March of the Living


The silent sentinel that is Auschwitz.

The silent sentinel that is Auschwitz.

(2010) Documentary (Visit) Hayley Miller, Sigi Hart, Rafael Elkabets, Jake Goren, Débora Niesenbaum, Halina Wachtel, Rolf Joseph, Ariela Pier, Josie Quade, Emil Jacoby, Tess Neumann, Sidi Grűnstein Gluck, Max Zellerhot, Jean Greenstein, Erika Jacoby, Heinz Kallman, Dorothy Greenstein, Jamie Greenberg, Saul Hanari, Joelle Zingerman. Directed by Jessica Sanders

 

The Holocaust remains one of the defining moments of the 20th century. Not because of its brutality, or the horror of it, but because it reminds us that we can be led by the nose to ignore atrocities that are happening in our very midst. Certainly people in Poland had to be at least somewhat aware of the nightmare going on at Auschwitz, Treblinka and Birkenau and yet not a voice was raised in protest. Of course if any were, those voices were as likely to be stilled permanently.

Every year, concentration camp survivors and teenage Jews from all over the world march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the route of the infamous Death March – except this is a March of the Living, not just a middle finger to the Nazis and the Holocaust deniers but also an affirmation of life. This is a demonstration that the human spirit overcomes and survives. It is hope.

In 2008, the documentary filmmaker Jessica Sanders was recruited by a Brazilian production company to document this event, known as the March of the Living. She followed several teens and several survivors from Los Angeles, Sao Paolo and Berlin. Before the actual March, the participants were taken on a tour of the various Camps, some of which are still standing – and at least one simply a monument to the hundreds of thousands of voices stilled there forever.

We see the gruesome detritus that was left behind; thousands upon thousands of shoes, stacked neatly floor to ceiling; dolls and toys, never to be played with again and human hair, to be used by the Nazis as carpet fiber. The sight of the hair seemed to be particularly disturbing to the teens, many of whom broke down inconsolably. It’s an unforgettable moment.

The problem I have with this 75 minute film is that it’s too short; we don’t get a sense of the journey these teens take. The survivors, we hear some of their horror stories and we are made well enough aware of their justifiable fear that once they are gone (and they are in their 80s and 90s now) there will be nobody to tell their story, nobody to answer the questions of the young. This is the last generation that will have direct access to living Holocaust survivors and the thought is chilling.

But the kids, as is the nature of kids, don’t have the experience and perspective to see it as anything other than what it isn’t – about them. “This could have been me, sixty years ago” says one teen girl in way too much make-up. Some of the teens – to their credit – get it. One makes plans to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem after she graduates from high school; she also arranges for the survivors to participate in their graduation ceremony because, as she points out, none of them got to graduate high school because they were in the camps. You can see the delight in the faces of the elderly grads.

But we get no sense of the personal growth these kids experience. One moment their just ordinary kids dealing with ordinary issues, the next they’re seeing the gas chamber at Birkenau. It just feels like we got to that point cheaply, without getting a sense of how this affected them. Some talk about their culture but few seemed to get much out of it more than a sense of accomplishment, that they went to the camps and are somehow better for it. That’s not how it works.

I recognize the difficulty in doing any sort of film about the Holocaust, be it a documentary or a narrative feature. After all, the subject has been tackled in many different ways by many different filmmakers. There really isn’t a lot of new material to add to the conversation. Yes, it is true that this generation and those following must take up the mantle of remembrance, to be the keepers of memory when those who originally lived those memories have moved on, and to pass those memories down to succeeding generations. It is, after all, important that we never forget.

But sadly, this movie has forgotten – that the Holocaust isn’t just something to be blared out at us in capital letters. It affects people differently, like the German girl who felt ashamed of her country because of the atrocities committed in the name of politics. And of course, we can see similar demagogues whipping up the masses against Muslims and Middle Eastern people in general. The sad fact is that we have learned nothing from the Holocaust and despite the best efforts of those who survived it to act as living reminders of the barbarity of our species and its ability to inflict mind-boggling suffering upon each other, the potential for another one is slowly looming it’s shaggy head even as we speak..

REASONS TO GO: Some unforgettable albeit unsettling images.
REASONS TO STAY: Don’t get a sense of the journey these people take.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images having to do with the concentration camps.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sanders was nominated for a documentary short Oscar for Sing in 2002.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shoah
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: What’s In the Darkness?

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Deli Man: The Movie


Ziggy Gruber works hard at cooking with love.

Ziggy Gruber works hard at cooking with love.

(2014) Documentary (Cohen Media Group) Ziggy Gruber, Jerry Stiller, Larry King, Freddie Klein, Dennis Howard, Jay Parker, Fyvush Finkel, Mimi Gruber, J. Mackye Gruber, Freddie Roman, Zane Caplansky, Jane Ziegelman, Michael Wex, Adam Caslow, Alan Dershowitz. Directed by Erik Anjou

In their heyday, there were more than 1500 kosher Jewish delis in New York City alone. Now, there’s a tenth of that in all of North America. The great Jewish deli, once a mainstay of American culture, is slowly dying out.

