This was a film we knew had to be made--now or never. Every year, the Jewish community in Carpati, the home of Hasidism, the birthplace of many well-known Jewish philosophers and rabbis, the home at one time of the largest percentage of Jewish farmers of the world, an area from which a beautiful culture grew, was disappearing. Jews in this region who survived the Holocaust and who had not already moved to Israel or America were dying of old age.
While I was editing The Last Klezmer, the previous film directed by Yale Strom, he kept mentioning the film he wanted to make about the Carpathian Mountains, and I wanted to help make it happen. Once The Last Klezmer was completed, we began to think more seriously about the Carpathian Mountains and about making a film about this region.
We knew the film had to be made now--before all was gone.
We ended up going twice to Carpati. During the first trip we told the Ukrainian border guards that we were students doing folk music research. It was the end of summer, and we ate every meal outside Zev's home under the shade of a walnut tree, next to the chicken coup, and in sight of Zev's modest but flourishing backyard farm.
We learned during this first visit that the town of Vinogradov, where Zev was born and lived until being deported as a young teen, had no Torah. Upon returning to the U.S., our energy was put solely toward finding this town a Torah.
I faxed and called literally around the world, looking for a Torah, which can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000. I decided I wouldn't stop until I found one. One day I got a call from a man on the board of a shul in the Los Angeles valley. He had seen my letter in the local Jewish paper. This synagogue, 45 minutes from my house by car, came through with a Torah for us. If I would have known that it would come from so nearby I could have saved a lot of money on faxes! There is an old Jewish story told by Carpati Hasidim which teaches sometimes you have to go searching far from home to find what is right there in your home all along.
On our second trip we brought this Torah with us. We also brought other supplies for the Jewish schools in the region donated by friends of mine in Los Angeles. The Torah was a strange item, and I was concerned the Ukrainian soldier would be suspicious and give us trouble. We went to the NY Ukrainian consulate and they wrote us an official letter that we could bring on our journey saying the Torah was approved, we were guests, and we should be treated accordingly.
A Torah must be treated with a special honor, like a human being. Delta Airlines donated an extra seat for the Torah. We even buckled the seat belt for it. We flew into Budapest, and continued by train to the border of Hungary and Ukraine.
At the border check, the Ukrainian soldiers read our letter and checked our passports. They were intrigued by these Americans. Yale tightly held the Torah as he carefully stepped down the snow covered train steps, and I started to unload our equipment from the train as quickly as possible. My small baggage carrier became overloaded, and it fell over into the snow. A Ukrainian border guard soldier rushed over to help me, and then another. Imagine this--together, the soldiers, Yale, and I carried production equipment and school supplies over the border. We were whisked through customs, and in ten minutes were free to continue into Ukraine.
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Carpati: 50 Miles, 50 Years can be seen as a straight forward, perhaps even simple documentary shot in the cinema verite style. However it is this illusion of being such a film that belies its deeper, more complex issues.
The protagonist is Zev Godinger, a poor working class Jew who is the caretaker of the rapidly dwindling Jewish community in Beregovo, Ukraine. When Zev grew up in the 1920's and 30's, the Carpathian Mountains and surrounding region were home to nearly 250,000 Jews. Today some sixty years later there are less than 1,500. And as Zev says, "In ten, fifteen years you'll need a candle to find a Jew here in Carpati."
Zev's easy going manner belies the fact that just below the surface he is constantly being reminded of his family's horrible fate in Auschwitz, and that his survival is a burden of fate.
For me this film is about faith and fate--the murderous fate that the Jews and Rom (Gypsies) were exposed to by the Nazis and their collaborators, and the incredible faith that these same Jews and Rom held for their cultures. Despite a small congregation, Zev maintains the synagogue, a haven of hope for those few elderly and fewer younger Jews that attend. For the Rom they carry the fate of being the constant pariah of the "new democratic" Eastern Europe and the bearers of the klezmer musical tradition. Without the Rom playing some of the klezmer and Yiddish melodies, this part of Jewish culture would have disappeared already.
This film is a testament to the strength of both the Jews and Rom who call the Carpathian Mountains home.
Yale Strom, director
Send Mr. Strom an email message: firstname.lastname@example.org
"The first time I set my eyes on this place I felt I was seeing a land forgotten by time," said producer Notowitz.
"Zev is such a strong, pensive, and deeply thoughtful person, and that was the trick, to try and capture his intensity of character with the camera and in the cutting of the film," said Notowitz
We visited the Carpathians twice.
During our first visit, the two characters that stood out for us were Zev and Simcha, and through them we saw that this community of Jews was dwindling quickly, that we were capturing something that, in 10 years, would be no more. We also saw that Simcha's hometown, Vinogradov, had enough Jews for a minyan (quorum of 10 people needed for praying), but that they had no Torah. "We have no Torah," Simcha told us.
We decided that we would try to bring a torah to this town. We looked everywhere, combing the country and the world for a torah.
Notowitz devoted much of his time to this, sending faxes around the globe, looking for some shul that had one too many Torahs. (I got a few very interesting calls. One was from a lady in Washington whose father was a used car dealer and who had found a torah in a trunck of a car he bought. "Are you interested?" she asked. "Yes," I said.
I called the used car dealer, and he said the torah had been stolen from a shul in South Dakota, and the owners had been located. One more lead dashed to the floor.
Four months later, after hundreds of faxes, a call came in from a man named Bernie Robinson who belonged to Shomrei Torah, a shul in the Los Angeles valley. Bernie said he saw the letter I wrote in a newspaper in LA and that his shul might be able to help me. After a few discussions over the phone, all was settled. We had a torah!
Finally! Of course it had to come from a shul 30 minutes from my home. If I would have known that I could have saved a lot of money on faxes!
"Black were the streets with Chasids," Zev says, as the religious Jews were led to the cattle cars. For Zev, Pesach is not a celebration of freedom of religion, but a memory of how everything he knew was turned upside down into a bottomless hole.
After the war, Zev's hometown had very little Jewish life that survived. Jews attended underground schools, moving from house to house to have services.
After a few years, Zev moved to a town 50 miles away, to Beregovo.
For the last 30 years Zev has been the ice cream man of Beregovo, loved by all. The same community that knows and loves him as the ice cream man remained silent as his family and friends were sent to the camps and to their death. Look closely into Zev's eyes and you see sorrow and lonliness--and often tears. He cries, as he told us himself, "like the rain." Send Mr. Notowitz an email message: David@Notowitz.com
Carpati was created over an 18 month span. Two and a half weeks of shooting during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in September of 1994 and 10 days of shooting during Passover in April of 1995 gave us some 50 hours of footage which we edited down to an 80 minute film.
We used a small Sony VX-3 camera, a Hi-8 video camera which gives a beautiful image and that is the size of many home consumer video cameras. This allowed us to travel light and to make a documentary that would have been much more difficult with larger equipment. I could shoot all day walking all over town doing hand held camera work without tiring. Yale and I know how to get the low budget job done, or as we like to say about Carpati, we know how to get a "no-budget" project done.
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