Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America” by Kirsten Fermaglich— What’s In a Name?

Fermaglich, Kirsten. “A Rosenberg by Any Other Name: A History of Jewish Name Changing in America”,  NYU Press, 2018

What’s In a Name?

Amos Lassen

“A Rosenberg by Another Name” is Kristen Fermaglich’s history of the practice of Jewish name changing in the 20th century, showcasing just how much is in a name and it is a fascinating and enlightening read. We have many stories about name changes from those of ambitious movie stars who adopted glamorous new names or Ellis Island officials who changed immigrants’ names for them. However, we learn here that the real story is much more profound. Fermaglich examines previously unexplored name change petitions to upend the clichés that we have heard all of our lives and we see that in twentieth-century New York City, Jewish name changing was actually a broad-based and voluntary behavior: thousands of ordinary Jewish men, women, and children legally changed their names in order to respond to anti-Semitism. They were not trying to escape their heritage or “pass” as non-Jewish, most name-changers remained active members of the Jewish community. While name changing allowed Jewish families to avoid anti-Semitism and even achieve white middle-class status, the practice also created pain within families and became a stigmatized, forgotten aspect of American Jewish culture. 

This first history of name changing in the United States says something about American Jewish life throughout the twentieth century. We see here “how historical debates about immigration, anti-Semitism and race, class mobility, gender and family, the boundaries of the Jewish community, and the power of government are reshaped when name changing becomes part of the conversation.” 

Fermaglich went through court documents, oral histories, archival records, and contemporary literature and convincingly maintains that name changing has had a lasting impact on American Jewish culture. Ordinary Jews were forced to consider changing their names as they saw their friends, family, classmates, co-workers, and neighbors doing so. Jewish communal leaders and civil rights activists needed to consider name changers as part of the Jewish community, making name changing a pivotal part of early civil rights legislation. Jewish artists created critical portraits of name changers that lasted for decades in American Jewish culture. The book ends with the quite disturbing realization that the prosperity Jews found by changing their names is not as accessible for the Chinese, Latino, and Muslim immigrants who wish to exercise that right today. 

We gain a new appreciation for the levels of complexity that Jewish identity was forced to take on in post-war America. This is a powerful story about “anti-Semitism, adaptation, markers of identity, and the kinds of choices and sacrifices that people must make in the name of access, privilege, and commitments to their communities.”

“The Talmud of Relationships” by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman— A Two-Volumr Set

Scheinerman, Rabbi Amy. “The Talmud of Relationships”, Jewish Publication Society, 2018.

A Two-Volume Set

Amos Lassen

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman continues the conversations that the rabbis of yore shared and in doing so makes the Talmud relevant today and accessible to all.

Volume 1: God, Self, and Family

Some of the questions dealt with in volume I include

“How can I tame my ego? How might I control my anger? How might I experience the spirituality of sexual intimacy? How can I bestow appropriate honor on a difficult parent? How might I accept my own suffering and the suffering of those whom I love?”

Scheinerman shares how these ancient texts can be used for modern relationship building—with parents, children, spouses, family members, friends, and us. Each chapter (as you will see in the table of contexts below) is about a different text that explores relationships. What is surprising is that many of the texts are fresh, largely unknown passages. We explore the logic of each passage in today’s English, weigh multiple perspectives and draw our own conclusions. Scheinerman gives us the grounding in why the selected passage matters, its historical background, a narrative of rabbinic commentary, anecdotes and questions for thought and discussion, as well as a cogent synopsis.

Jews and non-Jews, newcomers and veterans, students and teachers, individuals and group study partners and families alike discover the oral Torah and the treasures within.

Scheinerman takes the most obscure Talmudic texts and makes them come alive and it seems so simple. We learn to navigate engrossing texts and also reflect on our own relationships including who we are and who we would like to be.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction: Why Talmud?

