NEW YORK — “We can’t go as schnorrers!” So says Saul to Ruby and Ruby’s daughter Chana as they strategize just how the heck they are going to bring themselves and their music to Poland without looking like beggars.
The trip that nonagenrians Saul Drier and Ruby Sosnowicz take forms the spine of Tod Lending’s remarkable and very emotional documentary “Saul and Ruby’s Holocaust Survivor Band.” The two Floridians met late in life, shared a love of klezmer, and decided to bring some joy into the world, while reminding audiences to Never Forget.
The difficult rehearsals and schlepping to concerts are lighthearted, but when the cameras probe deeper there comes the sadness that is endemic with old age. Both men went through the horrors of the Holocaust, and have been married for over 50 years to wives who are also survivors but are in very ill health. Clara Drier and Regina Sosnowicz both passed away during the making of this documentary. And yet, the band played on.
“These are Holocaust survivors at the end of their lives, and this journey back to Poland is a capstone,” documentarian Tod Lending tells me via Zoom from his home in Chicago.
As 2020 began, his film, now available via Video on Demand platforms such as Amazon and iTunes, was prepped for a victory lap around the world. (New Zealand! Moscow! Rochester, New York!) It won the Grand Jury prize at the Miami Jewish Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, with the band performing sold-out concerts at both venues. Then COVID-19 came, bringing the Saul and Ruby show to a halt.
“They love this film, they love to play, and they love to interact with audiences,” Lending tells me. “It’s so sad to see it end so suddenly.”
There is, however, still plenty to celebrate. The movie got made, and entirely due to Lending’s determination. Below is our conversation, edited for clarity.
The Times of Israel: Were you a klezmer fanatic before this?
Tod Lending: I am not a klezmer aficionado, I do not collect records. For me it was about the two guys. I saw the New York Times short film in 2015 about Saul and Ruby, and I assumed [Joshua Z. Weinstein, director of “Menashe”] was going to do a larger piece. This was just as I was looking for a next project. I called up Saul and he said there was nothing further planned, but there had been a number of calls from interested people. I said, “I’m getting on a plane tomorrow.” I came to Florida, and met with them in a deli, of course.
So you were not hired by a producer, you instigated this, then raised the financing yourself?
Over the years, I’ve put money to the side as I do my work, as a development fund. This became the passion project. Things were happening so quickly, there was no time to fundraise. I figured I’d finish production and go from there.
I guess you sensed “race the clock” on this? These are older men and, of course, both their wives passed away during this.
Yes, their age was a consideration, and also [their decision to return to Poland] was already happening. I had to capture that. Being there in real time, following people, is my thing. “Longitudinal filmmaking,” they call it. So I had to bite the bullet and go for it.
Did you need to sell yourself a little to Saul and Ruby? How did you explain your style, which includes doctor visits, funerals, delicate moments? Your work is not all sunshine.
I make it very clear with my subjects what my intentions are. You have to lay it out early. You also need to communicate about money. If anyone thinks they are going to get rich from this, it ain’t gonna’ happen. My worst fear is to be two years in with a project and someone decides “this isn’t for me.” Thankfully, this has yet to happen.
Were there times when they turned to the cameras and said “not today, she’s sick, I’m not in the mood.” How do you push back and say, “Hey, we have a deal?”
There are tricky moments, always. There are instances when you need to push, and other times when you must back off. It comes up and you have to feel it out. That’s the process, you are always on your feet.
For instance, I knew that both of their wives were getting very sick. I realized that most likely they would die during filming, and I knew I would want to include that. I had to film shiva. I had to film what they were going through. I knew I couldn’t just wait and see if it happened, I had to talk to them now, while they were still alive. I knew it was sensitive, of course. The last thing they want to think about with me is this.
So I said to them, “We need to talk, this is going to be hard, but if they do die, and I hope they do not, what is my game plan?”
Ruby’s daughter Chana was probably a helpful interlocutor for you who ran a lot interference, but — and I say this with love, as she reminded me of members of my own family — she is a big presence. She’s a brassy Jewish broad, which I only mean as a compliment. And I adore her giant spider ring. But I suspect that there may have been difficulties in trying to keep focus on Saul and Ruby.
[Holding back laughter] Chana definitely emerged as an important character as work began on the film. This definitely made it more interesting, but also added some complications. Editing posed a challenge in finding balance, trying to figure out how Chana fit in. She is, as you say, a big personality, but it couldn’t overshadow the story.
There were occasional breakdowns in communication, especially between she and Saul. I mean, it was like a crazy-ass Jewish family; it is what it is! We navigated it, and hoped things didn’t blow up. And it did a little — after shooting stopped, there was a bit of a break-up, but things are resolved now, as is typical of all bands. But you can see the genuine affection in the film.
