By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Yale Strom’s documentary film Carpati: 50 Miles, 50 Years begins with a story,
told by Leonard Nimoy, about a gypsy who asks a Jew from the Carpathian
Mountains of southwestern Ukraine how it is that he knows so many languages.
“I had my bris in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, my bar mitzvah in Czechoslovakia, my
divorce in the Soviet Union and I’ll be buried in the Ukraine, but I’ve never left my
hometown,” the man replies.
He isn’t joking. This rural, impoverished stretch of Eastern Europe has had several flags
planted in its soil this century and has seen the intermingling of many nationalities. Before
World War II, it was home to about a quarter of a million Jews. Today, only about 1,200
The film is a portrait of this rugged, still poor region, seen through the eyes of Zev
Godinger, a Holocaust survivor in his late 60s who lives in the small town of Beregovo.
The movie follows him on a symbolic pilgrimage from there to his Vinogradov, his
hometown 50 miles to the east.
Carpati has two themes. While telling Godinger’s story, it also celebrates the mingling of
gypsy and Jewish musical cultures in the region. Mr. Strom’s previous film, “The Last
Klezmer,” which followed the Polish klezmer master Leopold Kozlowski on an emotional
journey to his hometown in Ukraine, had a similarly bifocal vision. It was both an exuberant
ethnomusicological study and one man’s personal journey into the past.
Even though Carpati has lilting bittersweet klezmer music and cameo appearances by
Ukrainian musicians, the music is largely a backdrop to the story of Godinger, a robust,
handsome man who is passionate about his Jewish faith. As the camera trails him around
Beregovo, then follows him to Vinogradov, he is an informal tour guide, raconteur and
interviewer who feels a kinship with the gypsies whose stories of Nazi internment are
similar to his.
But Godinger’s stories cut the deepest. In 1944, when he was still a teen-ager, he was
deported to Auschwitz. In one of his eeriest recollections, he describes peering out the
window of the train bound for the death camp to see Polish farmers warning the passengers
of their imminent deaths by drawing their fingers across their throats. During his physical
examination by the notorious Josef Mengele, he remembers, he tried to make himself look
as big and vigorous as possible to be chosen to survive. A building at Auschwitz that he
believed to be a bread factory, he recalls, was actually the crematorium.
He tells of returning to Ukraine after the war and surviving on the streets, lice-infested “like
a dog,” until he was able to start an ice-cream vending business, which earned him the
equivalent of 29 cents a day. When the Communists liberated Ukraine, they persecuted
so-called “Jewish speculators” who remained in the area.
For all his heartiness and love of music, there are moments when Mr. Godinger lets the tears
flow. The movie makes clear that his strong and proud sense of Jewish identity was a key to
his salvation. In the final scene, he carries a Torah, donated by Americans to the synagogue
in Vinogradov, and declares who he is. “I’m Zev, son of Shimon, Jewish community
caretaker, sexton and gravedigger from Vinogradov,” he announces. “Every Jew needs to
have a Torah in a synagogue. Without it, he’s homeless.”
CARPATI: 50 MILES, 50 YEARS
Written and directed by Yale Strom; director of photography, David Notowitz; edited by
Notowitz; music by Strom; produced by Notowitz and Strom. Running time: 80 minutes.
Cast: Leonard Nimoy (narrator) and Zev Godinger.