The family was warm, familiar, Jewish. The grandparents' English was charming, old-fashioned, glazed in a Yiddish accent. Meet the Kleinmans -- the focus of Evan Kleinman's new documentary, We Are Still Here. The 28-year-old documentarian turned the lens on himself to make a film, aptly titled We Are Still Here, about his trip to his grandparents' Poland. A Poland that held sweet memories turned bitter and unimaginable. Kleinman's paternal grandparents grew up in shtetls near Krakow and were deported to concentration camps. On screen, his grandmother remembers her time in the Warsaw Ghetto and how she volunteered to go to Bergen-Belsen with her best friend.
Although Kleinman's film records his particular legacy trip -- a return to his roots with his father, mother and younger sister -- it's a universal home movie. The message of the film is that every Jew survived the Holocaust. This shared survival has contributed to the founding of 3G groups in New York, Boston and other cites. The group's name, 3G, stands for the third generation of survivors. The group is made up of people in their twenties and thirties, most of whom are the grandchildren of survivors.
Liz Bobrow, Boston 3G's president, noted that this third generation has the "unique privilege of connecting with the survivors in a different way than the second generation. While our parents have become caretakers for the survivor generation, we are able to focus solely on who these people are and their incredible stories of survival. It gives the survivors comfort seeing that their stories are not being forgotten, that we are still telling them so many years later."
We Are Still Here was organized around the central event of taking a tombstone back to Poland -- a stone to mark Leib Kleinman's grave. Leib was Evan's great-uncle, his grandfather's kid brother who died in a small concentration camp in central Poland. "The stone is heavy," the grandfather tells his grandson. The younger Kleinman has set up the context of his film so well that it's clear that the weight of the tombstone is as difficult to bear as the history of the Jews in Poland.
But in an e-mail interview, Kleinman was ebullient about his grandparents and unequivocal about their positive influence on him:
They are the most powerful and inspiring people I know and I wanted to be able to share them with other people and with future generations of my family. By doing a film it provided us with an exercise that would bring us closer together, capture our story, and also perhaps bring closure for them because they had not seen these places in 70 years. When my grandfather revealed to me that he could pin-point the place where he buried his brother I felt beyond compelled to make sure his brother was memorialized.
Evan's preparations for the trip to Poland are as poignant as the trip itself. His grandfather sketches a map to help his family find his house in the small town of Sediszow. Evan dutifully brings the map with him to Poland and it's almost miraculous when it proves to be useful and accurate.
In Poland the four Kleinmans move through the country in a hazy dream. But their disorientation is frequently punctuated by moments of triumph. They find a birth certificate of another great-uncle. They find Leib's burial place through determination and his brother's description of a place he hadn't been to in more than seven decades. Evan is similarly scrupulous in showing that the buildings in Poland are a mixture of the old and the new. The observation is a living, breathing subtext of Evan's portrayal of his family and the intense family history attached to them.
Kleinman's film was presented last month at the Museum of Tolerance in New York City as well as a number of film festivals. Since the film's debut, Kleinman has been gratified by the positive responses from his third generation of survivors. "Many [third generation survivors] have voiced to me that the film inspired them to explore their own family history. Also, many [of them] have told me that my family even reminds them of their own families."
It's the ultimate recognition for a young man who movingly portrays his third generation as "living links" to history.