A veteran film editor and director-producer of several documentaries, all of which center on the African-American experience, Adam Zucker won a travel grant to Poland in 2008. He had not been there before, and had only distant family ties to the country.
But like many American Jews, he knew a little about the remnant of Jews, Holocaust survivors and their descendants, who still lived in Poland. He knew the common perception that Polish Jewry was a tiny minority in a sea of anti-Semitism. And he knew the corresponding perception about Polish philo-Semitism, represented by the annual Jewish Cultural Festival that draws thousands of Jews and non-Jews to the streets of Krakow for days of singing and dancing and lectures.
Zucker wanted to know more. Perhaps there was a subject for a documentary. Accompanied by a cameraman, he went to Poland with an interest in the country’s emerging, post-Communism Jewish community, but with no specific subject in mind.
For 10 days — his trip coincided with the Festival — he met young Jews in Krakow and Warsaw. He heard story after story of men and women, mostly in their teens and 20s, who were raised as Catholics, or whose families had negligible Jewish identities, and were now affiliating with the Jewish community. “It wasn’t hard to meet Jewish people,” Zucker said. One connection led to another.
The people he met did not talk about anti-Semitism. And they did not talk about the effects of Polish philo-Semitism. Rather, each told Zucker about personal struggles, about individual efforts to build Jewish life in the country that was home to the world’s biggest Jewish population before World War II. Most barely knew the meaning of being Jewish.
Zucker had found his subject — “young people who want to be Jewish, but didn’t know what to do. They just don’t have any background.”
A Queens native who now lives in the West Village, Zucker returned to Poland eight times over the next five years, while doing bills-paying projects back home. He decided to tell the story of Poland’s current Jewish life through the lives of four then-20ish women, both secular and religious, who act as stand-ins for much of Polish Jewry.
The result is “The Return,” an 83-minute documentary that premieres here this week and will be screened several times in the next few months. The film is about the return of Jewish life to a place where it was nearly extinguished 80 years ago. “It’s the return to a new life,” Zucker said — a modern-type of Jewish life, bearing little resemblance to pre-war Jewish life.
The documentary is about discovery and embrace, love and marriage, conversions and emigrations, questions and answers, identity and change.
Like the recently opened Museum of Polish Jewish History, in Warsaw, it’s not about the Shoah. But the shadow of the Final Solution, as people in the documentary testify, is an ever-present reality. The film, Zucker said, is not about history but rather “character driven. This is a film about personal relationships. How people change over time is the heart of documentaries. I had no idea what would happen.”
The documentary features evocative shots of Polish scenery, combining bucolic images in the countryside and bustling urban streets. Much of the action takes places at night. There are JCC and synagogue interiors, restaurants and offices, Shabbat meals at home, intimate scenes of family life and crowded gatherings at communal celebrations.
The women unburden their hearts, sharing the conflict between the familiar customs of their accustomed upbringings and the often-unfamiliar Jewish practices they have taken on.
“Some of these [lifestyle] decisions are no different than those faced by young women their age anywhere,” Zucker said, offering no judgment on the women’s choices. “But, for these four, woven into every decision is the larger question of personal and communal identity.”
And Poland has arguably greater symbolic significance for the wider Jewish world than any other European land, with the exception of Germany, where the Third Reich originated.
Polish Jewry, as it evolves, is under a microscope. The entire documentary is an answer — in other people’s voices — to Zucker’s basic question: What does it mean to be a Jew in Poland today?
He complements the women’s stories with interviews with a wide range of Jewish leaders and officials. The official size of Poland’s Jewish community is 5,000-6,000 (Jews affiliated with synagogues or other Jewish organizations), but estimates of the number who have “Jewish roots” or vague ties to the Jewish community range as high as 20,000 or more. The discovery of Jewish roots among young Poles is an ongoing occurrence.
While Poland has experienced a well-documented Jewish revival since Communism there ended 25 years ago, with a growing number of well-known activists and newly observant men and women, Zucker chose to focus on lesser-known figures, people old enough to explore their spiritual identities but not old enough to be set in their ways.
That approach “seemed to get to the heart of the issue of identity of what does it mean to be a Jew,” Zucker, 57, said, sitting in the living room of his apartment, which overlooks a European-style courtyard.
He financed “The Return” with an online Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign, and with contributions from several foundations and individuals.
Zucker, who studied filmmaking at Binghamton University and frequently teaches his craft at workshops and seminars, said he didn’t set out to focus the documentary only on women. But Kasia, Tusia, Katka and Maria proved to be the most articulate, the most representative, the most compelling of the people he interviewed. “They all had different stories,” Zucker said. Some were reluctant to make their private lives public. Some wanted to back out of the project. “I spent a lot of time talking people off the ledge — not literally.”
To some degree, the four women, while typical of members of their generation, speak for only a fraction of Polish Jewry; that community is not a monolith, says Konstanty Gebert, a journalist and longtime Jewish activist. “Nobody is representative for wider Polish Jewry. It is a shifting, changing, multi-faceted phenomenon.”
“The Return” would have been a different documentary if it had been made a decade or two ago, in the early years of Poland’s Jewish revival, Zucker said.
“The awareness of Jews around the world about the reemergence of the Polish Jewish community has greatly improved over the past 10 years. Still there is a long way to go,” said Michael Schudrich, Poland’s Long Island-born chief rabbi.
“The first decade [after the fall of Communism] was a time of discovery and learning. This past decade has been a time of building and growing,” the rabbi said in an email interview. “In the early ’90s the question was are there any Jews left in Poland. By the mid-’90’s it was clear that there are – and the next question is, do they want to be Jewish. By the mid-to-late-’90s it was clear that we were reaching critical mass and that more and more of those discovering Jewish roots really did want to be Jewish and do something about that.”
None of the women Zucker profiled are living in Poland now; two are in Israel, one in Prague, one in New York City.
Does that mean that Polish Jewry is losing the people who would drive its continuing revival?
Not necessarily, Gebert said. “A substantial percentage of young Poles, Jewish or not, shuttle between Poland and foreign locations, for a host of different reasons. The viability of Polish Jewry depends not on [Jews who emigrate], but on whether we can come up with attractive and meaningful ways of being Jewish, and that, apparently, is happening.”
The same freedom that allows the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland allows its citizens to leave, Zucker said. “Europe is a very fluid place. People move around a lot.”
“The Return” will be screened Oct. 25 during the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the Museum of Natural History, Nov. 18 and 20 as part of New York’s Documentary Film Festival and Dec. 3 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Zucker will be in attendance at all the screenings. For information: TheReturnDocumentary.com; facebook.com/TheReturnFilm.