Why did you decide to make "Hiding and Seeking"?
I don't know if you had a chance to see my previous film that I did with Oren Rudavsky, which was called "A Life Apart: Hasidism in America." We made the film in '97, and it was on PBS and it was nominated for an Emmy. It was a pretty good film.
My parents' grandparents were Hasidim. My parents were Holocaust survivors who came to the United States after the war. I grew up in a very Hasidic environment. Once we came to Brooklyn from Schenectady, my father immersed us in a very closed Hasidic world. But in a way, the Holocaust was all around us. The schools, the yeshivas we went to, were named after towns that were destroyed in the Holocaust. And all my classmates were children of survivors and my teachers were survivors themselves. And the Holocaust just permeated everything about my growing up, though in school it was rarely discussed. Actually it was never discussed: it was like a third rail, you touch it and you die. There was no way of explaining it satisfactorily.
Generationally, that was appropriate. American Jews avoided talking about the Holocaust for a long time afterward to their children
Yeah, and especially in that part of the Jewish world that I was part of growing up, which was the Hasidic portion of it. Nowadays, I'm very disturbed by the yeshivas that my children and grandchildren attend, they are dealing with the Holocaust, but they're explaining it as God's punishment and displeasure with the Jews for abandoning tradition and faith. This is something that, had I come home from school and told this to my parents, they would have been horrified. The schools wouldn't have had the audacity to say something like this while the survivors were still able to voice an opinion. But now that that generation has largely moved on, the ultra-Orthodox yeshivas have resorted to this simplistic explanation of the Holocaust.
Can you say what that simplistic explanation is?
It's the traditional explanation for all the unexplainable tragedies. That it was the traditions that had governed Judaism for so many centuries were broken down and people were moving more and more toward enlightenment and laxity in observance, and trying to become like the goyim [gentiles], and abandoning tradition. And God expressed his displeasure through the Holocaust. This is the traditional explanation: because of our sins, we have been exiled from our land. But this explanation didn't fly well, it was never mentioned when I was a child. I've got to tell my parents, my pious father who, even if he wanted to sin, he wouldn't even know how to begin to sin. You tell him that he died because of sins? Now I'm very troubled that this is the explanation that has become sort of standard in the yeshiva world.
But I grew up in this world, and part of that thinking was "Thank God God made us Jews rather than goyim." And clearly the whole outside world was connected to what had happened to the Jews in Europe during World War II. That was like the personification of the goyim. You know, some goyim are more overt, some hide their hostilities, but basically we were raised with the sensation that goyim are dangerous, goyim are at heart murderous, anti-Semitic, and we've just got to keep our heads below their radar screens, so to speak. It was really only much, much later, when I started stepping out of that closed world and encountered really exemplary people who were Catholics, non-Jews, whatever, that I realized the extent to which we had been misinformed, and sheltered from the fact that there is decency among all people, and there is villainy--there are saints and sinners among all of us.
Moving outside the yeshiva world
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Literally, that was my first step outside the world of yeshiva, and the world that I had grown up in. This was in the '60s. And all these young people were fighting for tikkun olam, to make the world a better place. There were fighting against injustices in the South, in Southeast Asia, for civil rights. All the causes that motivated the young people of that age. It was alien to me, because I never even been involved in these issues. I could see that what was driving these people was a real, sincere desire to make the world a better place. And that seemed to me clearly a spiritual and holy motivation. So that was the beginning, I guess, of my continuous encounters with decency among people whom I had been told that decency couldn't be found amongst.
And I guess as I just kept encountering more and more people whom I wouldn't have met in that little world, I gradually kept on revising my thinking. While my children were growing up, I really started questioning many of the certainties that I had always taken for granted. And I think I mentioned in the film, that I really felt that I don't know all the answers to these questions.
Meanwhile, I sort of abdicated to some extent. I didn't share with them, just like my parents had not shared with me fully, all of their experiences during the war, I didn't [share my doubts about traditional Jewish ideas toward gentiles] when my kids were 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, I was living the life of an observant Jew, I observed the shabbas, kosher, I studied the Talmud with them, and all that.
So you reinforced certainties with your children rather than sharing doubts?
Well, I didn't share doubts, but on the other hand, I allowed their spiritual education to be taken care of by the schools that I sent them to.