Part 1. The Core: Relationships with God and Self

  1. Finding Our Place: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menachot 29b
  2. Controlling Our Anger: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 7a
  3. Understanding Our Suffering: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 5a–b
  4. Approaching Prayer: Mishnah Berakhot 4:2 and the Accompanying Gemara from the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds

Part 2. First Sphere: Family Relationships

  1. Honoring Our Parents: Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Pe’ah 1a, 5b–6b
  2. Affirming Our Sexuality: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nedarim 20a–b
  3. Balancing Family and Study: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot 61b, 62b–63a

Appendix: Theodicy, the Problem of God’s Justice

Glossary

Notes

Bibliography

Volume 2: The Jewish Community and Beyond deal with issues such as “How can I lead others with authority and kindness? How can I strengthen my self-control? How can I balance work and family? How can I get along with difficult coworkers? How can I best relate to people in need?

 

Volume 2 shows how the ancient Jewish texts of Talmud can facilitate modern relationship building especially with family members, colleagues, strangers, the broader Jewish community, and us. Using the same pattern as volume 1,

Scheinerman devotes each chapter to a different Talmud text exploring relationships expanding on these richly complex conversations so that we can weigh multiple perspectives and draw our own conclusions.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction: Why Talmud?

Part 1. Second Sphere: Relationships within the Jewish Community

  1. Maintaining Self-Control: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menachot 44a
  2. Respecting Human Dignity: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 27b–28a
  3. Creating Consensus in Community: Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:8–9 and Babylonian Talmud, Gemara Rosh Hashanah 25a–b
  4. Clashing Titans: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Horayot 13b–14a

Part 2. Third Sphere: Relationships in the Larger World

  1. Moving to the Land of Israel: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot 110b–111a
  2. Straddling Two Worlds: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 33b–34a
  3. Caring for Poor People: Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra 10a

Glossary

Notes

Bibliography

“God Is In the Crowd” by Tal Keinan— A Look at Jewish Identity

Keinan, Tal. “God Is in the Crowd: Twenty-First-Century Judaism”, Spiegel and Grau, 2018.

A Look at Jewish Identity

Amos Lassen

Tal Keinan is social activist, a business leader and was a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force and he is concerned with modern Jewish identity. He is also the author of “God Is in the Crowd” in which he sets forth his proposal for finding relevance and meaning in Judaism in order that it continue to succeed in the modern era. Keinan presents this through his personal story and even though I know nothing about the man aside from what I have read here, he is convincing and writes from the heart and mind. Of course there will those, including myself, who wonder if he has the qualifications to make the statements that he does but I figure if Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks approves wheat he says, there must be something to it.

Keinan looks at the fact that the concentration of Jewish people is concentrated between two hubs, America and Israel. Keinan says that the result of this is the loss of “the subtle code of governance that endowed Judaism with dynamism and relevance in the age of Diaspora.” This code comes from Francis Galton’s “wisdom of crowds,” in which a “group’s collective intelligence, memory, and even spirituality can be dramatically different from, and often stronger than, that of any individual members.” Without this code, this ancient people, the Jews, and the civilization that it has brought into being will become extinct soon. Keinan suggests that a new code that proposes a new model for Judaism and for community be written. He weds narrative to theory to better demonstrate Judaism’s importance and value to humanity and chart its path into the future via the use of social science, economics, religion, and national identity.

Keinan takes us into his childhood and his assimilation as an American Jew. He grew up secular but culturally Jewish, but started becoming more religious at Exeter school in New England. He decided to learn as much about Judaism as possible, and eventually made Aliyah to Israel, qualified for the IDF air force. He developed a financial fund and microloan program and divides his time between Israel and the United States. Keinan sees himself as a moderate somewhere between religious Zionists and secular Israelis.

By interspersing his ideas of 21st century Judaism with his own personal history, he is able to present a clear picture of Jewish values, practices and survival. This is an independent view of the demographic challenges facing the Jewish people in this century. The demographic problem is real and two of Keinan’s ideas deserve consideration. He suggests using “technology and the Internet to determine the “crowd wisdom” of the world’s Jews” and broadening the powers of Israel’s President by making that office responsible for questions dealing with the Law of Return and conversions. All in all, this is quite a fascinating read and I hope that I will still be around to see where Judaism is going.

