LONDON — When Elise Otzenberger met her husband-to-be, they very quickly realized that they were both completely obsessed with their Polish-Jewish family histories.
“One day, we were trying to find some information out on JewishGen and, as a result, we received a message from a woman in Poland who invited my husband to a commemoration [for Jews who died in the Holocaust] in Zgierz, his grandfather’s home town,” recalls Otzenberger, a French writer, actor and film director.
JewishGen is a nonprofit electronic resource for Jewish genealogy.
The couple agreed to attend the commemoration, despite the organizers not yet knowing when it would take place. During the intervening year, the couple had their first child, got married, and then received the invitation to the memorial — which was to take place three weeks after their wedding.
“So,” Otzenberger laughs, “It really was our honeymoon.”
Otzenberger used that trip, including the commemoration in Zgierz and the couple’s prior visit to Krakow, as the premise for her debut feature, “My Polish Honeymoon.” In its UK premiere, the film will open the 23rd UK Jewish Film Festival in London on Wednesday.
A gentle, bittersweet comedy-drama, the film follows Anna (Judith Chemla),
and Adam (Arthur Igual), a recently married Parisian Jewish couple, as they travel to Poland for the first time, leaving their infant son with Anna’s parents.
While Anna sees the trip as an opportunity to discover something about her own family’s history, in particular about her maternal grandmother, whose Polish past had always been a mystery, Adam is more interested in spending a few days alone with his wife. What emerges is a very contemporary tale about the transmission of memory, rediscovering roots and being Jewish today.
Much of the film draws on Otzenberger’s personal experience.
“I [decided] to use the honeymoon because it was so funny,” Otzenberger says, speaking with The Times of Israel via telephone from Paris. “But at the same time, the joke [cuts] very deep because, in a way, it was tragically logical to go to Poland at that particular time in our life.”
Otzenberger has always wanted to direct films, but began her film career as an actress 22 years ago at the age of 18. However, she says, her acting career proved difficult to maintain while bringing up a young family. Following the success 10 years ago of her one woman play, “Dear Mr Spielberg,” about a girl living with ET, Otzenberger increasingly turned to writing. Eventually, she had the idea for her film.
“I knew I needed to find a strong personal story for my first movie,” Otzenberger says. “I tried writing about two other subjects before realizing that the trip to Poland was the story I had to tell.”
Despite its autobiographical tendencies, Otzenberger points out that Anna, who is high-strung and has a fractious relationship with her mother, is not based on herself. However, there are parallels between Anna’s family and Otzenberger’s own, particularly in the inability of older generations to talk about their lives before the Holocaust and the difficulties this presents for their descendants — a situation the director hopes will resonate with many viewers.
“The silence was very strong. It was impossible for our parents to ask their parents questions [about their experiences in the Holocaust]. It was too painful,” says Otzenberger. “They had the feeling that they didn’t have the right to ask and were afraid that by asking they would hurt them. But, as the third generation of survivors, I think we’re taking that chance.
“Sadly, though, many of our grandparents are dead or are very, very old. That’s the tragedy. Every day, I think, why didn’t I ask my grandparents about this, about that,” she says.
As if to reinforce that, in the film Anna’s mother tells her that her grandmother said nothing of her early life. The desire to build a new identity and put the past behind her was overwhelming because “she was over being Polish… She wanted to be a good Frenchwoman. A Parisian.” Meanwhile, Anna yearns to see vestiges of pre-Holocaust Poland and tells Adam that “it’s hard to be here and be clueless.”
Otzenberger understands Anna’s obsession with the past and her wish to connect with it.
“Perhaps for us, it’s a way to bring back the memory before the tragedy, to bring back that lost world because we have the freedom to do it, which our parents never had,” she says. “I don’t speak Yiddish at all but last year when my kids came back from a Reform/Liberal Jewish summer scheme singing a Yiddish song, we were so happy. I have the feeling that in a strange way, we’re going to be able to bring back those kinds of memories, of more joyful stuff. I hope so.”
In the film, when the couple arrive in Krakow, they are confronted with the city’s almost cartoon-like recreation of Jewish life, which Adam describes as “Disneyland for the Holocaust.”
They are further dismayed to find that this commercialization of the Holocaust is everywhere: Posters advertise tours to Auschwitz, and a tourist bus drives past promising trips to the Jewish quarter, Schindler’s factory, and the oldest Jewish restaurant in town. They see Judaica sold from a market stall next to hook-nosed Jewish figurines.
Otzenberger says the real-life trip was as strange for her as it was for her characters.
“It was so shocking the first time I went,” she says. “But I think it was worse when I made the movie, which was eight years later.”
A visit to Krakow inspires mixed emotions, Otzenberger adds. “The Shoah business is very big — Auschwitz is the biggest tourist attraction the country has — but, at the same time, you can feel that maybe [this type of tourism] is good, it’s a way to keep memory alive. You go back and forth between thinking it’s good and being disgusted.”
This ambivalence was the reason why it was important for Otzenberger to include a scene in the cemetery in Kazimierz, where Anna and Adam come across a survivor speaking to a group of school children. The scene represents authenticity and truth — Otzenberger cast a real survivor for the role — in contrast with what the protagonists have witnessed beforehand.
“That cemetery is completely pure and untouched by all that crazy commercial business,” Otzenberger says.
Anna’s quest to find her grandmother’s house will resonate with audiences who have undertaken similar Jewish journeys. It is, in part, influenced by what Otzenberger and her husband discovered when they searched for his grandfather’s home.
“It was less poetic than in the movie. There was nothing, just a small garden between two car sellers or something like that. It was a very, very sad place,” Otzenberger says. “So, I kept that idea when we were scouting in Poland. I tried to find the perfect place to give that [suggestion] of emptiness — something that was difficult to describe when I was writing the script, but I had the conviction that if I found the right place I could [convey] that feeling.”
Otzenberger acknowledges that in the near future, there will be no remaining survivors to provide living testimony of their experiences. But during moments of optimism, she says, she believes there will new forms of talking, reflecting and researching the Holocaust.
“No less interesting, perhaps with more analysis. Obviously, we have to be very careful and be cautious about how memory is preserved,” Otzenberger says. “But we must never stop speaking, thinking and trying to understand more about that period.”