Did they attend yeshiva?
Yes, very similar to the ones I had gone to. I tried to have my father have an influence on them, because my father to me was always the example, the role model of what a pious Jew should be. And my wife was also very influential. I sort of enjoyed the fun parts of the ritual with them. I enjoyed the holidays, I enjoyed telling the stories, I enjoyed even studying the Talmud was an opportunity for us to interact, but I never was really, really dogmatic about any of this.
But the only time I'll really intervene was when my kids would come home from school with some derogatory notions about the other, where I felt that their minds were being poisoned with demeaning attitudes towards outsiders. Because I had already gone past that, so I would try to disabuse them of such notions.
But "Hiding and Seeking" is really about what happens when your sons go much further in that direction on their own, and away from your perspective.
I went to Brooklyn College, but by the time my kids graduated high school, it was no longer acceptable in the ultra-Orthodox world to even consider going to college. The world had sort of constricted even further. But in my days it was okay after you graduated high school to continue your Talmudic studies in the morning and afternoon, and go to Brooklyn College in the evening. So you'd sort of split your day between secular and religious studies.
When my kids graduated high school, that was no longer an acceptable option. So they both went to Israel and left my home, and spent 14, 15 years and got married and started having their families, and really, really immersed themselves in that [ultra-Orthodox] world.
They didn't go to a secular college?
Not at all.
They're still part of the Haredi--ultra-Orthodox--community in Israel?
Yes, very much.
And that was one of the motivations for your making this film?
Despite my disagreements with the Hasidic and Haredi worlds, I still have great admiration for their tenacity, for their ability to rebuild after God had seemingly abandoned them. They persisted in their relationship and rebuilt these communities and schools. That was the subject of our previous film, "A Life Apart." And in that film, it does have some critical voices. There's an angry black man who's talking about how the Hasidim are raising their kids, and there's a Reform woman rabbi who takes on the Hasidim.
I gave critics of Hasidism an opportunity to come to the plate and give it their best shot, but on the whole, the film was a pretty warm portrayal of these people who everybody had counted out, and said there's no way they're going to rebuild after the Holocaust, and especially in America, and they went ahead and did it. So on the one hand I was critical, but I cut them a considerable amount of slack. But after 9/11, I realized I couldn't cut them the kind of slack I had.
So 9/11 was a major turning point?
This was clearly a post-9/11 film. It was a response to what I really felt. I felt I could understand Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. I could understand this concept of blinding yourself and losing yourself in this religion that you don't see your connectedness to the rest of humanity. I knew it. I had never been in one, but I sort of felt I could understand where they're coming from. And I realized that much of what drives them is very parallel to some of the less-attractive elements of the Haredi world.
Why this isn't a Jewish film
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I see this as larger: it's about the world I live in. But it has applicability to all religions. Anybody who believes they have a monopoly on truth, and they have an absolute certainty that doesn't leave room for the others' certainties, is who this film is addressed to. I don't see this as a "Jewish film," because the issues it deals with transcend all of those. But it is a family story.
I think Alfred Hitchcock once said, "In a documentary, God is the director." And in a way, that's sort of what happened. This started out as a film that had a different focus. Originally, it was an exploration of my parents, and how they can continue to have faith after what they had gone through. And we interviewed a lot of survivors. I was really not even supposed to be in front of the camera, but just moving little pieces along.
But my partner [filmmaker] Oren Rudavsky thought that the story of myself, my kids, our differences of opinion, was the real story. So he kind of saw this film before I did. It wasn't meant to be totally the way it turned out. Just like we were led to Dzialoszyce [the Polish village where Daum's father-in-law had lived and was hidden from the Nazis], and we found the rescuers; I felt like we had a mission to complete.
I couldn't have scripted this film. If I had come a year or two later--Mr. Mucha [the husband of the woman who helped to hide Daum's father-in-law] passed away this past April, and Mrs. Mucha [the Polish Catholic woman who helped her parents hide the Jews on their farm] is very frail. I'm going to be [in Dzialoszyce] next month; I was there a few months ago. I maintain a relationship with them. But literally, we came at the last minute. We just had a chance to connect and start making amends.
What year were you there for the first time?
The first time I was there was in the summer of 2002. We came back the following summer, of 2003, to give them the awards [for righteous gentiles, from Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Authority] and recognize their heroism. And it took us about another year or so to finish the film.
