The Arty Semite

Behind the Firehouse Doors

By Curt Schleier

Filmmaker Liz Garbus is responsible for numerous powerful and award-winning documentaries: “The Farm: Angola USA,” about Louisiana’s infamous maximum security prison; “The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust”; and “Killing in the Name,” an Academy Award-nominated documentary about Islamic terrorism.

Therefore, the emotional intensity of her latest, “A Good Job: Stories of the FDNY,” doesn’t come as a surprise. The title has nothing to do with salary or benefits. In fact, “a good job,” according to one of the fire fighters interviewed, is “a really tough fire.” And “good jobs” are a recurring theme in the film: a 1966 conflagration in which a dozen fire fighters died; the Happy Land Social Club fire (87 victims), and of course 9/11.

A number of fire fighters — including early women and African American members of what until recently was an almost exclusively male and white fraternity — are interviewed. What’s surprising is how little swagger or arrogance they display. Despite the constant peril of the job, they don’t look at their work much differently than an office worker whose greatest risk is a paper cut. Their answers to interesting questions posed by the filmmakers are thoughtful, intelligent and moving.

Garbus partnered on the project with actor Steve Buscemi, who worked as a New York City fire fighter for five years before pursuing a career as an actor. Garbus, 44, spoke to the Forward about how the two met, Buscemi’s contribution, and how making her first documentary got her kicked out of her high school physics class.

Curt Schleier: How did you get involved in the film?

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My Dad and the Garment Business

By Curt Schleier

“Dressing America,” which debuts September 2 on WNET, is a nostalgic look back at the largely Jewish history of the New York City garment business, replete with interviews of mostly old Jews fondly recalling a bygone era.

Some of those interviewed head well-known fashion brands including Perry Ellis, Nicole Miller and Leslie Fay. (Notably, though they are mentioned, there’s no Donna Karen or Ralph Lauren.) We meet present and former executives of smaller firms, as well as the button, bias and trimming manufacturers that used to dominate the area.

It’s a documentary likely to evoke sentimental reminiscence from viewers old enough to have worked in the garment center, or perhaps their children.

One anecdote from the film is told by a salesman for a start-up. Early on at his company he got a sizable commitment a prominent retailer. The store’s owner insisted on giving the salesman a check immediately — not 30 days after delivery. “He knew how desperately I needed the money,” the salesman recalls.

Can you imagine such a thing happening today? That level of generosity has vanished, as has much of the garment industry in New York. By concentrating on the headquarters — the sales rooms and design centers — the filmmakers leave the false impression that the garment industry still exists. While there is still a segment of the business in Manhattan, it’s not the same industry the filmmakers memorialize.

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Old Letters With New Messages

By Curt Schleier

“Shadows From My Past” is a strange amalgam of a documentary. Though it is often amateurish (it has the feel of a home movie) and dated (it includes interviews of people long dead), it is powered by its subject matter and evokes strong emotion.

Gita Weinrauch Kaufman escaped Vienna with her parents and two brothers in 1940. Luckily, the family received U.S. visas on the day they were scheduled to be deported to Dachau. Most of the rest of her relatives, including numerous uncles, aunts and cousins, did not survive. She knew them only as the titular shadows who came alive in a treasure trove of correspondence discovered among her parents’ belongings.

These letters were from desperate people describing their tenuous situations, often begging their kin for help securing visas and money for transit to anywhere but Wien. The missives were sufficiently moving that Gita and her late husband, Curt Kaufman, secured a grant from the Bruno Kreisky Foundation to create an audio-visual presentation about them, leading to an invitation to speak about the correspondence at the University of Vienna.

Gita was at first undecided about returning to the city of her birth, but ultimately did, hoping to discover if Austria had come to grips with its past, so she could come to grips with hers.

According to the production notes Gita and Curt subsequently made multiple trips to Europe.

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Down the Mystical Rabbit Hole

By Curt Schleier

“Kabbalah Me” is a fascinating and inspiring story about a man’s spiritual journey into the complex world of Jewish mysticism. But on another level, it is also a sad and revelatory documentary about how faith and religious observance are marginalized in our society.