She’s in the most touching moment — the best moment in the film — when Saul sees his old apartment building in Krakow. He’s practically manic, leaping out of his skin, telling everyone what he remembers, then the bottom comes out when he remembers his mother, his sister. It happens so quickly. It’s just a devastating sequence.
As a documentarian you pray for capturing moments like that. It’s a true, authentic emotional reaction.
Saul has a such a sharp memory, it’s amazing how much he remembers. So to see the places where he experienced such trauma, the very spot he knew from before the Holocaust…
Ruby’s experience was very different because, of course, Warsaw was essentially destroyed. He couldn’t find his place.
Any worry that you might encounter anti-Semites or disruptive jerks when the band performed in Poland?
No. We were very lucky to work with Jonny Daniels, our fixer in Poland. He got us to the Presidential Palace, which was not planned in advance. He heard we were coming and called us up. He’s a British-Jewish community organizer with deep connections in Poland, and a nonprofit group called From The Depths, which, among other things, raises money to restore Jewish cemeteries. Originally the band was just thinking, “We’re going to Poland” — just play in the streets and see what happens. But Daniels swooped in like a blessing and helped organize.
There were 2,500 people who came to the outdoor concert. And not just Jewish people.
My understanding is that in Poland there is a wave of philo-Semitism in some corners. It’s very hip to be Jewish, or to have Jewish friends, more so than in other countries.
Absolutely. Lots of people there are doing 23andme, looking for any Jewish genes. It’s hip.
I’m guessing you have some personal connection to this, perhaps with family members in the camps.
My grandfather came from Warsaw. The story goes that my great-grandfather was an umbrella maker, and he had an umbrella with a dagger in it. He saw a fight between a cop and Jew, and he got in there and ended up stabbing the cop. So he said, “We have to get out of here” and left for the United States before the war. But there are other Lendings — which I know does not sound like a Polish-Jewish name — that were in the Warsaw ghetto who died.
On my mother’s side there are some who died in the camps, but no one in my immediate family.
Nevertheless, this was all part of why this film was important for me to make, as a Jew. And if it didn’t make a dime, if I lost all my own investment, I wouldn’t blink an eye. It brought me closer to two survivors. It’s a whole different world.
Saul and Ruby’s terrible experiences during the war — and also Clara and Regina’s — are teased-out during the movie. We meet them at first, and they are fun-loving guys living in Florida. You don’t hit us right away with the Holocaust, about Ruby barely surviving in a barn, about Saul worked in Oskar Schindler’s factory. They take their time revealing this to you.
I do not see this as a ‘Holocaust film.’ It is about two men at the end of their lives who are reinventing themselves
This is all intentional. I do not see this as a “Holocaust film.” It is about two men at the end of their lives who are reinventing themselves. They just happen to be Holocaust survivors. Let’s know them first as old men on a musical journey, then know the subtext.
It’s effective, especially if a younger person who doesn’t really know this history sees the film. You encounter Saul as a zany guy who plays the drums, then it’s, well, guess what, he was forced to carry dead bodies and saw his grandmother executed before his eyes. The impact is far greater if you know him as something other than a “survivor.”
And they are beloved in their communities for who they are. Ruby is in Del Mar and Saul is in Coconut Creek. They show up somewhere in the Jewish communities in the Ft. Lauderdale or Miami area and they are quite well known by shopkeepers and whatnot. They love it, they eat it up.
Do you have a favorite tune that they do? You had to sit through a lot of concerts after all. Do Saul and Ruby do a mean “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena”?
I think the one they do best isn’t actually a Klezmer tune, it’s “Life is a Cabaret.”
Considering the source of that song [the dawn-of-Nazism musical-drama “Cabaret”], it’s a bold addition to the repertoire.
Originally the film was called “Saul and Ruby: Life Is A Cabaret.” But it was complicated, for what you say, and also because the Holocaust is not a cabaret, you know? Then it became “Saul and Ruby: To Life!” as in l’chaim. I wanted to stay away from “Holocaust,” because you see that word in the title and, boom, it’s a Holocaust movie. But when Samuel Goldwyn Films came on board they strongly suggested I change it to “Saul and Ruby’s Holocaust Survivor Band.”
Anyway “Life is a Cabaret” is my favorite of theirs. That plus their original theme song that goes [sings], “We are the Holocaust Survivor Band…” It’s a weird song! It’s very upbeat and all, then it’s “We survived killing! We survived murders!” So maybe it is a little like “Cabaret” after all.
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