In the film, it's clear that your sons were reluctant participants in this search for meaning, at least at the outset.
They're really immersed in their studies of the holy books and the texts, and they really weren't too thrilled about the prospect of spending a week or 10 days in Poland. But I said perhaps we'll look at cemeteries, maybe we'll meet some people. But basically I convinced them because all of the great talmudists, whose works they continue to study, a lot of them are buried in Poland, and this would be a way for them to honor and pay respect to these great talmudic rabbis. So that was the attraction for them. Clearly, there's a certain-my son Akiva, and even my other son, Tzvi--they sort of questioned the rationale for this whole trip.
One of them referred rather acerbically to being on "a family hajj."
A family hajj. (Laughs) So I sort of had to drag them on this expedition. I couldn't have known we were going to find the Muchas. I was hoping we would.
There was something astonishing about that, almost mystical or predestined. Do you feel there was any sort of divine hand in guiding you there?
Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, sometimes I'm not always certain about divine providence and to what extent it guides us in our daily lives, I sometimes fail to see it, but in this instance, it was really clear because we were really skating on thin ice. We could have gone to Poland and not found them, or they had just passed away, or missed each other. Everything just sort of fell into place, like it was meant to happen. It was long overdue.
And that was pivotal for one of your sons. And he underwent what is called in Judaism teshuva, turning. He had a moment of turning toward a different perception of the gentiles, and a moment of reconciliation, whereas your other son came away largely unmoved in the bigger sense of attitudes toward gentiles. Can you comment on that?
Well, my older son, Tzvi, who actually spoke at the presentation ceremony [of a righteous gentile award from Yad Vashem to the Muchas], he referred to Mrs. Mucha's parents, Stanislaw and Mariana Matuszczyk, " of blessed memory." Usually that term is reserved for revered ancestors, pious rabbis. The fact that he's applying it to Polish peasants, "of blessed memory," to me that sort of indicates that his moral universe is expanding. My second son, Akiva, he's the one who made some comments, like, "Okay, you showed me this, some exceptions to the rule."
And the truth is that, while I think my older son has opened up more and more to the outside world, I think my second son has re-immersed himself in his insular world with a vengeance.
But as I say, it's a seed, it takes time to grow. Before we went to Poland, there's no way that the idea that there's a righteousness among Poles, may have been a theoretical abstraction or some sort of theoretical possibility. But I think once you meet these people face to face, and have an encounter with them, it's got to have an impression upon you. Before, he probably would have said there's no exceptions, they're all beyond redemption. The fact that he's even beginning to qualify, "okay maybe there's a few," is a step. A small step, a little step, but it's getting there.
And I should tell you that the first time I went to Poland with Rabbi [Shlomo] Carlebach, I had the same attitudes as my sons. Even as I was beginning to open up to the outside world, Poles to me were. I mean, maybe Americans, even if they're secular, they're egalitarian and democratic, but Poles were just a throwback to darkness, people who are beyond redemption, who are inherently anti-Semitic. I think it was Yitzhak Shamir [now-deceased prime minister of Israel] who said they were fed anti-Semitism together with their mother's milk. And growing up, hearing all the stories that I heard, I had this impression. And I didn't want to go to Poland; my parents didn't want to go to Poland, because they were all just incurably anti-Semitic. And that's why I was totally unprepared and flabbergasted by Shlomo Carlebach.
Talk about Shlomo Carlebach and his understanding of Jewishness. What did you learn from him?
Well, one thing the film shows is this hatemongering Orthodox rabbi, who has a version and a vision of Orthodoxy, which is, in order to maintain this strong Orthodoxy, we have to denigrate [gentiles] and create impenetrable barriers between us and them. And Shlomo [in contrast] was an Orthodox rabbi who tried to create a vision of Orthodox Judaism that had respect and dignity for all people.
That notion of the sacred spark in every person was something that you pointed out in the film, and was something he imparted to you, and he modeled for you by going to Poland and performing Jewish music in front of an exclusively gentile audience.
I thought he was going to speak to some Jews, reach out to the few Jews in Poland, but he put his whole heart and soul into reaching out to [the Poles]. During every intermission, he would take a break, and just throw himself into the audience.
