(New York Jewish Week) — In March 2022, Jack Waksal thought he recognized Sam Ron, the keynote speaker at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s annual South Florida dinner in Boca Raton. But he couldn’t quite place him — after all, at 97, Waksal had met thousands of people during his lifetime.
But when Ron said the word “Pionki,” all the memories came rushing back. Ron, formerly known as Shmuel Rakowsk, and Waksal had been best friends as teenagers when they worked side by side making gunpowder at the Pionki labor camp in Poland for nearly a year during the Holocaust.
Waksal was blown away by the coincidence of meeting Ron again at a gala nearly 79 years after they first became friends half a world away. After Ron’s speech, Waksal made his way over to his table. In a new documentary about their rekindled friendship, “Jack and Sam,” Waksal recalls the first words he spoke to Ron in nearly 80 years: “I said, ‘You’re my brother!’”
“It is such a beautiful love story,” director Jordan Matthew Horowitz said after a screening Sunday at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York’s Holocaust museum. “It’s a beautiful story of friendship that’s endured so much over such a long period of time.”
The screening was part of the filmmakers’ push to get the film in front of documentary branch members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as they begin voting on the shortlist of Oscar-nominated short documentaries. (“Jack and Sam” clocks in at 20 minutes.) Around 40 voters, film industry leaders and other documentary filmmakers attended Sunday’s screening, with more expected at a second screening Tuesday at the United Talent Agency offices in Los Angeles.
“Jack and Sam” premiered at Provincetown International Film Festival in June and has since been shown at 21 film festivals across the globe including at DocNYC last month. Jewish actresses Sarah Silverman and Julianna Margulies signed on as executive producers for the film in October.
“My wish for the film is that everybody sees it, especially right now. I think from sixth grade to 12th grade, this film should be mandatory viewing,” said Margulies in a talkback after Sunday’s screening. The actress, who starred in the television series “E.R.,” has been outspoken about the rise in antisemitism and Jewish representation in Hollywood in recent years.
Margulies, who is on the board of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, said she is personal friends with Waksal’s granddaughter and believes that the story in the film is crucial given the antisemitism experienced on and after Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Israel. (She was also fresh off an apology after making disparaging comments about Black Americans who have not supported Jews after Oct. 7.)
“Right now, it is such a heightened moment. Especially in terms of education and misinformation, it is our absolute responsibility as adults and human beings to make sure that we do everything we can to get these films seen,” she said. “The timing of this is extraordinary. We have to push as hard as we can to show the evidence of what people refuse to believe.”
“Having testimony and recordings of history like this is so important,” said Jack Kliger, the CEO of the museum. Horowitz “has added a lot to the body of the work that will live on for many years and I appreciate that.”
Horowitz said that, as Holocaust survivors number fewer and fewer, the two men’s story was important before Oct. 7. But in the wake of Hamas’ attack on Israel and the international outburst of antisemitism in the nearly two months since, it has become even more relevant. “I had no idea how the world can change so rapidly,” he said.
The film begins with Waksal and Ron narrating the story of their childhoods in Poland over traditional documentary footage of pre-Holocaust European life in cities and ghettos. Both were born in 1924, Waksal in Jedlinsk and Ron in a town near Krakow. They remember Kristallnacht, the Nazi-led pogrom of 1938, and both lived in ghettos before being moved to labor camps.
Horowitz enlisted animator Lukas Schrank to recreate Waksal and Ron’s depictions of being transported via cattle cars to labor camps and the details of their lives there, including their harrowing memories of taking their first showers in weeks but not knowing if water or gas would come out of the faucet.
The film also animates Waksal’s story of escaping the labor camp after hearing that some residents would be moved to Auschwitz. He and a group of 15 others escaped together and lived in a nearby forest for more than six months before the war ended. Only six of the group of 15 survived the whole winter.
The movie doesn’t cover why Ron didn’t join them; Horowitz cited interviews with Ron, who explained that both staying and leaving carried risks and he found it an impossible choice to make. He instead was moved to Sachsenhausen, another concentration camp, and then was sent on a death march, during which he didn’t eat for more than a week. He was on the march when the American army liberated the group in the spring of 1945.
After the war, Waksal moved to Dayton, Ohio, where he lived until 1992 and became a successful owner of a scrapyard. Ron joined B’richa, an underground organization that helped Jewish orphans escape to Palestine. He briefly moved to Israel, and in 1956 settled in Canton, Ohio, about 200 miles from his wartime companion.
When they retired, both men moved to South Florida, never knowing they had lived and continued to live close to one another. That is, until the U.S. Holocaust Museum dinner in March 2022. After the dinner, Waksal and Ron became close again, visiting each other frequently, updating each other on the last eight decades of their lives and sharing their story at local high schools.
“It’s like a miracle,” Ron says in the film of his renewed relationship with Waksal.
Horowitz said he began working on the film a year and a half ago, just a few weeks after Ron and Waksal reunited.
“I actually never thought I would ever make a Holocaust-themed movie,” he said. “I just didn’t feel like there’s anything I could add to the conversation that hasn’t been said many times before. But then when I heard about their story, I was so moved by it.”
Horowitz conducted extensive interviews with both men over the course of 2022. They also both spoke at a screening of the documentary at Florida Atlantic University in August, which Horowitz said was “one of the highlights of my personal and professional career.”
Ron died on Oct. 11 at age 99. Waksal, meanwhile, is 99 and recently attended the March for Israel in Washington, D.C. with his daughter and granddaughter.
“We’re just trying to get as many eyes on this as possible,” Horowitz said. “That’s what Jack wants more than anything. He is so concerned with the state of the world and he feels like he has such valid points to make about it that he’s getting it in front of as many people as possible.”
“As he says, this is why I survived, to tell this story,” Margulies said.