The buzz about documentary “Aida’s Secrets” surrounds its plot line of two elderly men living half a world apart who discover they are brothers and meet for the first time as they near the age of 70.
The reunion is touching. It brings tears to your eyes. But it’s not the ultimate subject of the film.
At the core of the cinematic narrative is something far less heartwarming: The devastating aftereffects of World War II and the way in which they shattered and damaged many Holocaust survivors, turning them into harborers of secrets.
To be sure, not all families kept secrets as deep and as long as the family portrayed in this documentary, screening on Sunday at the DocAviv film festival in Tel Aviv. But burying the past was not uncommon among survivors intent on getting on with life at all costs after untold horrors.
Izak Sagui (né Szewelewicz), who has lived almost all his life at the central Israel agricultural community of Kfar Yedidya, never knew he had a younger brother. Only at the age of eight or nine, he discovered that he was born in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp in Germany in 1945 and brought to Palestine with other war orphans. He was adopted by the German-Jewish family he lived with on the moshav. He had mistakenly assumed it was his biological family.
Later, at age 13 as he was about to become bar mitzvah, his birth mother, Aida (originally Jadwiga) located him and came to visit from Canada. Aida, with whom Izak maintained a relationship going forward, told him that she was Jewish. She also told him that his father was named Grisha (also known as Gregory) and that he was killed in the war. She assured him that he had been a good man.
Aida refused to ever tell her son more about his past and parentage, and Izak never really pressed the issue.
Aida was blond and had typical Polish features and a Polish birth name. Izak, blond and strapping at well over six feet tall, did not resemble any of the Israeli Jews he grew up with. Still, Izak didn’t ask questions, and Aida didn’t volunteer any more information — including the fact that Izak had a blind younger brother who emigrated from Bergen-Belsen to Canada as a toddler, and with which Aida had severed all ties.
Izak may have been in the dark, but shockingly, almost everyone in his extended family was aware of the brother’s existence
Izak may have been in the dark, but shockingly, almost everyone in his extended family—including his nephew Alon Schwarz, co-director of “Aida’s Secrets”—was aware of the brother’s existence. They were all sworn to secrecy, and were warned never to tell Izak for fear of causing him pain. (In the film, Schwarz asks Izak’s adoptive sister Miriam why she never told. “We were from a yekke [German-Jewish] family. No meant no,” she says.)
Early in the film, we see Schwarz admitting to Izak that he had been told as a boy that his uncle had a blind younger brother.
The filmmaker was finally able to come clean with his uncle after Izak himself began digging into his past upon returning from chaperoning his teenage granddaughter’s class trip to Poland.
“He came back from Auschwitz really shaken up, and he decided he had to try to learn more about his own past. He did some research and found the DP record cards with emigration stamps at Yad Vashem. He was astounded to find that there were not just cards for himself and his parents, but also one for a boy named Shepsel, whose parents were also named as Jadwiga and Grisha Szewelewicz,” Schwarz told The Times of Israel by phone from his home in Herzliya.
The secret was out, and Schwarz had found the subject for the feature documentary he had always wanted to make. Together with his New York-based filmmaker and photographer brother Shaul Schwarz and a supporting crew, he set off on a three-year journey of research and filming that would culminate in “Aida’s Secrets.”
With the help of an investigator from MyHeritage, an Israeli online genealogy platform, the filmmakers followed up on a variety of leads, combing through archives, libraries and research institutions in many countries.
It would have been case closed if not for Shep’s intuition that he and Izak, born 10 months apart, did not share the same biological father
It seemed as though the story had reached its conclusion when Shepsel Szewelewicz (now called Shep Shell) was located in Winnipeg, where he had lived since coming to Canada as a very young boy. Once a lithe and muscular Paralympics athlete competitive in skiing and marathon running, the now paunchy and balding Shep was happy to have been found by the older brother he had been told existed, but had never known how to find.
Shep’s concerns about whether his brother would like him melted away as a tearful Izak hugged and stroked him as they met for the first time at the Winnipeg airport. Similarly, he discovered that his fears of rejection by the elderly Aida were unfounded when Izak took him to visit her at a nursing home in Montreal. Although she suffered from moderate dementia, the mother appeared to understand who Shep was, and was happy to have her reunited sons in her life toward its end.
It would have been case closed if not for Shep’s intuition that he and Izak, born 10 months apart, did not share the same biological father.
Shep may be blind, but he could see that Aida was hiding something.
Stymied by Aida’s refusal to divulge any significant information about the past, the skeptical Shep asked Izak to submit to DNA testing. And in the meantime, Schwarz continued to dig for more historical evidence that could help to further unravel the mystery.
To disclose everything that the filmmakers and brothers discovered would be to give away too much about the film’s narrative. Suffice it to say that Shep’s hunch is proved correct by science.
Thanks to a few photographs saved by Aida, as well as a huge collection of others contained in an album compiled by Zippy Orlin, a young South African volunteer with the American Joint Distribution Committee at the Bergen-Belsen DP camp from 1945 to 1950, quite a bit was revealed about Grisha. The photos also hint at what could likely have been the reason for the young family to have broken up, with Izak being sent alone at age two and a half to Palestine, Shep ending up in Winnipeg with Grisha (who was a cold, distant father), and Aida landing in Montreal without either of her children.
‘We see that people went back to life quickly after the war’
Schwarz, who was not knowledgeable before making the film about the DP camp period and life in the immediate post-war period, found the photos and related films he discovered at the Imperial War Museum and the JDC archives, fascinating.
“We see that people went back to life quickly after the war. There were parties. There was love, living and rebirth,” he noted.
Undoubtedly, these artifacts, together with many others collected from the DP camps bear witness to a revival of Jewish cultural, social, religious and political life. However, “Aida’s Secrets” comes to remind us that life did not end happily ever after for all families created in the DP camps.
There is one photograph that remains an ongoing mystery. Aida died at 89 in 2015, having been unable (or refusing) to identify a man pictured sitting next to her at what looks like a picnic site near Bergen-Belsen. In the photo, Aida holds baby Shep, and the man holds little Izak. The man is not Grisha — but who is he?
Could he be the father of one of the two boys? Or perhaps that of a third son whom Schwarz discovered Aida gave birth to in Canada after arriving in the country unwed and pregnant?
Jewish social services and other records have led Schwarz to the third son, living today in Toronto. To this date, he has declined to meet Izak and Shep or to be involved in the film.
“My uncle thought he had closure, but he doesn’t. He’s always lived with questions and doubts about who his father was, but I think he’s ok with it,” the filmmaker said.
‘My uncle thought he had closure, but he doesn’t’
Izak takes comfort in his mother’s having told him that his father was a good man. He holds on to this thought in the face of conjecture that this may not have been the case, given that the teenage Aida (who had been taken from her home in Poland and forced into domestic work for a German family) gave birth less than nine months after her arrival at Bergen-Belsen and meeting Grisha.
Izak is thrilled to have discovered and connected with his brother Shep, and he is confident in his lifelong identity as an Israeli Jew and a Zionist. Still, one can’t but notice a tinge of newfound sadness in the voice of this generally happy-go-lucky man.
Schwarz insisted that only good has come out of this journey across the world and into the past.
“It’s not about genes. What’s important is how you grow up and what you believe in,” he said.
Anyone with information about the man in the photo, or about Aida’s son born in Canada is asked by the filmmakers to contact them at the “Aida’s Secrets” Facebook page.