Sadly most Jews today, you go to Poland, you go to a few concentration camps, you go to some cemeteries, you go to a ghetto, and you rush out of the country as quick as you can, you spit on the ground and you go to Israel to sort of decontaminate yourself.
That's an Orthodox perspective?
Unfortunately that's the way it is. So here's Shlomo coming to Poland, and [Polish journalists] ask him what would you like to accomplish in Poland? And he says I would like to shake the hands of every man, woman, and child in this country. Which just threw them for a total loop. And they played this clip over and over in Poland.
This was January 1, 1989. We were there for 10 days. And everybody in Poland saw this clip, and wherever we were going on the streets, people came over to shake his hand and [have him] kiss their babies. It was an amazing thing. His reasoning was, if we want to be the spiritual descendents of our forefather Abraham, we can't just concern ourselves with the wellbeing of those like us, we have to reach out even to the darkest places. In his days, the worst of the worst was Sodom, and even there, Abraham put himself on the line on behalf of the sinners of Sodom.
And no matter how much you're going to tell me about what the Poles did and collaborated, that obligates us even more to bring light here. And it took me about a year for his ideas to make sense. For me the Poles were the complete other. So for me it was a breakthrough. Once I was able to break down that barrier and see our connectedness, for me that was my major epiphany.
Your father-in-law is one of the most enigmatic figures in the film. He was saved by a Catholic Polish farm family from the Nazis. They hid him in their barn, in a pit in the ground, and they risked their own lives to protect him and his brothers. And yet your father-in-law never contacted them after the Holocaust. What is your understanding of that?
First, to his credit, he didn't lie about it. And when confronted by my sons, he was the first to say, yes, we didn't treat these people right.
That was a shocking moment.
We didn't treat them the way other people would have treated them. We left and we forgot about them.
And Tzvi and Akiva ask your father-in-law what he would have done if the tables were turned?
And he says no, I wouldn't have done what they did. And my father-in-law, he passed away two months ago, he never was able to lie. He never made any excuses. He just said we didn't do the right thing. I spoke to people in the mental health field who have various explanations for this sort of denial, and not wanting to go back in your memory to places like this, but he never talked about that. There was some initial contact, which both Mrs. Mucha and my father-in-law forgot about, but there was some exchange of letters. We were going through Mrs. Mucha's attic and found some old letters.
So that takes away some of the moral perplexity?
Yes and no. It doesn't change the fact that they didn't properly recognize and show appreciation. One or two letters. But I should tell you it was not easy to communicate in the Communist era, late 1940s. There were circumstances that I'm still trying to verify. I should say there were three brothers, and my father-in-law was not the brains, was not the mastermind behind this. He had an older brother whom he thought was going to give [the Polish rescuers] the deed to their property. But to this day I could never figure out why [it didn't happen], because his brother passed away quite a number of years ago. So I don't know this story. I can guess, but it's only a guess. So there is no answer. And I'm not going to try to give you one.
I think he was honest and said, if the tables were turned, I wouldn't have done it. It is sadly correct, and it really touches upon something deeper that is not going to endear me to a number of my co-religionists, especially if they come from Polish-Jewish backgrounds. It's the recognition that Jews, while we were in [Poland] for almost 800 or 1,000 years, didn't really respect the hosts whose country we were in.
We didn't respect their religion. We didn't respect, sometimes, even their language enough to learn it. We didn't, probably due to the religious insularity of the world which the heder children were growing up in and the kind of worldview they were being instilled with to create these impenetrable barriers. You're morally superior to these inferior, dumb, drunken, immoral people--that was the view.
Do you think that's an inevitable defense mechanism for a minority in the midst of an often-hostile majority? Or is that just an excuse for bad behavior, for a kind of mutual intolerance?
Clearly, the feelings were mutual. We talk about anti-Semitism, but we don't really talk about Jewish anti-Polandism. And that's something that we don't really want to acknowledge. That we didn't see the Pole as our fellow human being who was also made in the image of God. We focused on what distinguished us from the Poles rather than on what we had in common.
When you spoke with your father about your trip to Poland, he asked you not to go. He was afraid for you. But he then cried, and said he wanted to go home. So obviously he had some positive feelings in his emotions and his memories about Poland. And that was so touching. It was not explained particularly in the film, but he seemed to have a different attitude then your father-in-law.
