLC President Stuart Appelbaum told the 350 labor leaders and guests gathered at the JLC’s 41st Human Rights Award dinner, held on January 12 at Hilton New York. “Ours is a commitment to tolerance and diversity… both on the job and in the community.” Appelbaum hailed JLC’s record, citing “its fight against the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s; its battles against segregation in the ’50s and ’60s, and its work for strong labor laws and a secure Israel today.” He continued, “The JLC of 2012 remains what it has always been: labor’s voice for human rights; a voice for economic justice; a voice for freedom, and a voice for peace.” JLC Executive Director Martin Schwartz weighed in with, “The ‘Exodus’ was the largest job walkout in history.”

Matthew Loeb, international president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, accepted JLC’s Human Rights Award from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who declared: “All work has dignity. There is a beauty in the natural efficiency that a person develops on the job, in the elegance of a task well done…. I’ve said [this] about miners, particularly my father, a coal miner — as was I and my grandfather — that when I saw him working in the mine, he moved with the grace and precision of a ballet dancer.” Turning to Loeb, Trumka said: “This award is for your work reaffirming the relationship between the Jewish community and the American labor movement, and for your efforts to expand advocacy and education for workers’ rights here in America and around the world.”

Loeb, whose mother painted scenery for theater, motion pictures and television, said: “I grew up with Jewish parents in Cleveland, Ohio. At my bar mitzvah I got $800 in U.S. Savings Bonds — the most lucrative investment…. My grandfather, a watchmaker, fought [in 1939] with his fists against police with billy clubs…. He had a social conscience. He fought for the American dream.”

New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento made a special presentation to his immediate predecessor, Denis Hughes. “Dennis made a difference in the lives of the people of New York State. He taught us all the importance of solidarity.” Hughes smiled and said, “I feel like I’m at [my own] wake [being celebrated]… I didn’t know half the time what we did, but if you affect [just] one person’s life… that is what we are fighting for.” As an afterthought he added, “If one of us [union members] is cut, all of us bleed.”

Joseph Hansen, chair of the strategic organizing center Change To Win and international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, presented a JLC Human Rights Award to Montefiore Medical Center President and CEO Steven Safyer, whose long list of credentials includes secretary of the executive committee and the board of governors of the Greater New York Hospital Association. Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers presented a JLC Human Rights Award to George Gresham, president of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East.

Your Stories

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  • "This holiday we take for ourselves,
 no longer silent servers behind the curtain, 
but singers of the seder,
 with voices of gladness,
 creating our own convocation,
 and leaving ‘The Narrow Place’ together."E.M. Broner

  • "The idea of opening the door is that we hope Elijah might actually be there this year – that we might actually have done enough to change the world to have had him arrive. And, if we don’t have even the tiniest bit in us that thinks he might be there, that thinks we have tried our hardest to bring around a messianic time, with no hunger, no war, no conflict, no pain – if we don’t believe that we have tried to end those broken parts in the world – well, then I tell my students – don’t do any of it."Rabbi Leora Kaye

  • "The whole seder, for me, is the tension between two statements: We say, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and now we’re free,' but before that, we pick up the matzoh, we invite the hungry in and we say, 'This year we are slaves, next year may we be free.' We are the most fortunate, liberated Jews in history. But on the other hand, there are lots of things that enslave us."Rabbi Arthur Green

  • "To tune of "Mack the Knife": "Enter Haman ben Hamdasa, /And he’s claimin’, he’s an Agagite. /Better look out, oh Hadassah/For that Haman—he’s an Amalekite./And though Haman, he’s in power now, That old Mordy, will not bow down. /Haman’s ego, it takes a powder now. And just like that—Amalek’s in town!""By Rabbi Jan Uhrbach

  • "Do you know that every shepherd/ has his own tune? / Do you know that every blade/ of grass has its own poem?/ And from the poem/ of the grasses,/ a tune of the shepherd/ is made./ How beautiful and/ pleasant to hear/ this poem!"Reb Nachman of Breslov's Likutei Moharan

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  • "Donniel Hartman said the miracle of Hanukkah is not just that the oil lasted 8 days; it’s actually that it lasted more than one. Would we have said, 'Dayenu,' (to mix metaphors,) if it had lasted two days? Would we have had a holiday? Probably, yes. The idea that we as a Jewish community, even in our darkest moments, hold out the hope that a candle is going to keep burning, I find very powerful."Rabbi Rachel Ain

  • "“We would all argue vehemently and work tireless against assimilation. But the Hellenists and we Reform Jews didn’t assimilate. We acculturate, and by doing so, provide a portal for continuity unavailable to those who continue a quasi-ghettoized existence with all the ramifications thereof, good and bad. The irony, rarely mentioned by those who use the Hanukah story to justify Orthodoxy, is that the Maccabees (Hasmoneans) lasted a century and a half before they disappeared, having taken on Greek names as High Priests and Kings. And Rabbinic Judaism, the first ‘reform’ movement, birthed all of us.”"Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein

  • "I find it refreshing to go from carrying the decomposing lulav and etrog in our hands in procession for 7 days (save for Shabbat), to carry absolutely nothing on Shemini Atzeret, to then carry a Torah on Simchat Torah. It’s like Judaism’s way of saying… ‘What you are carrying with you on this journey — Torah, lessons, stories, values, covenant, a connection with a higher power and history — all of the intangibles, you carry them with you on the tangible, tentative, twisting path of life."Rabbi Paul Jacobson

  • "Shemini Atzeret is conceptually an attempt to maintain the holiday relationship with God without any specific rituals. In modern times it has been become eclipsed by the joy and dancing of Simchat Torah. This speaks to the difficulty in a pure relationship without concrete modes of expression. It could be a reminder that our close relationships exist even when we don't exchange presents or cards."Rabbi Yosef Blau

  • "Sukkot is the reminder that it doesn't take two days or even two years to go from darkness to light. It might take an entire lifetime to get there and you have to constantly walk with the belief that it's possible."Rabbi Sharon Brous

  • "Yom Kippur: God is our judge. Sukkot: God is our shelter. Yom Kippur: you sit cooped up for endless hours. Sukkot is about space and breath. Yom Kippur, it’s all about, ‘What have I done?’ And Sukkot is, ‘What can I do in the world?’"Rabbi Naomi Levy

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  • "Teshuvah does invite us to begin again, but not from the beginning. Part of what it means to be human is to learn how to begin again and again – from right where we are, right in the messy middle of things. The Torah, according to an ancient midrash, reminds us of this truth by opening the story of creation itself with the letter Bet…Even when we have rolled the parchment scroll as far back as it will go, the letter Bet meets us there -- insisting that this story cannot be told from the very beginning. No story can. Beginnings elude us."Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld

  • "This year our theme at Temple Emanuel Beverly Hills is “If not Now, When?” and we asked congregants to tweet their responses to #innwtebh or to fill out cards filling in the blanks :“If not now, when will I….” We will prepare these ‘intentions for the year” in a similar way, as a power point presentation scrolling quietly on the screen facing the congregation as individuals come forward silently in front of the open ark before neilah."Rabbi Laura Geller

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