Steven Bram is a successful filmmaker and chief operating officer of a New York City-based company that produces sports films. His brother was on the 102nd floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and, though he doesn’t say it, presumably died, leaving behind a wife and children.

This is what started Bram’s soul-searching pilgrimage, his hunger for what he calls “a deeper kind of spirituality.” Both Steven and his wife, Miriam, were raised in secular households. His father came from — and rejected — what Steven calls an Orthodox background, but is apparently Hasidic.

As part of his quest, Bram travels to Brooklyn to meet his Hasidic cousins for the first time. He spends Sukkot with them. Initially, he feels like a visitor from another planet. Soon, however, he feels another emotion: “Part of me is a little jealous that they have this intense spirituality,” he says.

Bram begins regular meetings with a rabbi about Kabbalah and begins, Madonna-like, to immerse himself in it — at least superficially. Because of the pop star’s interest, Kabbalah has become something of a rage, attracting far more dilettantes than serious students.

Bram seems to fall somewhere in between. He seeks guidance from numerous rabbis, attends large religious gatherings in Madison Square Garden and Met Life Stadium in New Jersey, and even travels to Safed, Israel, in his odyssey.

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Looking for Kabbalah at a Rangers Game

By Elyssa Goodman

“I was going through a quote-unquote midlife crisis to some extent,” says documentary filmmaker Steven Bram, whose spiritual journey is the focus of new documentary “Kabbalah Me,” which he co-directed. A series of traumatic events, among them losing his brother-in-law on 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008-2009, caused Bram, a born-and-bred New Yorker who runs a sports film production company, to have some seemingly unanswerable existential questions. “I kept asking, is there more to life than just going through the motions?”

One day, a friend who took him to a New York Rangers game suggested seeking out a rabbi for help. “I never really thought of a rabbi as a therapist like that,” says Bram, who had lived a secular life to that point. One rabbi followed another, and today, he is actively spiritual and has a documentary to show for it. Elyssa Goodman spoke with Bram about documenting his quest for spiritual enlightenment in “Kabbalah Me,” and the role Judaism and Kabbalah now play in his life.

Elyssa Goodman: Why did you decide to make a documentary out of this experience?

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The Murder Trial Will Be Televised

By Dorri Olds

“Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart” is a documentary about the 1990 media spectacle of the first televised murder trial. Reality TV was in its infancy. Pamela Smart, 21, was accused of plotting the murder of her husband. The young men who carried out the murder got reduced sentences for serving her up as a black widow. The film explores the impact of TV on the case and on public opinion. The jury was not sequestered and it seems Smart was tried and convicted in the media.

Filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar investigated Pamela Smart’s trial and questions arose about the nature of justice, fame and storytelling. Was this trial fair? We talked to Zagar about the role the media played in the outcome of the trial.

Dorri Olds: What was it like visiting Pamela Smart in prison?

Jeremiah Zagar: Meeting her convinced me to make the film. She was different in person than any of the archival footage I’d seen. She’s incredibly smart, funny and warm, not that wooden, cold person on TV. I thought I’d make a film about this person you’ve never met before. The film became about how the camera changes people and changed her trial.

Do you mean she had stage fright?

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When the Occupied Film the Occupiers

By Mira Sucharov

At its best, art is about connection. A new Israeli-Palestinian documentary short film exploits the natural three-way relationship between artist, audience and subject to reveal an unexpected source of real-life intimacy: that between occupier and occupied.

Produced by B’Tselem and directed by Ehab Tarabieh, Yoav Gross, and the al-Haddad family, “Smile, and the World Will Smile Back,” which screened July 16 at the Jerusalem Film Festival, is a study in understatement. As the opening sequence explains, under the terms of occupation, Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to arbitrary IDF searches without a warrant, though the IDF legal advisor has ruled that residents may film such operations.

Over twenty minutes, with a hand-held camera passed from one family member to another, the viewer experiences the nighttime search of a Palestinian family’s home in Hebron by IDF soldiers. The result is a little gem of a film that tells a much larger story about power, adolescence, masculinity and nationhood.

