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Bringing the Past to Life

Inside Hana's Suitcase, featured in the 26th Buffalo International Jewish Film Festival

“I hated the idea of making a Holocaust film at first,” says Toronto-based filmmaker Larry Weinstein. “It’s too grueling and dark.”

But this wasn’t your standard Holocaust story. First published in 2003, the book Hana’s Suitcase is a procedural for young readers that begins when a woman in Japan receives a suitcase that once belonged to a 12-year-old girl. The woman is Fumiko Ishioka, director of a Holocaust education center in Tokyo. The suitcase was a relic she requested from Auschwitz, something she hoped would personalize an event that many of her young students regarded as distant and abstract.

Writing on the suitcase indicated that it belonged to Hana Brady, an orphan, who was sent from her home in Czechoslovakia to the concentration camp in Terezin. Compelled to pursue the human being attached to this mute piece of history, Ishioka and her students discovered that Hana’s brother George had survived the camps and was living in Toronto. His often painful memories, which he had long kept dormant, helped bring Hana’s full story to life for Ishioka’s class.

A successful director of music-themed documentaries (his company, Rhombus Media, also produced Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and The Red Violin), Weinstein was attracted to the book even though it was somewhat different from his usual material. “The book, rather than dwelling on the darkness, was about tolerance and opening one’s heart to other people and compassion,” he explains. “And it had a worldly feel, originating in Japan and taking us to Toronto and to Eastern Europe. But mostly it was meeting these incredibly warm protagonists, George and Fumiko.”

With the new title Inside Hana’s Suitcase, Weinstein decided that the shifting, unfolding story could best be told in a hybrid format mixing documentary and recreations of scenes that would be better seen than talked about, like George’s initial meeting with the Japanese schoolchildren who had been searching for his sister.

Key to the film is his use of children who have studied the book to appear as narrators. “Because the book was so popular and so many children wrote letters to George and Fumiko and Hana, we looked at what they wrote and thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to make them the narrators? They have such an understanding of the subject. And they respond to the lessons so beautifully. So we got kids from the three countries—Japan, Canada and the Czech Republic—that are part of the story. Of course with Toronto being the most diverse city in the world, those kids are just the rainbow. George and Fumiko are very happy with that aspect of the film.”

Inside Hana’s Suitcase will be screened as part of this year’s Buffalo International Jewish Film Festival at 6pm on Monday, May 16—the date that would have been Hana Brady’s 80th birthday. Larry Weinstein will be present to introduce his film. While the festival organizers had hoped that George Brady could also attend, he is unable to—not because the 82-year-old retiree is in poor health but because he is travelling in Europe as part of bringing his sister’s story to the world.

Now in it’s 26th year, the Jewish Film Festival is this area’s most reliable annual presentation of quality world cinema. This year’s lineup includes a dozen features and two short films that, with one exception, have not previously been seen in Buffalo; most have not been commercially distributed in the United States. It runs from Saturday through Thursday at the Amherst Theater, with most films screening twice.

Along with the films reviewed on this page, the JIFF will be screening Nora’s Will, a wry Mexican comedy-drama about a woman whose suicide doesn’t end her control over her ex-husband; international star Norma Aleandro in the Argentine drama Anita, about a young woman with Down Syndrome who loses her mother in a terrorist bombing; another film from Argentina, Camera Obscura, an inventive story about the discovery of beauty in a harsh 19th-century landscape; the family comedy Max Minksy and Me from Germany; Saviors in the Night, based on the memoirs of a family of Westphalian Jews who were hidden from the Nazis by German farmers; recent Oscar nominee Jesse Eisenberg as a Brooklyn Hasid involved with drug smuggling in the fact-based Holy Rollers; the documentary Where I Stand: The Hank Greenspun Story; and Fugitive Pieces, adapted from Canadian poet Anne Michaels’s novel about an artist tormented by the death of his family. The closing night gala, featuring kosher snacks and live music, is The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground, a documentary about the klezmer super group.

