Herbert Gildin was a young Jewish boy growing up in Landsberg, Germany, when his family experienced the pogroms of Kristallnacht, known in English as the Night of Broken Glass, 81 years ago on November 9-10.
Gildin’s father, Abraham, was detained at a police station before some sympathetic soldiers helped him escape. It was then that Abraham and his wife, Fanny (Faiga), began efforts to send their three children out of Germany, though it meant they might never see them again.
With their passports revoked by Hitler, German Jews such as the Gildins had few options for escape. But the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) informed the Gildins that sympathetic non-Jews in the Swedish town of Falun were offering to host the children — Herb, who was 10 at the time, and his older sisters Cele and Margaret, who were 14 and 12, respectively. The children took refuge in the country, which remained neutral throughout World War II, along with other Jews hosted by individuals and families eager to help the victims of German Nazism.
Not only did the Gildin children successfully escape the Nazi regime, but their parents did as well, emigrating to the United States. The family was eventually reunited in Brooklyn. Herb Gildin grew up to become a successful businessman, husband, father, grandfather and — before his death at age 90 on May 14 — a great-grandfather. Decades after coming to America, he made a return visit to Sweden to reconnect with the Silow family who had once sheltered him.
A new documentary short film, “The Starfish,” chronicles Gildin’s remarkable life. It is directed and produced by Gildin’s grandson, Tyler Gildin, who told The Times of Israel that the film takes its name from an old parable his grandfather told him about a boy saving starfish on a beach. When an old man tells the boy he can’t possibly save the lives of all the starfish on the beach, the boy tosses another into the ocean and says, “Yes, but I saved that one.”
This story has “a lot of different versions,” said Tyler Gildin, but “the general idea and the moral are the same.
“Obviously, it’s a story about making a difference for one, and its impact,” Gildin said. Referencing the Talmud, he said, “You save one life, you save a world — how important that is.”
“The Starfish” has toured the film festival circuit to acclaim, winning an award at the recent Syracuse International Film Festival. It was screened at the Boston Jewish Film Festival on November 10, immediately after the anniversary of Kristallnacht.
The film had a moving premiere at the Miami Jewish Film Festival in January. Tyler Gildin and his wife Zara had recently welcomed their new son Brody, who represents the fourth generation of the family in America. The film shows Herb Gildin holding his first great-grandson. Tyler Gildin recalled being “a little hesitant” to take his three-month-old son on a plane for the visit, but added, “I will be forever thankful” for doing so. Four months after the film screened in Miami, on the day that Herb Gildin died, Tyler and Zara Gildin learned that Zara was pregnant again.
Current HIAS president Mark Hetfield attended the premiere of “The Starfish” at the Miami Jewish Film Festival, and another representative attended a screening sponsored by the United Jewish Appeal in New York. “They’re great supporters of the film,” Tyler Gildin said of the organization.
Taking the micro and making it macro
“The Starfish” follows a family’s journey of discovery about its patriarch’s past. While this process began several decades ago, Tyler Gildin embarked upon his own quest to learn more about his grandfather in recent years, while becoming a full-time producer and director through his company, Gildin Media.
A pivotal moment occurred in February 2017 when his grandfather’s eldest sister Cele died. Tyler’s grandfather Herb Gildin gave the eulogy, and shared part of the family narrative in Sweden.
“I want to document [this],” Tyler Gildin recalled thinking. “I want to get this on video.”
That May, he sat down with his grandfather and grandmother, Gloria, for an interview at their home in Huntington, Long Island. Joining them was his cousin Alex Utay, who is also Herb Gildin’s grandson. Utay was a producer of the film and did some of the original music.
As Tyler Gildin explained, the challenge was how to tell the story in a way that people “outside my immediate family would care.” He asked himself what were the parts of his grandfather’s narrative that, “while obviously [being] true to his story, anybody from an immigrant background, a refugee background, could relate to, a second- or third-generation American whose parent or grandparent came from some sort of similar situation.”