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When a Terrorist Is Not a Terrorist

By Curt Schleier

Image courtesy of HBO

When is a terrorist not a terrorist?

That’s the question asked and answered in the important HBO documentary, “The Newburgh Sting,” which debuts July 21 at 9 p.m.

It’s been over five years. Still, many people are likely to remember how a joint terrorism task force arrested four men before they could bomb a Bronx synagogue and JCC, and fire a missile at military aircraft at Stewart Airport in upstate New York.

The government gratuitously went through the process of a trial, but the men, who became known as the Newburgh Four, had already been convicted in the media.

However, an investigation by filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner suggests that the four men were not terrorists, but dupes in an elaborate plot set up by an FBI informant.

Following 9/11 (which the FBI missed), the Bureau set up a network of informants to root out home grown terrorists. Most (if not all) of these informants were set loose on mosques. This certainly isn’t politically correct, and no U.S. mosque has yet ben implicated in any kind of terrorist plot. But the FBI seems to have adopted a “We screwed up and now we have to catch up” attitude that made its agents willing to overlook such niceties.“The rules are off,” was a common refrain in FBI offices.

Important, too, these undercover informants were financially rewarded. Previous criminal activity was overlooked. So, if they couldn’t find genuine terrorists, they were potentially motivated to create them, or else lose their jobs. And that seemed to be the case here.

Newburgh, 60 miles north of New York City, is an impoverished community. Shahed Hussain, an informant and shady character, visited the local mosque and asked the Imam if he knew anyone interested in Jihad.

The Imam suggested congregants stay away from him, but Hussain kept showing up in fancy suits, fancy cars (plural) and flashing wads of cash.

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When Music Is the Best Medicine

By Curt Schleier

Photo courtesy of BOND/360

Carly Simon recently told The New York Times that one of her goals this summer was to see “Alive Inside” again. She calls the documentary, which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, “an extremely moving depiction of the power that music has.”

She’s right. And so were the Sundance folks who selected the film as a favorite. It’ss a tear-jerker of a magnitude to raise the stock price of Kleenex Corp.

The movie chronicles Dan Cohen’s efforts to bring music to dementia patients in nursing homes and the extraordinary impact his project has had. It’s not just any music, but an iPod full of songs the patients grew up with.

Cohen, 62, posses a master’s degree in social work, but spent most of his professional life working for a tech company. In 2006 he read an article about how ubiquitous iPods had become, and wondered if he’d have access to his iPod if he were ever confined in a nursing home.

Cohen spoke to the Forward about his project, how the documentary came about, and forming the charity Music & Memory.

Curt Schleier: What happened after you read that article?

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Filming the One-State Solution

By Mira Sucharov

With the two-state solution increasingly invoked as either tragically out of reach or altogether unjust, a new film seeks to examine another possibility for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the one-state solution.

More in the tradition of didactic documentary films than storytelling ones, Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon’s “A People Without a Land,” which recently premiered at the Manhattan Film Festival, winning a “Film Heals” award, features the most prominent voices of the one-state movement. There’s Ali Abunimah, founder of The Electronic Intifada, Omar Barghouti, an organizer of the BDS movement, and anti-Zionist activist Jeff Halper. There’s also Neta Golan, a trilingual Israeli-Jewish Ramallah-based activist for Palestinian solidarity, and Eitan Bronstein, director of Zochrot, an Israeli NGO that seeks to raise awareness of the Nakba. Rabbi Asher Lopatin, a U.S.-based Orthodox rabbi, provides a slightly different twist on the one-state idea, and Saeb Erakat and Hanan Ashrawi make brief appearances.

Perhaps most importantly, the film admits modesty in its aims, something that is both its strength and its weakness. Through the words of the interviewees, the film stresses the desirability — rather than practicability — of the one-state option. “First tell me whether it’s a good idea,” one of the interviewees suggests, “then we’ll talk about what is possible.” A more ambitious project might have attempted to tackle the equally pressing question of whether and how the one-state option could be brought to fruition given the historical propensity for the two-state option on each side. And despite recent polling revealing that the two-state solution is losing adherents, the one-state solution is even less appealing (with only 10% of Palestinians favoring it).

