I had my Bris in the Austro Hungarian Empire. My Bar mitzvah in Czechoslovakia. My wedding in Hungary. My divorce in the Soviet Union. And I'll be buried here in the Ukraine. But I've never once left my hometown!
This punch line appears in a wry, witty story about the Carpathian Mountains - an area of Eastern Europe that is remote, scenic, desperately poor, and haunted by a multitude of ghosts. The region has not only endured political turmoil that's seen it assigned to five different nations in the last 80 years, but it's also witnessed the decimation of it's once flourishing Jewish community.
That tragedy emerges with poignancy and power in Carpati: 50 Miles, 50 Years a new documentary (narrated by Leonard Nimoy) that focuses on 66 year old Zev Godinger, the shammes (caretaker) of the last remaining synagogue in the town of Beregovo.
Accompanied by Yale Strom, a young filmmaker and Klezmer musician from California, Godinger makes the 50 mile journey to his birthplace of Vinogradov for the first time since his deportation to Auschwitz in 1944. Along the way he speaks eloquently (in flavorful Yiddish with English subtitles) about his past and present, introducing us to Gypsy music alive and recall the slaughter of their own people at the hands of the Nazis.
In another trip, Godinger brings with him a precious torah scroll provided by generous Americans, to give new focus to the sad, dilapidated synagogue in Vinogradov.
These scenes are beautifully captured with a hand held video by cameraman David Notowitz (who also edited the film) and who seems to have a special gift for catching characters at moments of maximum exposure and vulnerability.
At times the organization of this movie seems as chaotic as Carpathian political history, but the people we meet are so compelling it hardly matters. The faces alone are worth the price of admission, introducing earthy souls who are simultaneously grotesque and beautiful, very much in the style of Fellini.
In 1994, Strom and Notowitz also collaborated on "The last Klezmer," one of the most moving documentaries of recent years. If Carpati: 50 Miles, 50 Years falls somewhat short of that triumph, it's because the filmmakers dissipate their focus and try to do too much: exploring the Jewish-Gypsy interface and the arrival of the new Torah, in addition to the bittersweet story of one man's homecoming.
Nevertheless, various scenes are overwhelming in their impact, particularly a sequence at sunset where Godinger takes off his clothes at the shore of a muddy pond, wading into the swimming hole her enjoyed as a child some 50 years earlier, before the holocaust destroyed his family. He continues to stay afloat, passionately embracing life and Jewish pride, "in all the Carpathians, you'll need a candle to find a Jew before long."
At least filmmaker Yale Strom has lit such an affirming flame.
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