Survivor documentaries: Sunday at the Jewish Film Fest

Attending the SanFrancisco Jewish Film Festival in the East Bay is an entirely different social experience than going to any other festival…at least it is for me. When I go to most festivals, I socialize with other cinephiles – people I’ve come to know and befriend because we all love cinema. But at the Jewish Film Festival, especially near my home, I run into a whole different social circle of mine: people I pray with. The conversations are very different.

I saw two documentaries Sunday afternoon at the Albany Twin. Both profiled a European-born Jew who survived the Holocaust, and is now an exceptionally spry and energetic senior citizen. But the movies were very different.

Both films have screened at the Festival for the last time. I don’t know if you’ll have a chance to see them anywhere else. The directors were not able to attend, and there were no Q&As.

A- Big Sonia

At 92, Sonia Warshawski is a remarkable woman. She has been running a tailor shop – the only store still open in an otherwise dead Kansas City mall–for decades. She’s warm and friendly to everyone. She wears loud clothing. And she gives talks at schools and prisons.

She has plenty to talk about. She spent most of her adolescence in ghettos and deathcamps. She watched her mother forcibly marched into the gas chamber. But she survived, made her way to Kansas, and married another survivor (one who could laugh about the experience). They had children, and started the tailor shop. Her husband eventually died, but she keeps going.

The scenes in prison, near the end of the film, are the strongest. She’s an active participant in an apparently successful program to reduce recidivism. These scenes, including interviews with prisoners who have been moved by her experience, nearly brought me to tears.

The film contains interviews with her, her family, and friends. Her children and grandchildren talk about what it’s like to be the offspring of survivors – how the new family must take the place of the one that was murdered.

Her Holocaust experiences are visualized via simple, cut-out animation. It’s a low-budget technique, but an effective one. When it comes to violent horror, the less the visual detail, the stronger the emotional impact.

D+ Rabbi Wolff: A Gentleman Before God

Willy Wolff was luckier than Sonia Warshawski. His family got out of Germany in 1933, and settled in England just before the war started. His entire life seems to be filled with good luck. He was a successful journalist in his adopted country, then changed careers and became a rabbi. In his late 80s, he practices yoga, hangs out with other religious leaders, refuses to use a cell phone, and flies between three congregations in England and Germany. He seems to be an exceptionally happy man.

Rabbi Wolff is an upbeat and funny person, but the filmmakers seemed reluctant to delve to deep. He never married or had children (rare for a rabbi), and apparently never had a significant relationship. One friend suggests that his relationship with his mother was so close that it left no room for romance. I found myself wondering if he had something to hide.

He might have been a good subject for a 30-minute short. But he’s not worth 95 minutes of your time.