Considered as a subset of the road movie, the post-Holocaust, return-to-Poland documentary has been a dismayingly static genre. Most of these films are journeys in only the physical sense. Finding what they’d intended to find, experiencing what they’d always felt, the protagonists typically undergo so little intellectual or spiritual movement that you wonder why they traveled at all.
This is not a complaint you can make against the new documentary by Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky, Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust. Granted, you once again have the Jewish family in a van with their Polish driver, rolling up to the place where this synagogue was gutted or that gallows put up. The difference, though–the great, indispensable difference–is that with Rudavsky’s help, Daum conceived of this trip as a true journey: a spiritual expedition for his two grown sons, and perhaps for the audience as well.
Profoundly concerned that his children’s Judaism, like “all religions today,” was “in danger of being hijacked by extremists,” Daum took his black-hat sons to Poland in the hope of expanding the circle of their concern by a few inches, so that it might include at least some of the non-Jewish world. His project succeeded so unexpectedly, and spectacularly, that Hiding and Seeking is arguably unique among Holocaust documentaries. Although it’s perhaps too warm, earnest and insistently personal to be a great movie, it’s also far too important–and too moving–for anyone with a conscience to ignore.
A child of Holocaust survivors and member of New York City’s Orthodox community, Daum makes an engagingly obsessed movie character: plump, broad-faced, white-bearded and sixtyish, with a manner so patient and amused that you don’t care that he toys not just with the camera but with everyone else’s mind. His sons care, though. Full-time yeshiva students who now live with their own families in Jerusalem, Tzvi Dovid and Akiva react to their father with the kind of incredulous laughter that might have turned derisive, were it not for the presence of a film crew and the stricture of the fifth commandment. “Papa, we love you,” they keep saying in exasperation, as a way of dismissing his big-headed concerns. So what that he plays them a tape of a prominent American rabbi declaring that Jews must inculcate in their children an implacable hatred for the goyim. Yes, the language is radical, Tzvi Dovid and Akiva admit; but as for the substance…
How can Daum persuade these young men that goodness may be found in the non-Jewish world, even in its darkest corners? The answer is almost perverse: He takes his sons and wife to Poland. And there, toying with his family’s minds, Daum looks for the Catholic farmers who risked their own lives during the war to save his father-in-law, hiding him and his brothers for more than two years.
Although Daum’s search for the rescuers is a kind of brilliant improvisation, there is nothing uncalculated in the way it plays out in Hiding and Seeking. Each scene carefully establishes a stage in the sons’ moral education, the first of which is discomfort: Upon touching down in small-town Poland, Tzvi Dovid and Akiva sidle along the street wearing tentative, sickened grins–and we can see why, since the camera captures the locals as they stare at the black hats and laugh. Next comes the eruption of the sons’ own mockery, helping them to separate themselves from Daum’s holy foolishness. (Since he goes so far as to tuck a memorial slip of paper into a utility pole on an empty lot, the audience may well laugh, too.) But then the first tears fall, when Tzvi Dovid and Akiva encounter sites with enough visible relics to move them; and finally astonishment walks into the picture in the form of a doubled-over, octogenarian Polish farm woman.