“The Girl from Berlin” by Ronald H. Balson— Long Buried Secrets

Balson, Ronald H. “The Girl from Berlin: A Novel”, St. Martin’s, 2018.

Long Buried Secrets

Amos Lassen

When an old friend of attorney Catherine Lockhart and investigator Liam Taggart asks them to meet him, they learn that his aunt is being evicted from her home in the Tuscan hills by a powerful corporation that claims to own the deed to the property. Our two detectives have very little to work with since all that Ada Baumgarten has are the deeds a bound handwritten manuscript, entirely in German.

Ada Baumgarten was born in Berlin in 1918 at the end of World War II. She was a violin prodigy and the daughter a first-chair violinist in the Berlin Philharmonic and her life reflected the culture of interwar society in Berlin. She also was very close to her childhood friend Kurt but because she and her family were Jewish, the relationship was torn apart because of anti-Semitism. Ada was lucky to be as talented as she was and it was her talent that made her a target yet that also saved her life. She moved to Bologna thinking she and her family would find peace there but unfortunately that was not the case.

To find out whatever happened to Ada and why she was evicted, Catherine and Liam will have to get through the lies and corruption and evil brought about my humans who thought that they were making the world a better place.

I suppose that even thought I knew that crimes of the past often resurface in the present, it is fascinating to see how later generations are affected. how crimes buried in the past can reverberate across future generations. Catherine and Liam Taggart went to Italy to solve a mystery that brought together an elderly women in Tuscany who was on the verge of losing her land and a Jewish violin prodigy in 1930’s Berlin during the rise of Hitler. This is a story of survival, hope and redemption that will have you turning pages as quickly as possible.

This is the first Ronald Balson novel that I have read and I was pulled into the story on the very page. The characters are well drawn and compelling, the plot just keeps betting better and better and the way the Jews were treated in Central Europe is compassionately portrayed.

“SOBIBOR”— For the 75th Anniversary

“Sobibor”

For the 75th Anniversary

Amos Lassen

 Sobibor was the smallest-scale facility of the six killing centers that the Nazis built in occupied Poland and until ten years ago, Russians had no idea that the place ever existed. It is interesting that Sobibor was so obscure since the camp is tied to a dramatic story of heroism: In 1943, Russian inmates led a successful escape, one of only two such occurrences during the Holocaust (the other was the same year in Treblinka).

Following the Sobibor uprising, however, the Nazis razed the camp so that there was little more than a forest clearing remaining in the area where SS guards and Ukrainians murdered 250,000 Jews. Ten years ago the Russian government led a commemoration campaign that ended this year with the 75th anniversary of the uprising and the release of this film. The two-hour Russian-language film stars Konstantin Khabenskiy, one of Russia’s best-known actors. It has an international cast and exciting visuals but what is really important is that the film goes into fine detail and nuance mores o than any other film made about the camp.

This is quite a gory film. The opening scene features hundreds of naked women in a gas chamber. There’s a rape scene, immolation, savage beatings, floggings, stabbings, a bludgeoning to the head and firearm executions. Because of this it is a difficult film to watch. In the days before the uprising, its conspirators suffered violence and feared betrayal by other inmates — including Jews who worked for the Nazis as camp police. This is evident throughout the film and informs every step of the film’s main protagonist, the partisan and Red Army veteran Alexander Pechersky (Khabenskiy) who led the revolt. and whose character is played by Khabenskiy.

The film also has a scene of a kapo practicing the Nazi salute (this refers to Herbert Naftaniel, a German Jew nicknamed Berliner. According to testimonies from Sobibor, Naftaniel was crueler to inmates than the German and Ukrainian guards. It also shows the hostility harbored by some Russian Jewish soldiers toward other Jews, whom they call “kikes” in the film).

Under Pechersky, about twelve men and a few women eliminated the Nazi chain of command by stealthily assassinating several camp officers, who were lured into a trap with promises of possessions taken from victims. With weapons they stole, the rebels then engaged the watchtower guards as more than 300 people exited through the main gate. Only 57 escapees, including Pechersky, were not murdered in the manhunt afterwards.

