Last November, a family reunion like no other took place in New York.
None of the attendees were actually related, but that didn’t matter. It was an emotional gathering of 55 brothers and sisters in resistance, Jewish partisans who had, as teenagers and young adults, hidden and survived in the forests of Europe and fought the Nazis by sabotaging German army supply lines. They had parted at the end of World War II, and never thought they would see one another again.
These Holocaust survivors were brought together by the Jewish Partisans Educational Foundation (JPEF), a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that produces and disseminates educational materials about Jewish WWII partisans to 6,500 educators around the world.
Mitch Braff, JPEF’s founder and executive director, knew that, given the advanced age of the attendees, this reunion was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime event. A filmmaker by training, he instinctively perceived that the occasion should be documented in an artful and meaningful way.
“I see things through a filmmaker’s lens, and I knew this would make a great documentary movie,” Braff said.
With the partisans’ spouses, children and grandchildren accompanying them to the gathering, he knew the film, titled “The Reunion,” was an opportunity to show a different side of his organization. “Our other films are heavily history-based,” he said. “But this film shows the partisans in a different light. It emphasizes their families and relationships, and also the legacy they are bequeathing to their grandchildren, the third generation.”
Surmounting fundraising and logistical challenges, Braff, acting as producer, director and writer, forged ahead and shot the film over the three days the partisans were gathered in New York. Field producer Sam Rider assisted with filming interviews of some of the elderly men and women.
“I went into it thinking that I understood the war and the partisans, but then five minutes into taping, I realized that I was having the honor of interviewing people with lives that were cinematically grander than anything I had ever experienced before,” he said.
The post-production process, which extended through most of this year, included the addition of an original musical score by Ronen Landa, and narration by stage and screen actor Liev Schreiber, who starred in the 2008 Hollywood movie “Defiance,” based on the true story of a Jewish partisan brigade in Belarus led by the legendary Bielski brothers.
The director knew, given the advanced age of the attendees, that this reunion was a once-in-a-lifetime event
“This is an important story that must be told. I was happy to contribute to ‘The Reunion’ in hopes of helping ensure more people learn about what the Jewish partisans went through and the incredible things they accomplished,” the actor wrote by email about his participation in the project.
The 25-minute film will premiere Monday in New York at a JPEF benefit at the Paley Center for Media. Its West Coast premiere will follow at a similar event at the Delancey Street Screening Room in San Francisco on Nov. 13.
In August 2011, JPEF produced a videotaped public service announcement to get the word out about the upcoming reunion and tribute dinner. Schreiber, former CNN host Larry King and Edward Zwick, who directed “Defiance,” appeared in the video.
“If you or your family are aware of any partisans still living, please have them contact jewishpartisans.org. We’d love to have them attend the dinner with us,” Zwick requested.
Of the tens of thousands of Jews who were once partisans fighting the Nazis, Braff expected that perhaps 20 or so would respond to the video and JPEF’s other outreach efforts. To his astonishment, 55 ended up making the trip to New York. Many of the former partisans, nearly all now octogenarians and older, were local, coming from their homes in New York and New Jersey. Others journeyed to the reunion with their families from Montreal, Florida, Texas and California.
At the emotional center of the film are two of the attendees: Allen Small, 84, a retired women’s fashion executive from Florida, and Leon Bakst, 87, a retired grocer from Dallas. Small had recognized Bakst’s name on the list of former partisans who had committed to coming, but Bakst had not recognized that of Small, who had been known during and before the war as Avraham Meir Shmulevitch.
Small had known Leon as Leibl, and the two had been friends and schoolmates in Ivye, Poland (about 50 miles from Minsk, now part of Belarus).
Wanting to surprise his old friend, Small insisted that JPEF not notify Bakst that Small would be at the event. The film captures the moment the men met for the first time in 65 years, their first encounter since seeing one another in a displaced-persons camp in Germany.
“My whole life came in front of me,” Bakst told the Times of Israel by phone from his home in Dallas. “It was the excitement of my life. It was painful and joyous together. We lost everybody, so it was so great to see him.”
According to Bakst’s daughter Pepe, 59, her father and mother — who had also been a partisan — had not kept in touch with anyone from the war or the DP camps after arriving in the United States.
“It was hard for them to talk about it,” she said. “My mom, Libby [who died two years ago, at age 84], did not say anything at all. My dad started telling his story to high school classes, and had his testimony taped only once my sister and I were grown up and out of the house.”
Bakst, the second of four children, saw the Soviets take over his town shortly after his bar mitzva. By 1941, the Germans had arrived and set up a ghetto. In 1942, he was forced to dig mass graves in which the Germans dumped hundreds of Jews from the town. Not long after, Bakst and his older brother were sent to a forced labor camp in nearby Lida. He never again saw his parents or younger sisters, who were shot dead by the Germans shortly thereafter.
The reunion was bittersweet, bringing back many difficult memories
Bakst, his brother and a small group of other young Jewish men — all between the ages of 16 and 21 — decided to steal Polish and Soviet rifles and ammunition from cargo they were forced to load onto railcars for the Germans. In the spring of 1943, the group escaped in the middle of the night and walked for two days and two nights to reach the Bielski brothers’ partisan camp. “We had heard that partisans were getting organized in the woods,” Bakst recalled.
“We met the three Bielski brothers and had a chat with them,” he said. “When they learned we knew the area well, they had my brother and me organize a detail to get food for the camp.”
Bakst explained that the partisans neither bought nor stole the food from farmers. “We ‘demanded’ the food. They knew we meant business,” is how he characterized the exchange. Procuring food for the camp, which grew from an initial 100 people to more than 1,200, remained Bakst’s job until the Soviets seized the area from Germany in July 1944.
Small, three years younger than Bakst, went into hiding and then managed to join a brigade of Soviet partisans when he was 14. His entire family was massacred, including his father, whose corpse was dumped into the mass grave that Bakst had been forced to dig and later cover up. Small met up with Bakst again in a DP camp in Munich in 1946, but did not keep in touch after they both departed for new lives in America.
“You have to understand, 65 years is not the same as 65 days,” Small says in the film, before the scene in which he surprises Bakst. For him, too, the reunion was bittersweet, bringing back many difficult memories.
Now, the two men are in touch regularly, speaking by phone at least once a week. They will see one another in person again, as both plan to attend the film’s New York premiere.
“Thank God for that organization,” Small said of JPEF. “Now I have family.”