Escape from horror
Eighty years ago, the Gildin family decided to send their children out of Germany in the wake of worsening developments for Jews, including the pogroms of Kristallnacht, depicted in grim animation sequences in the film. During this time, Herb Gildin says in the film, HIAS sought “to protect children anywhere in the world,” even though there were “not too many places willing to take Jewish children.” In 1939, HIAS presented the Gildins with an escape opportunity for their children in Sweden.
The film explains that the family faced a difficult decision in sending their children out of Germany with no guarantee that they would be reunited.
“It was a terrible decision for my parents to have to make,” Herb Gildin says, “to give up your children to save them.” But, he reflected, “if my parents decided it wouldn’t be OK, we would end up not being OK. It was the decision they made.”
The children each stayed with separate non-Jewish families in Falun, a small town in Sweden. In the film, Margaret says she stayed with “a wonderful family,” but Cele, whose host was a childless woman who was a school principal, is described as “not quite as fortunate.”
Herb found it hard to bond with his initial hosts, an elderly childless couple, and was transferred to another host family, the Silows. This time, he felt more comfortable, going skiing and playing tennis with his foster siblings, Sven, Mieve and Agneta. He described Agneta, who was in her mid-teens, as his playmate. The family included him in their Christmas celebrations and made him feel welcome in general.
In 1940, Gildin and his siblings learned from HIAS that their parents were alive and had relocated to the US thanks to Faiga’s brother in Brooklyn.
Tyler Gildin noted that HIAS not only helped his grandfather and his sisters get from Germany to Sweden, it aided his great-grandparents getting from Germany to New York, and brought the Sweden-based Gildins to the US to reunite with their parents.
In the film, Herb Gildin describes feeling “very mixed emotions” about leaving Sweden. He says that he missed his parents and wanted to rejoin them. But, he says, to do so, he had to “leave a happy life” in Sweden, and he didn’t know what life in the US would be like.
With Cele coordinating the extensive journey, the Gildin children left for Finland, then traversed the Soviet Union to Japan. “I don’t know how my sister did it,” Gildin said. Their ship left Japan on February 13, 1941. Had they stayed longer, they would have risked wartime internment. Later that year, on December 7, Japan launched the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the US into WWII.
The film shows Herb Gildin facing the initial hardship of not knowing English in the US. Yet he learned quickly, displaying an ability to adjust to new circumstances, which is also reflected by his service with the US Army during the Korean War.
He served stateside, in the American South, with men who had never met a Jew before. Herb married his wife Gloria, started a family, and began a successful business career. He and his brother-in-law, Lou Kaufman, along with their wives Gloria Gildin and Margaret Kaufman (Herb’s middle sister), founded a company that is today Satco, a nationwide supplier of lighting products based in Brentwood, New York.
Yet as he thrived in the present and looked toward the future, he did not talk much about the past — which was noted by his wife and their children, Mindy (Gildin) Utay and Billy Gildin. There had been some correspondence between him and his Swedish host family before they lost touch, but only in later years did a process of reflection begin, sparked by Utay’s interest.
“I always knew my father was in Sweden,” Mindy Utay says in the film. “I was not even sure I knew the town.” She wondered “what it would be like to meet [his rescuers], get to know them,” and began a process that would yield discoveries for many members of the Gildin family, culminating in her father’s return to Sweden and reconnection with members of his host family in July 2001.
The film shows footage from that visit, including Herb Gildin sharing the starfish story with his former hosts at a candlelit celebration.
“I guess I am the starfish,” Gildin says. “I guess the Silow family is the young boy who threw the starfish back into the ocean.”
“It was so monumental in terms of what it meant to know people like these,” Mindy Utay says in the film. “Would I do it if someone knocked on my door? When I asked them, ‘Why did you do it,’ they did not understand. They said, ‘Why wouldn’t we do it?’ I will not forget that.”
“At the end of the day, my grandfather lived a very fulfilling life, ultimately a happy life,” Tyler Gildin said. “I want people to walk away [from the film] with a smile, to feel better, to know the story of a great man, feel some sort of connection to him.”
And he hopes larger society can learn a lesson from the film — “give a chance to people, give people a chance,” Gildin said. “Something great can happen.”