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Feminist Hero Esther Broner Changed the 'Order' of Things

By Tahneer Oksman

Summer is the cruelest cultural season. With that in mind, ICYMI (In Case You Missed It) is a new occasional series highlighting movies, TV shows, books, comics and everything else we might have missed in the past few months that we can catch up on in the next few.

Early on in Lilly Rivlin’s 2013 documentary, “Esther Broner: A Weave of Women” — now available on DVD — the narrator describes the effect that the author, professor and activist had on Jewish feminists of the second wave. As the narrator recalls, “We were all Jewish feminists. The question that Esther posed for us was: Do we find a place for ourselves within the Jewish tradition or remain outside?”

Esther Broner is perhaps best known for the feminist Hagaddah that she co-authored with Naomi Nimrod, which was first published in Ms. Magazine in 1977 (it took 17 years for a publisher, Harper San Francisco, to then print it as a book). The Hagaddah grew out of a women’s Seder inaugurated in 1975 that Broner, a “Seder sister,” helped to organize and run. The film includes documentary footage of this and subsequent women’s Seders, right up until Broner’s last one, in 2011. At this final Seder, seated beside her granddaughter, Broner recalled how, in the past, she had been booed out of certain synagogues for trying to stir up traditions. “I think Esther’s greatest legacy is her legitimization of alternative rituals,” Letty Cottin Pogrebin, co-founder of Ms. Magazine and a participant in many of these Seders, declares in the film.

For many of the women captured in Rivlin’s documentary, Broner’s investment in Jewish rituals and practices, and her respect for the very Orthodoxy that so often excluded women, was what allowed her to become a force in a Jewish feminist movement that eventually influenced women of all stripes, from the Orthodox to the secular. Gloria Steinem notes that for her, attending a women’s Seder was a kind of rebellion, not least because she had “never been to a Seder before in my life.”

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Joe Berlinger On 'Whitey' Bulger and the FBI

By Dorri Olds

“Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger” is a revelatory documentary by Academy Award-nominated and seven-time Emmy Award-nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger. With unprecedented access, Berlinger shot his documentary from the beginning of “Whitey” Bulger’s 2013 trial and uncovers disturbing questions about the extent of FBI and Boston Police Department corruption. Berlinger’s film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2014 as an Official Selection.

James ‘Whitey’ Bulger was number two on America’s Most Wanted fugitives list, preceded only by Osama Bin Laden. Bulger acted as boss of the Winter Hill Irish mob family that terrorized Boston for years. In 2011, he was arrested in California at age 81 for 19 murders. Catherine Grieg, his girlfriend, was also arrested. They’d been hiding in plain sight in a Santa Monica apartment complex. Which begs the question: How hard could the FBI have been trying to find them?

As the story goes, Bulger served as an informant for the FBI since 1975. He was protected from punishment for his illegal activities in exchange for information about the Italian Patriarca crime family. In 1994, after a member of the FBI tipped him off to a pending indictment, Bulger and Catherine fled. In June 2013 Bulger went on trial for 32 counts of racketeering, money laundering, extortion, weapons charges and 19 murders. He was found guilty on 31 counts and complicit in 11 murders. In November 2013 Judge Denise Caspar sentenced Bulger to two life terms plus five years.

The New England media exposed criminal actions by federal, state, and local law enforcement officials that tied them to Bulger. Berlinger’s film asks the tough questions about the misconduct that took place.

Dorri Olds: What inspired this film?

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Lessons of Aaron Swartz, the 'Internet's Own Boy'

By Curt Schleier

“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” is likely to accomplish something no politician has been able to do: unite the Tea Party and liberal Democrats.

The documentary, which goes into limited release and video on demand June 27, tells the story of the government’s overzealous prosecution of a bright young man whose only crime was to push for open access on the Internet.

Don’t be embarrassed if you are unfamiliar with Swartz. I didn’t recognize the name, either. Nor did a dozen or so people I asked. Aaron Hillel Swartz (1986-2013) was a genius, a Beethoven of the Internet.