Oh, but he's said some nasty things about the Poles. He talks about how when he came back after the war, [the gentiles] said, "So many zydeks [Polish slur for Jews]. He wanted to go back not to see the Poles. All his life he never wanted to go back to Poland, but he realized that this might be his only chance to see his childhood home again. It was pure nostalgia. He had no great love for the Poles. And neither did my father-in-law. My father-in-law told me horrific stories of what he saw. He was in hiding and he was in the fields. He saw Polish peasants rounding up Jews who were hiding, and he saw them getting gunned down by Poles: there were no Germans around for miles. Like [the massacre of Jews in the Polish town of] Jedwabne.
I cannot fault any survivor for feeling the way they do. They saw things I can't imagine anybody seeing. They've been traumatized, and I have no intention of trying to challenge their thinking. The only thing is, I don't think we do our children and grandchildren a favor by passing on their trauma, especially to a new generation of Poles.
I'm continuing to work with the high school students in Dzialoszyce.
In the film, on your first trip to Poland with your sons, you meet Camilla, a young woman who has dedicated herself to preserving the Jewish history-and the Jewish cemetery-in the town your father's family came from. This interest in Jewish studies throughout Eastern Europe, Jewish studies without Jews-strikes many Jewish thinkers and writers as a distasteful form of kitsch. What's your sense of the phenomenon?
In the case of Camilla, I know that she is doing this on her own. But she also likes to invite high school students from the town to come to the cemetery and give them tours and explain Jewish history and customs, and what each of the symbols on the gravestones means. She and I share this idea that we have to stop the intergenerational transmission of hatred. And that's largely what I believe motivates her.
And I should mention that, I helped a little bit, but she had always wanted to go for her doctorate in Judaic studies. She wanted to study more about the Jewish history in Poland. But I helped a little bit to get her into university in Krakow, and she's now studying for her doctorate.
She was the first Pole that my sons met that sort of defied their simplistic stereotypes. All of a sudden, they're meeting this wonderful woman, they come into her house, and she's telling them all about the Jewish ghetto, and what happened there, and she takes us to the cemetery, and she helps us find the tombstone [of my grandfather], and she was so happy that we were able to find it. You can see her face, when I'm reading the tombstone inscription to her, how moved she is. I think it was important. It was the first step in my sons' encounter with the Poles. So the phenomenon of Judaism without Jews is one that--I'm not a sociologist or a historian, but people have written about this. I think they call it the "presence of absence."
There's been a lot of cynicism about it.
Well, I don't feel so cynical about it. I think it's healthy. I think the more thoughtful Poles, and the new, young generation of Poles, are more open, and they're more questioning. I'm hopeful that there's a new mentality among this younger generation of Poles. And a lot of them recognize that Jews contributed a disproportionate amount to the creation of Polish culture. Some of the greatest poets and writers that they admire were actually Jewish. There's sort of a sense that Jewish culture and Jewish history are interwoven with Polish culture and history.
Do you feel you accomplished what you set out to do in making the film?
There's a Talmudic sage named Hillel who said, "It's not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but just because you can't necessarily finish it is not an excuse for you not to even make the attempt." You do the best you can. You can't say, I'm not going to change the world, so why even bother. You do what little you can, and hopefully if enough of the people do their little bit, it will make a difference.
In "Hiding and Seeking," you talk about the journey to Poland and the attempt to bring about healing as a kind of ethical will for your children and grandchildren. One of the most moving aspects is the multi-generational, in which you bring your granddaughter on your second trip to Poland. Those are the countervailing themes in the movie: the healing versus all of these various discontinuities, ruptures, breaches, hatreds, mutual suspicion. Is the attempt to bind things together the essence of your ethical will?
It's the recognition that my influence on my children and my grandchildren is already limited. My children are adults. There are so many other factors on my grandchildren: their parents, their schools, the worlds they're being raised in. By calling this film my tzavaah [Hebrew for ethical will] to my children, it's my attempt to concretize whatever I was trying to teach them so that it will have some resonance after I'm gone.
It's a legacy?
I don't want to sound too pompous. I don't know what's going to happen with my offspring and their children. I want them to just know what I was wrestling with, and maybe they'll wrestle with it too, that's all.