It sounds like a fairy tale.
Once upon a time there was a village in which everyone was Jewish. They were all happy and lived full and rich Jewish lives for over 130 years. Then the Nazis came and erased everything — the town, the farms, the people and their lives. Until a prince came back to look for what was lost.
The prince, actually an urban planner from Washington, D.C., is Avraham Bendavid-Val, the author of a book about the lost town of Trochenbrod, once located in western Ukraine, and the narrator of a new film about the town, its history and its epilogue, for which he is largely responsible “Lost Town,” the film by Jeremy Goldscheider and Richard Goldgewicht, will have a New York premiere of sorts on Oct. 1.
Bendavid-Val’s father was born and grew up in Trochenbrod but immigrated to Palestine in 1932. Eventually he ended up in the United States, but for the remainder of his life, he spoke longingly of both Israel and Trochenbrod. Bendavid-Val became, he admits in the film, “obsessed with the town,” but there was nothing left to indicate it had ever existed. The Nazis murdered 5,000 Jews, all but 33 of the residents of this unusual village with its all-Jewish population.
Ironically, the town has attracted a considerable amount of post-mortem interest. Besides Bendavid-Val’s book “The Heavens Are Empty: Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod,” it has also been the setting of Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything Is Illuminated” and the film made from that novel. Bendavid-Val has become a sort of human bridge uniting the survivors and their families across the globe, enabling them to rediscover family branches long thought dead.
“Lost Town” is a well-intentioned attempt to bridge the gap that faces most Holocaust-themed documentaries, to recreate an absence both physical and emotional. Along the way, it turns into a film about Bendavid-Val’s own search and, as a result, it becomes an awkward mix of two different films. At its best, when someone like Betty Gold, one of the survivors, recounts the massacre at painful length, “Lost Town” is an admirable addition to the ever-growing body of documentation of the Nazis’ crimes, and a somewhat idealized portrait of life in the pre-WWII Eastern Europe.
Too often, though, the film feels like a home movie gone mad. Bendavid-Val speaks repeatedly of the long and detailed interviews he did with locals and the scattered survivors, yet we hear only perfunctory excerpts from most of them; one assumes that most of the material ended up on his book. There are some uncomfortable crosscuts between his rain-soaked visit with other Trochenbrod-ites and Betty Gold’s recounting of a more sinister trek in the rain to escape her Nazi pursuers. And there is entirely too much of Bendavid-Val recounting what we can see on-screen for ourselves.
Yet the film is deeply felt and occasionally moving. Gold and the other first-generation survivors are powerful witnesses, and when the filmmakers let them speak their memories, the result is worth seeing. If their testimony were the bulk of the movie, it would be a triumph.
“Lost Town,” directed by Jeremy Goldscheider and Richard Goldgewicht, will be shown on Tuesday, Oct. 1, at 7:30 p.m., at the JCC in Manhattan (76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.). The screening will be followed by a conversation with director Jeremy Goldscheider and Avrom Bendavid-Val, author of “The Heavens Are Empty: Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod.” For information, call (646) 505-5708 or go to www.jccmanhattan.org/film.