“Sobibor” explores the Nazi camp’s internal politics.We see that eleven German officers were killed in the uprising. Yet while these acts of bravery at Sobibor highlight the rebels’ resourcefulness and determination, they also show how Jews’ relative obedience at Sobibor created total complacency among the Nazis and we know that they were vigilant, disciplined and effective in countering threats by enemies, partisans and even prisoners of war.

We see both the dehumanization and mechanized killing and the heroism. The film also looks at perceived passivity, exploring the effect of hard labor, hunger and trauma and the deception employed by the Nazis to trick the condemned into submissively entering the gas chambers, which the killers said were showers. Pechersky, a Red Army prisoner of war who was transferred to Sobibor because he was Jewish and he soon realized that no one was meant to survive the camp. Others believed they were about to be resettled.

Sobibor showed the will to never surrender to those who want to destroy us said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “That moment more than any other marked the turning point in the history of the Jewish people.”

“Sobibor” generally treads lightly through politics and devotes very little to how Sobibor had Ukrainian guards or that many of the escapees were betrayed by Poles. Nonetheless, the story of Sobibor “is not only a Jewish story, but also a story about the best and the worst of us as human beings. Its message needs to be universal.”

(English subtitles not yet available)

“SUNSET”— Intrigue and Terror in Budapest

“Sunset”

Intrigue and Terror in Budapest

Amos Lassen

We finally have Hungarian director László Nemes’ long-awaited follow-up to his Oscar-winning “Son of Saul”. “Sunset” takes us into a Middle European heart of darkness and a fever dream. Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab) is the first-person protagonist of the film, arriving in Budapest from Trieste and looking for work in a posh hat shop which was once owned by her now-deceased parents. The new owner, Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov), is not happy to have her at the shop but will ultimately relent to Irisz’s immediate dissatisfaction.

We understand that Irisz is looking for her long-lost brother. She’ll find him but again not be to her liking. It is as if she is in dogged pursuit of things she doesn’t want to catch. Unfortunately, Jakab gives a mono-expression performance to a one-dimensional character who seems nothing more than an excuse to take the camera somewhere else.

However, Budapest looks amazing and Nemes gives us a full view, with crowds of people, trams and coaches. There is a sense of life brimming and of history happening, violently and darkly, perhaps just out of sight. As Irisz’s quests continue, she becomes involved in various adventures: an uprising of anarchists; an attack from coachman Gáspár (Levente Molnár). She witnesses a half-mad countess being brutalized by a sadistic young man from Vienna. Hot air balloons are launched and a huge tent is being put up.

The shop has something going on, perhaps being a front for high-end prostitution (something Irisz immediately wants to investigate by getting chosen to be the girl that ‘delivers the hat’). We always sense a creeping dread that danger is about to breakthrough the frankly flimsy veneer of Hungarian civilization. A final baffling shot suggests everything was all some kind of allegory but it is very hard to remember what is what.

This is a very mysterious and even bizarre film in many ways; it is an occult mystery drama about the fin-de-siècle anxieties of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It takes place in Budapest in 1913, with a distinctly disturbing coda in the wartime trenches, a setting that is itself ambiguously real or imagined. All the fears and premonitions of war and the overturning of an old order are projected on the hat store in the city.

Irisz’ parents died in a fire at the store after which it was rebuilt and re-established as a lucrative concern, keeping the brand name of Leiter by a businessman Brill. The catastrophe that killed her mother and father happened when she was two, after which she was placed with a family in Vienna, where she has been working with a milliner. But now she has returned, on a mission to find the truth about her brother, whose existence in Budapest is a shadowy and. He is thought to have caused the fire himself, to have made an attempt on the life of Brill and murdered a certain count whose wealthy but disturbed and drug-addicted widow now hosts fashionable musical soirees for the elite.

