There was not a dry eye in the house Saturday night, when judges at the 13th Annual Jerusalem Film Festival awarded a special “In the Spirit of Freedom” prize to the post-Holocaust film “Long is the Road.”
The festival jury singled out the feature, even though it was filmed in 1947-48 and therefore was ineligible to win the actual award, which recognizes new films.
Filmed on location at Camp Landsberg, the largest Jewish displaced persons camp in Bavaria, the 80-minute feature follows a Polish Jew and his family from the thriving Jewish community of pre-ghetto Warsaw through the horrors of the Holocaust and the chaotic years after the war when survivors searched frantically for their loved ones.
It ends on a hopeful note, with some of the characters preparing to sail to pre-state Israel.
Hailed by European and American critics upon its release in 1948, the film has been locked away for most of the last 50 years.
Shown in Israeli theaters in 1954 and in a one-time broadcast on Israel Television in the early 1990s, it was restored by the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University in time for the January 1996 New York Jewish Film Festival.
The very first feature film to represent the Holocaust from a Jewish point of view, the movie effectively mixes rare film footage — of transports, Auschwitz, air raids — with the dramatic story of the Yelin family, a fictional family portrayed by Polish actors who were themselves Holocaust survivors.
The film, directed by Herbert Fredersdorf and Marek Goldstein, two noted Jewish filmmakers of the time, was shot with financial and technical assistance from the U.S. Office of Military Government, which controlled postwar Germany in the late 1940s.
In many instances, the actors, all members of a Yiddish theater company founded in 1945 in Poland, found themselves recreating before the camera their own wartime experiences.
This was especially true of Israel Becker, the film’s scriptwriter and lead actor.
Born in Bialystok, Becker was a leading light in Poland’s Yiddish theater community until the Germans invaded the country in 1939.
Eager to escape to Russia, Becker boarded a train, only to learn that Nazis soldiers on board were searching for Jews. Becker’s real-life jump from the speeding train was the inspiration for one of the film’s most compelling scenes.
Becker, 79, whose acceptance speech at the awards ceremony elicted a standing ovation and tears from a younger generation of Israeli filmmakers, said in an interview that “although only parts of the film were autobiographical, I drew on my own experiences when David Yelin (the character he portrays) jumps from the train on screen.
“When it came time to prepare the scene, I knew exactly how it should look, that it’s best to wait until the train goes around the curve and slows down a bit. Then is the time to jump.”
His voice breaking with emotion, Becker said the film’s relatively upbeat finale did not mirror events in his own life.
“Once, a film critic wrote, `To watch Long is the Road, the audience would never guess that Becker was the sole survivor in his family after the Holocaust,’” Becker said. “Sometimes art imitates life. Often it doesn’t.”
Sharon Pucker Rivo, executive director of the National Center for Jewish Film in Waltham, Mass., said the film “provides a glimpse into an important time in Jewish history that most people know little about.”
She called the opportunity to meet Becker and to videotape his recollections “a unique addition to our understanding of Jewish filmmaking.”
“We already knew some of the film’s history, but we didn’t know which parts were autobiographical, for example, or which scenes were filmed in what sequence,” she said.
In the process of interviewing Becker, the film’s restorers learned that one pivotal scene, in which David Yelin exhorts others to rid themselves of hatred and despair after the Holocaust, was shot at the end of the project.
“We waited until the film was almost done to do this scene,” Becker recalled. “It felt right to include such a scene, and every member of the crew agreed. It was not easy, but it was the right thing to do.”
In accepting the “In the Spirit of Freedom” award, Becker told the young people around him, “All those years ago in the DP camp, it was too much to dream that I would be standing here before you in Eretz Yisrael, in beautiful, sacred Jerusalem. Fifty years later, you do honor to the survivors and those who perished.”
“Long is the Road” is available on 16mm and 35mm film. A videocassette version is planned.
This and more than 20 other Yiddish films can be obtained from the National Center for Jewish Film, Brandeis University, Lown 102, Waltham, Mass. 02254. Or, call (617) 899-7044; fax (617) 736-2070; or e-mail NCJF@logos.cc.brandeis.edu.