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Photographer documenting her family’s Holocaust ordeal

Baltimore Jewish Times
BALTIMORE, April 2 (JTA) — Jessica Mendels was only 15 when her father, Franklin, died in his early 40s. Now, almost a decade later, she has found a way to reconnect with her father while recording on film the circumstances of his birth and first years of life. A professor of economic history at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, Franklin Mendels did not tell his eldest daughter much about his past, particularly his childhood years of hiding from the Nazis. After his death, Jessica Mendels realized that her family’s history was in danger of being forgotten if she failed to preserve it herself. Three years ago, she spent a week in Le Got, a village in the south of France, photographing the sites of her father’s childhood and interviewing villagers who remembered his family. “Everyone was so warm and welcoming,” said Mendels, 24, who teaches photography at the Glenelg Country School near Columbia, Md. “They had fond memories of my family and said they all knew that they were Jewish. They had all collaborated to keep their secret.” Mendels has recorded her trip on 16 mm film and plans to release it as a short documentary later this year. “There is a huge connection in my life that is missing,” she said. “This is a way for me to feel connected to him and his past. And if I don’t do it, it will just disappear.” Mendels plans to make another trip back to France to shoot additional footage, and hopes to bring her aunts back to the village with her. She will be working with a new digital video camera that will enable her to edit footage on a Macintosh computer. Franklin Mendels was conceived and born while his French Jewish family hid from the Nazis. His parents, Frits and Ellen, fled their comfortable Parisian life in the middle of the night, carrying their possessions in backpacks and relying on paid guides who led Jews from occupied France to the free zone. They made their way to Le Got, a village of 30 residences that is so small it does not appear on most maps. Only the town’s mayor and priest knew the Mendels’ true identity. The mayor secured false work papers and food cards for the family, and the priest offered to hide them in a bell tower if the Nazis came to inspect the town. The family maintained a normal life. Daughters Manuela and Jacqueline attended school with the other village children. Frits Mendels, who was an importer-exporter in Paris, found work on a farm. But the Mendels, who named their only son after Franklin Delano Roosevelt, were quite aware of what was going on outside the village. Ellen Mendels wore a vial of cyanide around her neck and was prepared to swallow the lethal substance if the Nazis came for her family. Her mother, one of 13 victims of the Holocaust on both sides of the family, had done the same. Franklin Mendels was not an observant Jew. Nor were his parents. He had his Bar Mitzvah at a synagogue in Paris, where the family returned after the war. He married a Catholic woman, and they raised their children with little attention to organized religion. “We were a very secular family,” said Jessica Mendels, who considers herself “culturally Jewish” but does not belong to a specific congregation. Manuela Bornstein, one of the photographer’s aunts, praises her niece for her determination in preserving their family history. “Not all young people are interested in this aspect of history,” said Bornstein, 63, a travel agent in Atlanta. “We know what we went through, and it’s wonderful that she has taken it upon herself to tell the story.” Mendels hopes to make the film accessible for students and young adults. “As far as I know, there are no films on this subject made by someone my age,” said Mendels. “It’s time for us to take the reins and become responsible for telling the story. “Our aesthetics are different,” she said. “We are part of the MTV generation, and while I am certainly not going to glamorize this part of my family’s past, there is a visual language people my age use. “It’s the story of my family, coming through the filter of my youth.”