Gaspar knows where Irisz’s brother may be found: he is now involved with a criminal gang of robbers who have what could be anarcho-nationalist or separatist leanings, resenting the haughty German-speaking royalty from Vienna. And the awful truth is that Brill continues to cultivate a special relationship with this alien ruling class. It is not simply that the royals are the most prestigious hat-buying customers; Brill keeps beautiful young women as his milliners, the most favored of whom will be selected as an employee of the royals, perhaps as a kind of lady-in-waiting, although the drama suggests something more sordid.

The camera moves through the city and through the drama as if in a dream. There is no traditional structure and variation of pace that might accompany a conventional drama someone progressively discovering the truth.

The film is a sumptuous period piece where horrors exist around every corner. It won’t take long before audiences guess where Írisz’s path is leading. The question, as ever with these kinds of things, is: just how far she will go. The real mystery, I think, is what Irisz is a symbol of. There are many ambiguities, almost to the point of damaging its basic cogency yet however disorientated I became while watching the film, I did not become frustrated. I did, however, begin to backtrack and second-guess myself just a little, which somewhat diminished the experience but I do plan to see the film again.

“I DO NOT CARE IF WE GO DOWN IN HISTORY AS BARBARIANS”— An Attack on Romanian Holocaust Denial

“’I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians’”

An Attack on Romanian Holocaust Denial

Amos Lassen

Radu Jude’s “I Do Not Care…” is an extraordinary opus that can be overly didactic and unapologetically intellectual as well as startling and provocative. In a military museum, in front of a glass case filled with old rifles and guns, actress Ioana Iacob tells us that she will be playing the role of Mariana Marin, a theatrical director who has been given the job of designing a public spectacle relating to Romanian history. Mariana is mounting a carefully researched reenactment of a much disputed 1941 atrocity, in which the collaborationist leader Ion Antonescu ordered the murder of tens of thousands of Jews following the capture of Odessa by Romanian troops.

We see Mariana spend her days choosing costumes, coaching the “cast,” selecting sound effects, and so on. At night she walks around her apartment semi-naked reading and researching, while her personal life also intrudes as she worries she may be pregnant by her married pilot boyfriend (Serban Pavlu). Some of the cast brings their own agendas, like the old man who refuses to work alongside the Roma actors, or the young guys who are a little too eager to wear SS uniforms but who refuse playing Soviet soldiers. 

The project also brings Mariana into conflict with Movila (Alexandru Dabija), a city official nervous about potential backlash over the show’s “anti-Romanian” content. The staging of the reenactment is shot on garish video as though for a news report and serves as a function in the investigation of truth and falsehood, calling attention to the reality of the spectacle, and to the non-actor spectators whose reactions seem to be real. There is also archival footage and photographs that serve as an indictment of Romania’s refusal to face up to its uglier episodes. Holding everything together is Iacob’s performance.

With the reenactment, Mariana hopes to catch the conscience of a population sliding amnesia. This is an intelligent wake-up call, a film that leaves the viewer smarter at the end and sadder and terrified. It is easy for people without principles to act barbarously if they do not care how history will view them. And it is easy not to care about how history will view someone, if he does not care about history at all.

The narrative structure of “Barbarians” is quite simple with Mariana working on the re-enactment that took place before Romania joined the Nazi’s WWII Axis alliance.  It was beforehand when authoritarian dictator Antonescu ordered over a hundred thousand Jews killed in Western Ukraine, primarily in the city of Odessa. The campaign against the Jewish people in Romania continued after Antonescu joined the Axis, but this specific action demonstrated how quickly the nation had turned to anti-Semitism (and fascism) like much of mainland Europe.  

The film stays with you because of how even after the 80 years, the prejudice and fears that Mariana researched, are still deeply rooted in some (not all) of the Romanian actors taking part in the reenactment and the audience who watch it.  

“THE INTERPRETER”— An Odd Couple Road Movie

“The Interpreter”

An Odd Couple Road Movie

Amos Lassen

The Second World War’s impact on the children of Nazi leaders has been examined in several documentary films but here is a fictional look at the potentially equally devastating inheritance of the child of a victims of Nazi atrocities and the child of a father who ordered them. Peter Simonischek plays Georg Gruber, an ageing ladies man who receives an unexpected visitor, Ali Ungár (Jirí Menzel) who has read a book by Georg’s father, a former SS officer. He realizes that Georg’s grandfather was responsible for the deaths of his parents and this causes him to pay a call intent on revenge. Things don’t go according to plan but there are words between the two men.

