"The Lonely Child" is a song written in the Vilna Ghetto, describing a girl in hiding. It is still performed over 70 years later -- long after its lyricist, composer and subjects have passed on. The song has taken on a life of its own. Who is keeping it alive and why? And how did they find it in the first place? The daughter and granddaughter of the song’s subjects-- who for years has struggled with the legacy of the Holocaust in her family -- goes on a quest to meet some of these people, to find out what the song means to them.
First Person Statement
by Alix Wall, Writer/Producer:
Composed as Europe’s Jews were facing their own extinction, songs written during the Holocaust era have come to serve as another kind of testimony to the horrors inflicted by Nazi Germany. Despite the fact that over 1000 songs were written during the Holocaust, none of them have ever been memorialized in the form of a film. And as we approach a time when there will be no living survivors to bear witness, just what is our responsibility to them and their stories?
Shmerke Kaczerginski was a poet from Vilna, a pre-war Jewish cultural center, known as "Jerusalem of the North". He wrote the lyrics to no less than 233 songs from the period, some better known than others. In 1943, while in the Vilna Ghetto, he wrote a song that may be lesser known but is the most familiar to me. Called "Dos Elnte Kind," or "The Lonely Child," it tells the tale of a young Jewish girl, Sorele, (a nickname for Sarah) whose father has been killed by the Nazis. Sorele’s mother has sent her into hiding with her gentile nanny.
I have known about the Holocaust for as long as I can remember. And at the same time, I’m the last person I would ever expect to make a Holocaust film. I once felt so constricted by a memoir my grandfather left me, that I did a drama therapy workshop to help release me from the internal guilt I felt over not bringing it to light. Yet, the last stanza of the song haunts me. "If someday, a mother you’ll be, you must make your children aware of how we suffered under the enemy. Forget not the past, not for one single day."
I am Sorele’s daughter. And while my mother dealt with that last line in her own way before dying of breast cancer in 2002, I do not have any children to pass this lesson onto. I am the end of my family line. And yet, while I have struggled with what my duty is vis-a-vis my family’s story, it is so incredibly moving to me to know that others --some of whom I am connected with, some of whom I am not -- are keeping the song alive without any effort by me, not even knowing who my grandmother or mother were.
There is another reason why this story is so moving to me. I always knew that Kaczerginski was a possible contender for my grandmother’s affections after they survived the war, but she married someone else, the man she knew would make a better father to Sorele. But according to the man she married, she never stopped loving Kaczerginski, who died prematurely in a plane crash in the 1950s.
As a child-free woman, and the only descendant of this mother and daughter --who are both now deceased -- making a film about how this song lives on and touches people some 70 years later feels like the most obvious way to honor this legacy.
At the same time, the subtitle of the documentary: "This is not a Holocaust film" alludes to my own discomfort about making such a film. As both a member of what’s known as the second and third generation of Holocaust survivors, I have struggled with this legacy, with the "shoulds" in my head of what I am supposed to do with it, and what I want to do with it. I do not want to retell the horror of what my grandparents went through; I both do not feel it is my story to tell, nor do I -- perhaps selfishly -- want to spend so many hours revisiting such a dark time for those I loved dearly.
The story of the song, however, is happening in the present. While the song was written during the Holocaust -- and the experts will be able to describe the context in which it was written -- the movie is very much about who is performing the song now and why. The fact that so many songs and poems were written during such a dark time is testament to a people never losing their humanity. That seems to be a universal message that touches everyone who hears these songs. Interestingly, there is an Australian documentary that came out in 2013, called "The Songs They Sang," that chronicles the destruction of the Vilna Ghetto through song, and despite the fact that Kaczerginski is a major figure in that film, and his songs are featured, "Dos Elnte Kind" is not part of it.
I also hope to engage those keeping the song alive in a dialogue, exploring the central question: just what is our responsibility to the survivors and their stories? It is not lost on me that a song will outlive all of us; a film will as well.
I don’t remember when I first learned about the song; I think it was part of the family narrative about the war that I almost never not knew, even as a young child. I always knew that my grandmother "had to go away" when my mom was young. But I do remember a very significant moment regarding the song, when my mom visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum shortly after it opened in the mid-90s.
She had some time before going in due to the timed tickets, and wandered to where the museum has its online database. She clicked here and there on a computer, until she found "music" and "Vilna." When she heard Shmerke’s voice come from the speakers, she burst into tears. (She vividly describes this event in the testimony she made for the Shoah Foundation.) When a woman who worked at the museum verified the song was about her, she asked if she wouldn’t mind speaking to a group of middle-schoolers who were at the museum right then. She had never spoken about her past before to a group of students, but she did so that day, and continued to here and there, when people who knew her story asked her to.
