Kalish On the Web! Yale Strom’s Carpati

Yale Strom’s Carpati
There’s a scene in Yale Strom’s new documentary “Carpati: 50 miles, 50 years” where Strom and his crew arrive at the home of Holocaust survivor Zev Godinger. It is 2:00 in the morning and the American filmmakers have woken the elderly Jew– but with good cause: they have a Torah donated by a synagogue in Los Angeles for Godinger and the handful of Jews left in the town of Vinogradov in the Ukraine.
The cameras are rolling as Strom & Co. hand Godinger the holy scroll, which is covered in white plastic bags held together with black electrical tape. Godinger is wearing pajamas with stripes like those that prisoners wore in the concentration camps. With a dramatic Klezmer score mixed under the dialogue, we hear the old man’s joyous cries as he carries the Torah up his driveway in the snow. It is a hauntingly beautiful scene visually and emotionally cathartic to boot.
The 80-minute documentary, which runs from May 24 through June 2 at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, will further establish Strom’s name as a musician and filmmaker committed to bringing both Eastern European Yiddishkeit and Gypsy culture to American audiences. The film is the latest in a series of photo essays, books, albums and documentaries by Strom that are the fruit of some 30 visits to the region. It follows his acclaimed 1994 video portrait of Polish Klezmer musician Leopold Kozlowski in “The Last Klezmer.”
Like the Crakow piano player Kozlowski, Strom clearly has fond feelings for the elfish Godinger, a proste yid [ital], or simple Jew known as Uncle Zev who sold ice cream in the town square for 30 years.
“He’s a sweet character. I love him,” Strom says of the Auschwitz survivor.
It was on a Shabbat morning in the Fall of 1994 that Strom and his video crew showed up at Godinger’s shul in the town of Beregovo. Cameraman/producer David Notowitz was part of the group.
“The first thing out of his mouth after I introduced David was ‘Oh, I had a brother named David. 22. Killed. Murdered in the concentration camp,'” Strom says of their first meeting. “It was like, woe… It really hit me.”
The filmmakers told Godinger they were going to Vinogradov, a town 50 miles away. It was Godinger’s hometown but he hadn’t been there in 50 years, since he and his family were deported to Auschwitz. Godinger offered to accompany the filmmakers.
“I’m looking at the guys and I’m saying ‘This is our man,'” Strom recalled.
During that visit and a second one in the Spring of 1995, Strom and his crew meet Simcha Mermeshtein, the shamas of Vinogradov’ s battered synagogue and a man named Meyer Naiman, the community’s shochet, who promised God that if he survived Auschwitz, he would stay and “keep Judaism in that land.”
Mermeshtein, a retired waiter, is asked if the shul has a Torah. It does not. How about a chumash to read from?
“We just don’t read, understand?” he answers, frustrated and embarrassed.
The shul has barely a minyan and most of the Jewish men don’t know how to pray. “They just say ‘Amen.'”
Before the Holocaust there were close to a quarter million Jews in the Carpithian Mountain region, or Carpati as its called in Yiddish. But less than 1,500 remain today. It was there that the Ba’al Shem Tov and chassidus were born. Chasidic dynasties flourished in Spinka and Munkacevo. Carpati was ruled by several ethnic entities and as narrator Leonard Nimoy notes in the beginning of the documentary, a Jew in the Carpithians could be circumcized in Austria-Hungary, bar mitzvahed in Czechoslovakia, married in Hungary and buried in the Ukraine without once leaving the village he was born.
When Godinger and the crew go back to Vinogradov he visits the site of his childhood home on Brick Street. Godinger speaks Ukranian to the latter day residents of the neighborhood and the interaction is tense. He asks an elderly woman if she knew a family named Isaacs on the block and she responds that the current residents of the Isaacs’ house bought it from them but Godinger angrily points out that the home was seized by the fascists and walks away in disgust.
Of the old woman, Strom says with a shiver, “Ooooh, you wouldn’t want her to be your next-door neighbor when the Nazis came rounding you up because she’d probably say ‘Why don’t you cut through my back yard. It’s quicker.'”
Of his boyhood in Vinogradov in which the family was so poor that his mother would begg before shabbos began, Godinger says “We had a good life, a Jewish life.”
Along with his parents and five brothers and sisters, he was marched to the Vinogradov ghetto and later transported to Auschwitz. The infamous Dr. Mengele grabbed Godinger’s tuchus to see if the 16 year-old boy was fit to work. Young Godinger puffed out his chest to impress the Nazi physician that he was a healthy young man and Mengele spared his life. Godinger’s parents and three siblings were not deemed useful and they were gassed at the camp. Standing in his underpants in the garden of his home in Beregovo reminiscing about the Holocaust, Godinger said he thought that the crematorium at Auschwitz was a bread factory.
“My heart beats nervously at night remembering all those who were burned in the crematorium,” he tells the filmmakers. “I cry like the rain.”
Strom’s documentary stresses the common fate that met Jews and Gypsies in the region. It turns out that Godinger was in Auschwitz the night in early August 1944 that some 20,000 Gypsies were killed. In one scene he stops to chat with an elderly Gypsy street cleaner who lived through the Holocaust.
“Remember when they took us from the ghetto to the train station?” Godinger asks the old, dark-skinned Gypsy.
“Of course I do. They took us as well,” the street cleaner replies.
“The Gypsies and the Jews were treated like the pariahs [in that area] for several hundred years,” Strom says. He points out that Gypsies learned Yiddish and Jews learned the Gypsy language, Romani. And there was plenty of cross-fertilization musically.
One Gypsy remembers the days when Jews thrived in the Carpathians and a Gypsy musician could live for a week on one wedding– either on actual wages or by eating and drinking at the sheva bruchas for several days.
“I’m not being romantic,” Strom says. “There was an interdependence.”
The soundtrack for the documentary features exuberant Klezmer and Gypsy music, as well as Ukranian and Hungarian folk melodies and original Strom compositions that are a melding of Klezmer and Gypsy music. The soundtrack music is performed by Strom’s band Hot Pstromi and Gypsy musicians recorded on location in the Carpithians. It will be available on a new CD from the Global Village label.
Like his most recent film, “The Last Klezmer,” “Carpati: 50 miles, 50 years” shows Strom’s fondness for the Jews of Eastern Europe. But it is a fondness tempered by realism. Although there were 250,000 in the Carpati region in 1936, there are less than 1500 today. Strom recognizes the inevitable decline of the Jewish community there.
“Eventually it will vanish,” he concedes. “In all of Carpati you’ll need a candle to find a Jew in 10, 15 years.”

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Copyright©1997 Jon Kalish