At age 14, he helped develop RSS (Rich Site Summary), which provides updates from selected websites. He worked on the project communally with members of an organization known as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) all of whom assumed he was an adult. They discovered the truth when they invited him to a conference and he replied he wasn’t sure his mother would let him go.

Swartz subsequently became involved in a number of computer initiatives, creating Infogami, which merged with Reddit, which was purchased by Conde Nast and made him extremely wealthy.

He continued to tinker, creating the architecture for openlibrary.org, a website that hopes to devote a web page to every book ever published and already offers free e-access to many of them.

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Fighting Aaron Swartz's War

By Dorri Olds

It’s been said that the Internet both defined and was defined by Aaron Swartz. He co-founded Reddit and co-invented RSS, but it was his fight for free speech and open access to information that was both his legacy and his downfall.

Swartz used Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) computers to hack into JSTOR, the academic database. He copied 4.8 million articles and uploaded them for public access to protest the commercialization of information on the Internet. He was arrested for wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and, after a two-year legal battle and facing up to 35 years in prison, Swartz hanged himself at the age of 26.

Brian Knappenberger’s film “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” is a personal view into who Swartz was, how much he accomplished, and what led to his choice to end his life. The film also shows how society will suffer if we ignore the relationship between our technological landscape and our civil liberties.

Knappenberger has created many documentaries, commercials and feature films, and is executive producer of the 23-part Bloomberg series “Bloomberg Game Changers” which chronicles figures like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and the Twitter and Google co-founders. His films have explored the changing politics and tensions in the post-9/11 era.

The Forward caught up with Knappenberger to talk about “hacktivism,” Edward Snowden and Net Neutrality.

Dorri Olds: What scenes did you really like but had to cut from the film?

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How Shep Gordon Became a Real 'Supermensch'

By Curt Schleier

Comedian Mike Myers found the perfect vehicle to make his directorial debut: “Supermensch The Legend of Shep Gordon.”

The title makes it sound like another Myers comedy, a Jewish “Wayne’s World” or “Austin Powers.” In fact, it is an extremely well-executed documentary about one of the most captivating figures in the history of rock and roll.

Shep Gordon is not someone you’ve likely heard of. He managed Alice Cooper, Teddy Pendergrass, and Pink Floyd (inexplicably for just nine days), among others. He created the celebrity chef category. And he lived a remarkable life — something between a frat boy’s fantasy and a rabbi’s delight.

Even better, from Myers’s point of view, Gordon is a brilliant raconteur with a vivid memory that apparently survived the prestigious amount of drugs he consumed. Part of Myers’s success here is simply based on his ability to point a camera and press record.

Gordon grew up in a Jewish family in Oceanside, New York, and accidentally found a career in show business after he was slugged in the face by Janis Joplin. A word of explanation:

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From the Nursing Home to Jerusalem

By Curt Schleier

David Gaynes’ documentary, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” answers the old question of whether the glass is half empty or half full. At the Jewish Home for the Elderly in Fairfield, Conn., where the film was shot, both are the same.

Gaynes brought his camera to the nursing home, where the average age is 91, as some residents were preparing to tour Israel. The unavoidable first impression of their lives is depressing: the glass is less than half full.

The facility itself seems modern and clean. The staff seems helpful and caring. But still it is a waiting room for the funeral home, and there’s no way to pretty that up.

One of several residents we meet is Selma Rosenblatt, 93. She is bent over so far by osteoporosis that she can’t lift her head high enough to see in front of her. Recently, she says, a fellow resident died during a meal in the dining room, calling it “a wonderful way to go.”

Juna Wein, 89, says “it’s kind of dull for me here.”

Regine Arouette, 87, is Flemish and was a hidden child during the war. Her son and his family are in Belgium. “Sometimes I feel so lonely,” she says.

But, unexpectedly, despite the wheelchairs and walkers, Parkinson arms and other assorted ailments, the residents’ buoyant spirits begin to shine through.