Full information including trailers and a schedule are available at

m. faust

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg

“She was the Oprah of her day,” someone says of Gertrude Berg during Aviva Kempner’s well detailed nostalgic documentary Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg. She was the creator of The Goldbergs, the long-running and immensely popular radio program of the 1930s and 1940s that became a pioneering comedy series on television in 1949. The show gave her an unprecedented broadcast-industry eminence and an influence in American popular culture. No woman had achieved such a position before her, and there have been few since.

Berg’s shows about a Bronx Jewish family were among the very most successful of their time. In the 1930s, only Amos and Andy, in which two white actors pretended to be a couple of African-Americans, was more popular, and many black Americans found its dialect, humor, and racial exaggerations condescending, if not racist. Berg’s treatment of the Goldbergs (she wrote and starred in both shows) was sometimes sentimentalized, and even affectionately stereotyped, but it was also respectful and made this Jewish family seem an obvious part of American life. During the Great Depression, as Hitler began the lead-up to his Final Solution, and in this country, as virulent swarms of bigots were led by the notorious priest Father Coughlin and the German-American Bund, Berg and her radio show were effectively a counterweight. In 1938, just after the Nazi’s perpetration of anti-Jewish terror on Kristelnacht, Berg had the Goldbergs celebrate Passover on a show.

In January 1949, The Goldbergs (shown in some areas as Molly) debuted on television and quickly became the first successful sitcom. But less than two years later, it went on a remarkable 18-month hiatus when CBS cancelled it after Berg refused to fire Philip Loeb, who played Molly Goldberg’s husband. Loeb, a civil rights advocate and broadcast-union organizer, had been targeted by red-baiting witch hunters and accused of subversive activities. Kempner gives a balanced but vivid account of this low, nasty, and eventually calamitous affair. The show returned to the air with another actor, but it was never again as successful.

Kempner herself and a number of talking-heads narrators—including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—carry the story along, although Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (the title comes from the gossipy conversations Molly Goldberg and her neighbors carried on from apartment building windows) doesn’t really contextualize the show’s decline in a postwar homogenizing, class- and ethnic-expunging show business. But it ably preserves the memory of a once-important product of American popular culture and the dynamic woman who was responsible for it.

george sax

The Matchmaker

Running not far beneath the surface of this gently poignant, warmly humorous Israeli coming-of-age film, is a thematic undercurrent that keeps erupting and darkening its story. The Matchmaker is a memory film, but its most disturbing material involves the Israeli characters’ suppression of memories and information from the Holocaust.

In the summer of 1968, 16-year-old Haifa resident Arik (Tuval Shafir) is shielded by his Romanian-born parents from information about their survival of the Nazi persecution and murder of millions of European Jews. Through a fluke meeting and a youthful prank, Arik is inadvertently responsible for his father’s reacquaintance, after decades of separation, with a boyhood friend and fellow survivor, Yankele Bride (Adir Miller). Despite Arik’s attempt to make him the butt of the youth’s monkeyshines, the mild-mannered, scrupulously polite Yankele hires Arik as a sort of investigatory legman for his marriage arranging business. Quiet and reassuring Yankele may be, but as Arik quickly learns, he has a core of hardened steel and a deceptive courage.

Arik also discovers that Yankele has some less-than-legitimate enterprises he uses to subsidize his matchmaking service, which is a labor of love for him. Yankele deeply believes in the power of love; he’s committed to trying to help lonely, unattached souls find fulfillment. Arik receives a sort of sentimental education working for Yankele that summer.

The Matchmaker is set in a handsome, vibrant, new-looking Haifa, viewed in luminously lit panoramic shots. Writer-director Avi Nesher has elicited a strong, persuasive performance from Miller, and from Maya Dagan as Clara, a soul-sick woman who assists Yankele in his businesses, and for whom he patiently yearns.

The film skips too lightly over some of the more troubling aspects of its situations and characters, and Nesher wraps things up a little too neatly and perfunctorily, but he does offer us glimpses of the mysteries, perversities, and endurance of the human spirit.

george sax

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