A Message From Mark
We often make split-second decisions in life that change everything. Such a moment occurred for me when Leah Welbel–a woman whose courage and passion for living I admired more each time we met–invited me to return with her to Auschwitz/Birkenau. I am not a spontaneous person, but when Leah invited me to join her I was compelled to accept.
Initially, I intended only to bring my personal camcorder to tape everything Leah wanted to share her experiences. However, I quickly realized that Leah’s story was far too important not to film properly. Before I realized what I was doing, I had hired a film crew out of Warsaw, secured the rights to film at Auschwitz, and made the arrangements necessary to capture Leah’s description of her experiences in the Nazis’ most infamous death camp. Leah appreciated that we were going to memorialize her return to the camps as a victor over “those damn Nazis,” as she so often said.
While filming at Auschwitz, Leah recounted the incomprehensible evil she had faced every day. I watched her as she struggled to relive the memories, but Leah dedicated much of her life to making certain that the world would not forget those whom the Nazis had murdered—so she persevered. In retrospect, I wish I had had time to experience Auschwitz privately as well. Since studying the Holocaust in college, I had wanted to visit the death camps–and now I was there–but my duties as producer interfered with my ability to connect with the place. Nevertheless, my obsession with honouring Leah’s sacrifices made the trip one of the most important things I have ever done.
After filming at Auschwitz, and at Leah’s hometown in Slovakia, I set out to build our production team. Mark Jonathan Harris (INTO THE ARMS OF STRANGERS, Academy Award; THE LONG WAY HOME, Academy Award) recommended that I contact Lisa Leeman about directing. After asking Lisa to join the team, she and I started to discuss how we could present Leah’s story in the most dynamic way possible. For although the magnitude of Leah’s experiences made her story extremely unique, we knew it would be difficult to distribute “another Holocaust film.” After spending a bit more time with Leah and her family, the true story uncovered itself.
Two of Leah’s grandchildren had married outside Judaism and this had hurt her deeply. On many occasions, Leah poured her heart out to me. She had lost nearly her entire family in the Shoah for no reason other than that they were Jewish; yet, her grandchildren seemed not to care. That she had not lived a religiously Jewish life did not matter to Leah—she was “Jewish in her heart,” and she had always expected that this meant the same thing to her grandchildren. To some, Leah’s rejection of her grandchildren for their decision to “marry out” seemed cold and shallow. However, to me, Leah’s pain was too sincere, deep and rooted in the tenets of our faith for me to condemn her in any way. In the end, we have produced a film that takes an open and even-handed approach to the subject. We want people to consider the balance between living one’s life independently of the obligations of the past and in proper reverence, therefore. Nevertheless, I would be remiss if I did not say forthrightly—Leah was my hero.
A Message From Lisa
When we began this film, we thought it would be a straight-forward doc on Leah’s remarkable experiences as a survivor. However, as we began filming, I learned that her family situation was causing her great pain — her first grandchild had married out of faith and Leah had not spoken to him in six years. And just months earlier, her second grandchild had “married out.” The family was wrestling with a classic immigrant dilemma, i.e., how to honour, preserve, and pass on one’s own ethnicity while integrating into today’s multicultural society.
This resonated deeply with me. I am a product of an interfaith marriage. I grew up familiar with both traditions while being steeped in neither. We had a Chanukah Bush; usually, a towering evergreen topped by a Star of David and celebrated both Easter and Passover. I identified as half and half, partially belonging to both groups, fully belonging to neither.
At first, I didn’t understand why interfaith marriage had caused such a deep rift in Leah’s family. Then I began to learn some sobering statistics – over 50% of non-Orthodox American Jews marry out of faith, and less than a third of those couples raise their kids to be Jewish. If those statistics continue, the Jewish population could drop drastically, to less than a million by 2076. Leah’s rigidity, which I had chalked up to close-mindedness, took on a new dimension — deep grief and concern over the possible end of her people. I began to better understand her. And yet, I felt for her grandkids — they’d married for love. And besides,, who is to say that individuals must carry the weight of their heritage on their shoulders? But as we began to screen rough cuts for friends, I saw that many people from minority cultures — indeed, most viewers — identified with the pressures on Leah’s grandchildren to assimilate and prosper but to stay within the culture. We’ve had innumerable “hyphenated” Americans tell us that Leah’s family conflicts resonate deeply with them.
However, the story became even more complicated. I learned that Leah was not an observant Jew — so just what was it that she objected to in her grandchildren’s choices? Slowly, I came to understand that Leah’s refusal to accept her grandchildren’s choices stemmed from a complex mix of reasons — she’d lost nearly her entire family in the Holocaust. She’d grown up in an extremely Orthodox family. When she was growing up in Slovakia, interfaith marriage was unheard of. Leah simply could not shake the feeling that if she condoned her grandchildren’s interfaith marriages, she would be betraying her ancestors and contributing to the loss of her people.
When Danny’s wife became pregnant during our filming, even more pressure was exerted on both Leah and Danny — would they reconcile before Leah’s first great-grandchild was born? Although I don’t want to reveal what happens, I will say that I feel this film explores several themes — conflicting loyalties within families; family estrangement and how it can or cannot be resolved; conflicting loyalties between one’s own tribe and the society in which one lives; issues of cultural continuity; and finally, the trajectory of assimilation in this country that seems to cause an inevitable loss of culture over generations.
I, and the film, make no judgments about interfaith marriage – indeed, if it weren’t for interfaith marriage, I would not be here today! I think the producer and I come from opposite ends of the spectrum on this issue, and making this film has produced many hours of thoughtful and heated debate. Making this film has taught me that there are serious ramifications to our pluralistic society that I hadn’t really pondered before. And conversely, I think there are wrenching consequences to family estrangements.
I believe that OUT OF FAITH explores a classic American dilemma, as seen through the prism of this Jewish family. It’s my hope that OUT OF FAITH can be used as a springboard for discussion about interfaith marriage – certainly in Jewish communities, but in many other ethnic communities across the country.