Riveting documentary reveals the power of mementos and memories as it traces the fate of three families
A chance reencounter with a painting that hung in the same Łódź apartment for 75 years and propelled a Jewish woman onto a journey of discovery into the Holocaust, has resulted in a fascinating new documentary film.
‘Still Life in Lodz’, which opens in virtual cinemas across the United States tomorrow (March 12), uses the painting as a metaphor to tell the story of the tragic history of Łódź’s Jews.
The film, whose producers include Łódź’s EC1 - City of Culture, follows the painting’s various owners and their fates.
It was bought initially before the war years by an unidentified Jewish family. After they were deported to the ghetto and their murder in the Chełmno death camp, it was taken over by a German family, who were later expelled to Germany.
Finally, from 1949 until their departure in 1968, the painting hung in Lilka Elbaum’s family home.
Forty-eight years later, by remarkable chance, Lilka rediscovered the painting in Łódź. This sparked a journey of discovery about her family and also the complicated history of the city.
Lilka is accompanied in the film by Paul Celler, an American and a descendant of Polish Jews from Łódź, and Roni Ben Ari, a photographer from Israel, whose father used to live in the same building.
“The past and our family histories bind the three of us to the city of Lodz,” Lilka says in the film.
Together, the trio unravel the intertwining stories of their respective families, with the shadow of the Holocaust ever present.
The gentle portrait of fruit, flowers and wine was Lilka’s silent companion every day for her first 19 years, from 1949 to 1968.
The apartment the family lived in was roomy and situated in a desirable 1893-built building at 1 Kilińskiego street. It now stands empty in the city’s gritty East Central district, undergoing redevelopment by a new owner.
Her parents acquired the painting as part of the apartment's furnishings from a German dentist who had to flee the city after it was liberated in 1945.
Not much is known about his identity. What is known is that he acquired the painting from a Jewish family who was forced to leave all of their belongings behind and move into the Litzmannstadt Ghetto.
Who that family might have been and what was their fate is traced in the documentary through archival materials relating to the history of the building, its original owners and other tenants.
Lilka and her family had to leave Poland in 1968, a little more than twenty years after the Holocaust when the Communist authorities forced the majority of Poland's remaining 30,000 Jews to leave.
The documentary film shows archive footage of party boss Władysław Gomułka speaking in front of fellow communists in Warsaw’s Congress Hall about Poland’s remaining Jews: “I suppose that this category of Jews will sooner or later leave our country.”
Lilka's parents sold the contents of the apartment to a Polish friend of the family.
In the film, Lilka visits a farm near Biała Rawska where in 1942 her mother, Maria Koper, about to be sent to the Treblinka death camp, was rescued by the Chorążkiewicz family.
In May 1941, she used the diamond engagement ring to bribe guards to allow her to leave the Warsaw ghetto in a truckload of corpses.
She returned on foot to her small hometown of Biała Rawska near Łódź. When the Germans rounded up the town’s 4000 Jews for extermination in 1942, Jadwiga and Adam Chorążkiewicz gave her shelter.
With the danger of discovery too great, she had to leave shortly after. However after wandering the local countryside and close to death, the family hid her in a box in their barn for the remainder of the war.
Only 12 of Biała Rawska’s Jews survived. Jadwiga and Adam were posthumously given the status of Righteous Among the Nations in 2011.
Lilka’s fellow travellers in the film tell their own stories. Paul Celler visits the historic Radegast Station, the arrival point for Jews deported to the Lodz Ghetto and the departure site for those being taken to the extermination camps.
Celler reminisces about his mother from inside one of the station’s cattle wagons. She was deported from the same station to Auschwitz, but miraculously survived.
“How mom survived is a miracle,” he says.
Roni Ben Ari visits the third-floor apartment on Kilińskiego street where her father and grandfather once lived. They had a tailoring business on the ground floor.
The family left Poland for Romania in 1926 before settling in Israel. In the film, she places a menorah she’d inherited from her grandfather on the apartment windowsill where it once sat.
“It comes with the memories and emotions of my childhood,” as she places the menorah by the window overlooking the internal yard.
Still Life in Lodz will be screened in virtual cinemas in 27 cities across the United States starting tomorrow.
More details can be found here.