This is a movie celebrating the deli and they choose for their spokesman David “Ziggy” Gruber, a genial man with a bit of a pot belly and an engaging grin. He also has a genuine passion for delis, having grown up essentially in the business; his grandfather founded the legendary Rialto Deli in Manhattan while his dad owned Long Island’s Woodrow Deli. He was stuffing cabbages as a pre-teen.

He would get himself to the Cordon Bleu Institute in England to learn to be a chef, but it was in the deli that his heart belonged. After going to a meeting of Deli Owners and discovering to his shock that nearly all of the owners were in their 70s and 80s and had nobody taking over for them when they retired, he felt that it was up to him to keep the culture alive and so he founded a deli of his own – in Houston.

Don’t laugh. There is a fairly large Jewish population there, as there is in many big American cities. In any case, his business took off and became a huge hit, to the point where he has been opening new restaurants although to date Kenny and Ziggy’s remains his only deli.

The film centers on Ziggy although it talks to various Deli Men from around North America including men from such legendary places as Cantor’s and Nate ‘n’ Al’s in Los Angeles, 2nd Avenue Deli and Carnegie Deli in New York, Kaplansky’s in Toronto and Manny’s in Chicago. They all admit given the labor-intensive nature of deli food and due to the high price of meat (deli tends to be meat-centric) the low return on investments that are modern delicatessens.

Part of why there are so few delis left is simply attrition. The Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, from where the initial flood of Jewish immigrants came to New York, were all for the most part wiped out in the Holocaust. There are no new immigrants coming to America from that region or at least very few and the children of those who are here aren’t interested in taking over a deli when they could be a doctor or a lawyer. Thus, the recipes for some of these dishes are fast disappearing – Ziggy bemoans that his grandfather’s gravy recipe died with him and that while he can get close, he can’t quite duplicate the taste. It’s easy to understand, given the grueling work schedule of the deli owner, why a lot of modern kids shy away from the business as a career.

The story of the delicatessen is also the story of the Jewish community in America; delis were places that they would gather to eat and became de facto cultural centers for the Jewish faith. For many, it was a taste of home, bringing with it the recipes of the old country – I’ll bet you didn’t know that pastrami was a Romanian invention despite the Italian-sounding name. However, with less and less people coming from the old country, the nostalgia factor has become less compelling and even in Jewish homes the meals that later generations grew up with became more Americanized.

We also see Ziggy, who had been married to his calling more or less, find someone who is willing to accept that – his massage therapist/acupuncturist Mimi. When the two decide to tie the knot, he insists on doing it in Budapest, Hungary in the synagogue where his grandfather had his bar mitzvah. If the site of Ziggy, tears streaming down his face, listening to the rabbi speak about the full circle of the grandchild coming to the temple where he breathes the air his grandfather breathed doesn’t make you misty-eyed, well, you are made of sterner stuff than I. I found him an engaging man, one who his brother said, not unkindly, that he was an 80-year-old Jew even as a child. He definitely seems to be an old soul and I’d love to sit down with him for an hour and just chat but I’d be willing to bet that it is a rare thing that he has an hour to spare for such pastimes.

Critic Sean Howley advised me not to see this hungry and it is sound advice. At the very least you will be jonesing for some good deli sandwiches after seeing this and the very next day I headed over to TooJays, our local deli. Matzoh Ball soup, pastrami on rye, carrot cake and a Dr. Brown’s celery soda. Oy vey it was delicious!

Gastronomy aside, the movie is surprisingly informative but doesn’t ever condescend. There are a number of Yiddish terms sprinkled throughout but they are thoughtfully defined with on-screen graphics in case you don’t speak it or haven’t been around it. There is a joy in what these deli men do, and even if they sometimes shake their heads in wonder at their own insanity it is clear that they feel what they do is not just a living but a calling. Not everyone feels the call as fervently as Ziggy does but all of them understand that what they are doing is not just piling a sandwich high with corned beef – they’re preserving a lifestyle and a culture that is in danger of disappearing. That makes the case that every time you head out to your local deli to pick up a sandwich, a bowl of soup or a loaf of bread, you are doing more than sating your appetite; you’re helping them preserve something precious. Who knew that grabbing a knish could be so important?

REASONS TO GO: Ziggy makes an ideal face for delicatessens. Informational without being boring and entertaining without being disrespectful. Merges cultural aspects and foodie aspects nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Will make you hungry. Doesn’t really delve into why delis declined other than the financial.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of cussing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ziggy was once a line cook under Gordon Ramsay.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Search for General Tso
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Wild Card