While hearing the song for the first time in many years inspired her to talk to a group of students for the first time, that’s understandable; it’s her song, after all. But after an Israeli woman who lives in South Africa who learned the song as a child in Israel found me through the Holocaust Museum, it got me wondering. How many people out there are keeping it alive that I don’t know about? Since then, I’ve found quite a few stories of people who have used the song in various ways. I find it amazing that people with no connection to it or my family have made it their own. This film will take us around the globe to explore those stories.
About the Filmmakers
Marc Smolowitz - Director/Producer
Marc Smolowitz is a multi-award winning director, producer and executive producer with 25+ years of experience across all aspects of the entertainment and media business. His career focus has been powerful social issue
filmmaking across all genres. His long list of credits includes films that have screened at top-tier festivals - Sundance, Berlinale, AFI Docs, IDFA, Tokyo, Melbourne, Viennale, among others - and been released worldwide theatrically, across all forms of television, and on VOD/Digital/Educational platforms. Select titles include: THE NINE (Producer 2016), THE WATERMELON WOMAN (Restoration Producer 2016) BURIED ABOVE GROUND (Producer 2015), DESERT MIGRATION (Producer 2015), BLACK IS BLUE (Short, Producer 2014), HEAVEN ADORES YOU (Producer 2014), HAVANA CURVEBALL (Executive Producer 2014), THE CAMPAIGN (Producer, 2013), KEEP THE PROMISE: THE GLOBAL FIGHT AGAINST AIDS, narrated by Margaret Cho (Co-Director/Co-Producer 2013), THE POWER OF TWO (Director/Producer 2011) STILL AROUND (Exec. Producer/Collaborating Director 2011), Academy-Award nominated THE WEATHER UNDERGROUND (Producer 2003), and TREMBLING BEFORE G-D (Producer 2001).
In recent years, he was the Producer at TellyTopia, a Silicon Valley start up specializing in interactive television, IP-TV and VOD products for cable & satellite companies. In the 1990s and early 2000s, he was widely known as the President & Founder of Turbulent Arts -- a boutique, indie film distribution and sales company based in San Francisco that ranked in 1998 as the 26th largest film company in North America, 14th among independents (source: The Hollywood Reporter.) Today, he works full-time as an independent filmmaker, while maintaining a thriving consulting practice called 13th Gen that guides both emerging and established filmmakers through key stages of development, fundraising, production, post, completion, and distribution. In partnership with a dynamic range of independent film partners and companies, 13th Gen also oversees the financing, marketing, sales and distribution efforts of a vibrant portfolio of films and filmmakers, many of which Smolowitz produces and/or directs. In 2016, he was awarded on the prestigious IFP Producers Network Fellowships to attend the Cannes Film Festival and Mache du Film.
Finally, Smolowitz has taught undergraduate filmmaking at the University of California, Santa Cruz (2011-2013) and the Art Institute of California, San Francisco (2008-2012.) He proudly serves on the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Public Press, an award winning nonprofit news organization. He is also the Board Chair of The HIV Story Project -- a film and media arts nonprofit that he co-founded with filmmaking partner Jorg Fockele in 2009. He lives with his husband, Yves Averous, in San Francisco.
Alix Wall - Writer/Producer
Alix Wall is an award-winning journalist who lives in the Bay Area. This year, she won first place in personality profiles in the American Jewish Press Association’s Rockower Awards; her latest in a long list of AJPA awards going back to 1997. She has also been recognized by the New California Media Awards. After becoming a personal chef in 2006, Alix started cooking for families part-time and turned her interests to writing primarily about food. As a contributing editor to J. Weekly, the Bay Area’s Jewish newspaper, where she was a staff writer for six years, she writes a monthly column about interesting Jews in the food world as well as other features. She is also a regular contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside, the Forward, and a number of other publications. Alix is also the founder of the Illuminoshi, the Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals, a new networking group for Jews who work in the food industry. Alix served on the board of her synagogue, Chochmat HaLev for four years, on the executive committees of the Hazon Food Conferences for two years, and on the program board of the Berkeley Jewish Music Festival for four years. She very much appreciates the Jewish arts and is a regular donor and attendee of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Alix will be both writer and producer of the film and will conduct the interviews. She will also appear on-camera in the film as both a muse and a guide, helping viewers move from place to place around the globe as we investigate the power and reach of "Dos Elnte Kind."
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