More than 100 people flocked to The Temple Monday after a weekend of community commemorations for the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht to view the Atlanta premiere of the documentary, “The Presence of Their Absence.”
As Rabbi Peter Berg noted in his opening remarks, The Temple had a feature role in this film, despite the fact that its main subject, Fred Zaidman, lives in Los Angeles. Another significant subject in the film is Atlantan Steven D. Reece, a Baptist minister who founded The Matzevah Foundation “to remember and honor the Jewish heritage of Poland by restoring Jewish cemeteries and reconciling Jews and Christians through participating in a common mitzvah, or righteous act,” according to the Foundation’s brochure.
The film, “The Presence of Their Absence,” documents the journey of Zaidman, the son of Holocaust survivors, as he tries to find photos, documents and graves of his grandparents and other relatives murdered in the Holocaust.
“I didn’t want to do the documentary,” Zaidman told the crowd listening and watching intently. “The first time I went to Poland, I just wanted to be alone. But friends told me that it was a way to honor my parents, so I decided to.” Zaidman’s parents had recently died.
Zaidman’s journey unfolds like a detective story, takin
g him not only to Poland, where his parents were born, but also to Germany and Israel. In the latter, he discovers family members he never knew he had. Newly found cousins in Atlanta brought him to this city, where he was introduced to Reece who, at the time, was teaching an adult course at The Temple [along with this writer] about Poland and the Holocaust.
In the film, viewers see Zaidman’s at-times angry, frustrated search for his dead family. As the film points out at the end, 115 of his ancestors were murdered in the Holocaust. He wants proof that his grandparents actually existed. He struggles with the reality in which his parents’ homes no longer exist. And he explodes when he finds swastikas on graves in overgrown Jewish cemeteries in Poland.
Yet, he also breaks down upon meeting family members and seeing their family albums containing the same photos he’d seen in his parents’ albums. “I went to Poland with a chip on my shoulder,” he explained to the audience. But after meeting very helpful Poles, “the chip on my shoulder began to chip away.”
Reece had spent years in Poland before launching his Foundation that revolves around remembering, restoring and reconciling. “Due to the Shoah, we know that the relationship with the Jewish community is strained,” according to The Matzevah Foundation’s pamphlet. “We seek to bridge the gap between the Jewish and Christian cultures as well as connect Jews of Polish descent with their past. This has become my life. This is what I do.”
When Zaidman told Reece about his search for his family in Poland and the disrepair of the cemetery in which family graves were found, Reece responded, “Let’s do something about it.” They brought a crew to clean up the cemetery and discovered the graves of Zaidman’s great-grandparents.
“Fred was dealing with his loss in a very tangible way, by cleaning the graves of his family,” Reece said in the film.
Along for the journey was Donna Kanter, award-winning documentarian and producer “who really believes in the story she has created,” Berg said Monday. “It’s an extraordinary story.” Kanter also has ties to Atlanta and Georgia, having submitted films to the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and having cousins in Savannah.
The day after the premiere screening, Tuesday, Zaidman, Reece and Kanter were to be interviewed at The Lovett School by school chaplain Steve Allen. “We won’t have time to screen the film, but it will be an interview style program about why they did this and why they are so passionate about it,” Allen told the AJT. Expected to attend were 650 students and 50 faculty.