The meeting awakens something in Georg and he decides to pay Ali a return visit using him as a translator as he makes a tour of the places his SS father wrote about. Ali senses the opportunity to perhaps find out more about his own family and the scene is set.

Director Martin Sulik first focuses on the comedy of the situation using Ali’s slightly stiff approach to life in stark contrast to Georg’s old rogue as they encounter a couple of hitchhikers and flirtations. As the film progresses, it begins to consider the weight of history and the comparisons between those things that are remembered and left over and those that are forgotten or left behind.

Menzel and Simonischek have good chemistry and though the characters may seem little more than ‘types’ initially, Sulik finds that the way that both men have been shaped by their lives – one perhaps valuing connection so deeply because of what he lost early, while the other’s vibrancy may hide a loneliness that even he is not fully aware of.

As if director Sulik was worried we might not think he is taking things seriously enough, he gives us quite a change at the end of the film. This emphasizes the importance of listening to history if we don’t want it to have to repeat itself.

“THE WALDHEIM WALTZ”— Revisiting Karl Waldheim

“The Waldheim Waltz”

Revisiting Karl Waldheim

Amos Lassen

Given the current whitewashing of national culpability in Nazi collaborations, it’s time that someone make a film investigating Austria’s collective whitewashing of its Nazi-era past. And someone did— Ruth Beckermann who in her incisive documentary “The Waldheim Waltz” treats former U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim as a poster boy of the phenomenon. Using only footage from the 1970s and ’80s, some of which she shot herself while protesting Waldheim’s successful bid for the Austrian presidency, Beckermann reveals the timeline of revelations detailing her subject’s Nazi affiliations, and how a majority of the electorate in 1986 still voted him into office.

“The Waldheim Waltz” has a sense of urgency made more pressing given political developments not just in Austria but Poland and Hungary as well. While Secretary General of the United Nations between 1972 and 1982, Waldheim was “the man who the world trusts,” whose broad smile and expressive hands made us feel like he was one of us. There were a few at the time quietly questioning his record during World War II, but Waldheim stuck to the story that he was drafted into the Nazi army like tens of thousands of other Austrians, was wounded in 1941, and sat out the rest of the War concentrating on his studies. Only when he declared his candidacy for president in 1985 did investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin begin digging into the records, where he discovered that Waldheim’s claims were untrue.

When Czernin’s article came out, Waldheim said that it a smear campaign and took refuge in the popular argument that Austria was the first victim of Nazi aggression. Like most politicians after the War, he spoke of the hard-won ethical and moral rebuilding of Austria following its liberation. He ignored that many Austrians welcomed the Anschluss. The case against Waldheim really picked up steam in March 1986, when the World Jewish Congress in New York gave a press conference presenting documents together with a now infamous photo of the former head of the UN in Nazi uniform in 1943.

The evidence was devastating, and it kept on coming. We learned that Waldheim was involved in murderous anti-partisan activities and his claim that he did not know about the 60,000 Jews from Thessaloniki deported to extermination camps was proven false. Waldheim hit back, denying any culpability in the Nazi war machine, using veiled anti-Semitic language in their appeal to true Austrians and their historic assertion of collective victimhood. Waldheim declared he was the most slandered candidate in his nation’s history.

Beckermann counts down the days to the election, with each one bringing new revelations. About the only thing missing from “The Waldheim Waltz” is a brief discussion of Waldheim’s legacy at the UN aside from Arafat being seated in the chamber. Beckermann picks apart the man and the machine that supported him.

