Yivo Producing Documentary for Tv on Pre-holocaust Jewishlife in Poland
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Yivo Producing Documentary for Tv on Pre-holocaust Jewishlife in Poland

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The first English-language documentary for American television showing on the culture and pre-Holocaust Jewish life in Poland is now under production under auspices of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research with the aid of nearly $110,000 in grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), YIVO officials reported.

Joseph Waletsky, an independent filmmaker and a YIVO research associate, and Jerome Radanes, of New York, a film writer, recently completed a script based on a YIVO exhibit and album, “Image Before My Eyes.” Waletsky said a $90,000 NEH grant is for the production, which has the same title, on which the NEH made a commitment this past summer. The other $20,000 was granted previously for preparation for the script. The finished documentary is scheduled to be ready next summer.

As now planned, the documentary will run 80 minutes. Waletsky explained to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that while the initial target had been to put together a version lasting the typical 60-minute span of a commercial TV slot, an early decision was reached that such a restriction would distort basic elements of the range of information the documentary seeks to convey. He pointed out that on Public Service TV stations, schedules are less rigid than on commercial TV and that he did not expect the unusual length to be a barrier to Public TV acceptance.

He also pointed out that the film will be made available to educational institutions, such as schools and synagogues where the added length will hopefully not be a problem. He said about two-thirds of the documentary is in black and white, the rest in color. The color material is mainly interviews with survivors. There is some Yiddish, Polish and Russian conversation by camera subjects in film-making in New York but there is a running English commentary throughout.


Mrs. Hannah Fryshdorf, YIVO assistant director, said one of the aims of the documentary is to dispel some of the “widely held misconceptions” about pre-Holocaust Eastern European Jewry.” She said” popular portrayals have too often stressed and romanticized the isolated, rustic, impoverished Jewish life” and have not given enough attention to “either geographic differentiation or to the connection with contemporary non-Jewish culture.”

Waletsky said that many modern developments were taking place in Poland between World War I and World War II which most European Jewish immigrants–pouring into the United States between 1881 and 1921–could not have known about. He cited the existence and operation of a Montessori school in Vilna as a typical example. He said the immigrants to America left Eastern Europe before such modernizations took place.

He said the film will begin with a detailed look at 20th Century pre-Holocaust Jewish life in Warsaw, the capital for both Jews and Poles alike. He said it will delineate and examine traditional Jewish life in Poland and trace the effects on Polish Jewry of such major political events as the 150-year partition of Poland, World War I, and the creation of the second Polish republic in 1918. In addition, he said, the documentary will explore the developments and conflicts in the political, social and cultural life of the Jewish community in the 20-year period of the Polish republic.

YIVO will be the basic source for materials and information to be used in making the documentary. These will contain the 400 photographs included in the YIVO exhibit of the same name as the film, which in turn were gleaned from 10,000 photographs in YIVO’s collection on Polish Jews and Jewish life.

Waletsky said that also to be used are film clips from a YIVO collection of brief movies, ranging from three to 15 minutes. These movies represent some of the ethnic regions of Poland, including Warsaw and Cracow, and shtetlach, such as Grodek in northeastern Poland; Useilug in Volhynia and Kurow in central Poland.

Officials said almost all of these were made by Americans, born in Poland, who visited their native towns and cities in the 1920s and 1930s before Hitler’s murderous military machine decimated Jewish life in Poland. Other important sources, Mrs. Fryshdorf said, will be YIVO’s extensive record collection of Jewish music and Nazi-made newsreel footage leading up to the German assault on Poland in 1939.

Waletsky said no approach had yet been made to Public Broadcasting Service in regard to booking the documentary. He said YIVO officials wanted to get a fairly complete documentary finished before seeking to have it booked, but stressed that part of the YIVO agreement with the NEH was that the film is to be offered initially to PBS. He said Susan Lazarus, a freelance film-maker hired by YIVO, is co-directing.

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