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Portraits of Holocaust Heroism

By Curt Schleier

The title characters of filmmaker Michael King’s inspirational documentary, “The Rescuers,” are a dozen people, mostly diplomats, who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

In many cases, they defied their own government’s specific instructions in order to arrange exit visas for families otherwise headed for extermination. Some of these stories are already reasonably well known.

There was Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish first secretary in Budapest, who mysteriously disappeared after the Soviets drove the Nazis out of Hungary; Carl Lutz, the Swiss vice counsel in Budapest, featured character in the recent film, “Walking With the Enemy”; and Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consul in Lithuania credited with saving as many as 3,000 people.

Others are less familiar — at least to me — and, in some cases, unexpected. Selahattin Ulkumen, the Muslim Turkish consul in Rhodes, and Angelo Rotta, the Catholic Bishop in Budapest, helped save thousands. None is as surprising as Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, a Nazi Party member and a German attache in Copenhagen. He arranged for Sweden to take in the city’s Jews, saving 7,200 lives.

It isn’t all about numbers, however. One of the rescuers was Princess Alice of Greece, great granddaughter of Queen Victoria and grandmother of Prince Charles, who hid a Jewish family in her Athens palace.

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How Shabbat Dinner Can Save America

By Curt Schleier

In the film “Fed Up,” opening May 9, the untenable reality pours down like a mid-summer rain:

  • In the United States, more people die from obesity than starvation.

  • 87% of food items on supermarket shelves have added sugars.

  • Teenagers are having gastric bypass surgery.

We’ve become a corpulent nation, which is not news to anyone who has spent a day at the beach and seen 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds overflow their bathing suits.

The documentary, from filmmaker Stephanie Soechtig, is executive produced by Laurie David, a social activist who served similar duties on the global climate change documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” She’s also the co-author with Kirstin Uhrenholdt of two cookbooks: “The Family Dinner,” about the importance of families eating together, and out last month, “The Family Cooks,” which includes over 100 easy-to-prepare recipes for healthy family meals.

David spoke to the Forward about how she came to the documentary, what she thinks it will accomplish, and how her Shabbat meals honor the homemade food ethic.

Curt Schleier: How did you get involved in this project?

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Uncovering the Remains of Treblinka

By Curt Schleier

Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls is a British forensic archeologist. Much of her work is with police departments, often literally digging up missing persons — so she’s used to uncovering remains.

Still, what she discovered during her research at the Treblinka death camp was so emotionally wrenching, it forced her to tears. A riveting account of her work there, “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,” airs March 29 at 8 pm on the Smithsonian Channel.

Treblinka was actually two camps. Treblinka 1 was supposedly a labor camp. Treblinka 2 was almost certainly the most efficient murder operation in the history of mankind. About 900,000 people fell victim there in a little more than a year. Camp commanders bragged about their efficiency.

But, facing an oncoming Soviet army, the Germans destroyed the buildings, dug up mass graves and burned the bodies, forced local people to spread the ash and planted trees to cover over what had been the camp.

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Growing Up in a Former Synagogue Sanctuary

By Renee Ghert-Zand

For the many people walking through New York’s Lower East Side on any given day, 70 Hester Street is just one of many historic buildings. But for 37-year-old filmmaker Casimir Nozkowski, this former synagogue is home. He grew up in the loft space on the upper two floors, which his artist parents, Thomas Nozkowski and Joyce Robins, used as their studio for 45 years until they were evicted in 2012.

With a sense that 70 Hester Street would likely the suffer the fate of so many other buildings in the old neighbourhood and be torn down to make way for a new, sleek condominium or commercial space, Nozkowski started filming his childhood home in June 2012. His premonition turned out to be correct. Not long after, his parents received notice that the building was being sold and that they, as rental tenants, would have to move out.

“I went in to overdrive when we got the eviction notice,” Nozkowski told the Forward. “I started editing as I was still filming, and finished the film toward the end of 2013.” Fortunately, he completed the documentary in time to submit it for the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, which accepted it for its City Limits: New York Shorts program. In its world premiere, “70 Hester Street” will be screened five times between April 17 and 27.

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