Putting shtetl life on film

Filming of the documentary ´Judenfrei: A Shtetl Without Jews´. (Ilya Dolgopolsky)

Filming of the documentary ´Judenfrei: A Shtetl Without Jews´. (Ilya Dolgopolsky)

MOSCOW, Nov. 7 (JTA) — Gregory Kemelman dips his grandson into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean off the Brighton Beach boardwalk in Brooklyn. The next moment, the boy’s head comes out of water in a completely different setting — a murky river near a small town in Ukraine. Despite what its title suggests, “Judenfrei: A Shtetl Without Jews,” is not a typical film about the Holocaust. The 52-minute film, part-feature, part-documentary, tells the story of Brailov, a shtetl in central Ukraine. In December 1942, the Nazis, helped by local collaborators, killed the remaining 2,500 Jews in the shtetl leaving only one sign of the former Jewish presence in this once-lively Jewish town: a poster nailed at the village entrance reading “Brailov. Judenfrei.” But the filmmakers say their film is more than a requiem to a Jewish community destroyed in the Holocaust. The movie, full of scenes reconstructing the town’s past, is devoted to the preservation of history and spirit of shtetl life in Ukraine. Since no Jews currently live in Brailov, filmmakers brought Jewish adults and kids from the neighboring communities of Vinnitsa and Shargorod to play in the scenes that reconstruct life in Brailov before and during the Holocaust. The film documents how a once-prosperous and lively shtetl became a depressed Ukrainian village. “With Jews gone, the village lost its spirit,” says Michael Masterovoy, the film’s director. It took a former Jewish villager, Boris Khmelnitski, to revive the memory and images of the lost Jewish presence — at least on videotape. The story of the Kemelman family is similar to that experienced by many Jewish families in this part of the world. The family lived in Brailov as long as their family memory goes back — since the 1850s. When Nazis invaded Soviet Union in June of 1941, all of the Kemelman men able to carry arms found themselves in Red Army fighting the Nazis at the front. All women and children were left behind in the shtetl that within weeks saw German troops marching along its streets. Gregory Kemelman was lucky to escape the fate of most of the Jewish villagers. In 1941, he turned 17 and was drafted into Red Army. In the documentary, the 80-year-old pensioner now living in Brooklyn, comes to Brailov to talk to the villagers and visit the grave of his grandmother Reeva, who died in the Holocaust along with dozens of other members of his family. But the visit is not only about memory. The film shows Kememlan placing a brick in what will be the Reeva Kemelman Public Library, the first new institution of culture established in this town in decades. “Even after the war, this was a very Jewish place,” says Boris Khmelnitski, Kemelman’s son who was born in Brailov in 1958. Khmelnitski, a lawyer and financier who now divides his time between his business interests in Russia and his family in the United States, co-wrote and produced the documentary based on his own family story. His parents left for Moscow soon after the war, but his grandparents stayed in Brailov, as did many of those Jewish villagers who survived the Holocaust in the Red Army or by fleeing to other parts of the country. As a child, Khmelnitski would spent his summers with grandparents: The scene in the movie with an old man teaching a boy how to swim is a scene right out of his own childhood — when his grandfather, Tula, gave him swimming lessons in a nearby river. During his summer stays with grandparents in Brailov in the 1960s, “the language of the street was still very much Jewish,” Khmelnitski recalls. “My grandparents spoke Russian with a heavy Yiddish accent.” Khmelnitski says he decided to make the movie based on his family experience in order to tell his children who are being raised in the United States, what the life of a shtetl looked like. He said he was amazed to discover how little was left of the once-numerous and thriving community when the film crew first arrived in Brailov a year ago. In a local school, the crew was shown a small exhibition on the history of the town, and “Jews were not even mentioned anywhere in the exhibition,” he says. A young teacher who gave the filmmakers a tour of the exhibition did not even seem to be aware of her town’s Jewish past, Khmelnitski said. The town now has a monument to its victims of the Holocaust; its construction was funded by the former local citizens now living abroad and by the U.S. Commission on Preservation of the American Heritage Abroad. Khmelnitski says he decided to make the movie in part because he wanted to say thank you to the place where he was born and raised. He adds that it is important to overcome the bitterness connected with the town’s dramatic past and to return to this place with the words of thanks. “This is my way of saying thank you to the place where I was born, and this is a way of responding with good to all the bad things that happened to Jews there.” Local research has established that the administration of a Jewish ghetto in Brailov had only one German serviceman, the rest were the local Ukrainian police. But Khmelnitski said the movie was made and the library established “so that the locals know who lived there, and that we harbor no evil despite all that happened to us there in the last century.” Others around the world may know as well. Masterovoy, the film’s director, said negotiations are under way to arrange the TV screening of the film in the United States and Canada, and a Russian TV channel has already agreed to show it next season.

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