“The Waldheim Waltz” fits right in with our current era of right-wing populist leaders, from Donald Trump in the U.S. to Heinz-Christian Strache and Sebastian Kurz in Austria, plus many other nations. Besides a few flashbacks to Waldheim’s decade at the U.N., from 1972 to 1981, Beckermann keeps her focus almost entirely within the day-to-day chronology of his 1986 domestic election bid. The majority of material she uses is culled from second-hand newsreel and TV footage, with intermittent clips of self-shot video and stills from inside a homegrown protest group. The director herself provides the voiceover commentary, showing how the Waldheim affair destroyed Austria’s delusion of having been the first victims of the Nazis.

This is a film about national collective amnesia. Unlike Germany, Austria quietly dropped investigations into its former senior Nazis and never paid compensation to their victims. This helps explain why, in the face of worldwide scandal and criticism, Waldheim still won the presidency in 1986. However, his reputation was fatally damaged and his political career finished. In 1987, after a State Department investigation concluded he had been closely involved in Nazi war crimes, he was barred from travel to the U.S.

What Beckermann did not share is that the CIA had long been aware of Waldheim’s full wartime record but she kept her narrative firmly trained on Austrian national complicity. Nonetheless, this is a personal breakdown of a fascinating episode in recent European history with cautionary lessons for modern voters.

“THE LAST SUIT”— One Last Voyage

“The Last Suit” (“El último traje”)

One Last Voyage

Amos Lassen

“The Last Suit” is Pablo Solarz’s tale of an elderly Jew trying to get back to the home in Poland he fled seven decades ago. Argentine actor Miguel Angel Sola plays Buenos Aires oldster Abraham Bursztein, who is surrounded by loving family members (and one greedy granddaughter that he has to bribe to take a picture with him) on an occasion that proves less happy than it appears: His daughters are selling his house and forcing their father into a retirement home. Abraham convinces his family to let him spend one more night alone as a goodbye to his home of so many decades — then sneaks off as soon as they’re gone, looking for an after-hours travel agent and telling her that he needs to fly to Poland now. He has to settle for a roundabout itinerary with an initial layover in Spain. We see him board that long flight and use some reverse-psychology to get a whole row of seats to himself.

This is one of the many scenes requiring in which he uses use and frailty to his advantage. Through occasional flashbacks, we see both the Jewish social world Abraham enjoyed as a child as well as the horrors that World War II inflicted: near starvation after his time in Nazi camps, going back to the house he grew up in and being turned away, getting help only from one young acquaintance. That acquaintance is the man Abraham hopes to see now, before he dies.

The closer we get to Lodz, though, the more the film reminds us why Abraham dreads this trip so much. Solarz’s script occasionally throws dramatic momentum aside to remind us of what happened historically. Some of the psychological difficulties the old man encounters on the trip are well dramatized; others are maudlin or condescending to the viewer. By its third act, it’s clear that this film fits into a familiar happy-goodbye format.

Quite basically, this is the story of a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who travels from Buenos Aires to Lodz to fulfill a promise he made nearly 70 years earlier. This is a late-life road movie with plenty of poignant and humorous moments. Abraham has a bad right leg that he nicknames “tzuris” because of the aggravation it gives him. He is a stubborn, 88-year-old retired tailor who still has plenty of fight and flair left in him. Unfortunately, his family refuses to recognize it. Bursztein has already foolishly divided his property among his daughters, and the two older ones decide to dispatch him to a nursing home. After all, they say, he will soon need more care because the day is coming when his leg will require amputation.

Bursztein isn’t ready to give up his independence just yet. He has a mission to accomplish back in the old country, a place that for years he has refused to name. When ordering his travel tickets, he still won’t let the word pass his lips and instead writes “Polonia” on a slip of paper. The director is not shy about assorted Jewish stereotypes. As Abraham flies to Madrid, he overnights in a hostel and makes his way overland; we see that haggling and bickering are a funny, necessary part of the process.

The screenplay is in German and Polish with English subtitles and it gives us a fresh take on the horrors of growing old, the indignities and humiliations of a body that keeps letting you down as well as the memories that we cannot shake. What makes “The Last Suit” a hopeful film that is basically sweet at its core is the universal humor of a cranky old man on this one last quest.