Immigration, refugees and their financial contribution to American society were the themes of the afternoon at an April 7 event organized by the Baltimore Jewish Council and funded by Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s Herbert H. and Irma B. Risch Memorial Program on Immigration called, “Immigrants: An Economic Success Story.”
Several dozen community members gathered to view “The Starfish,” a short documentary about the life of Holocaust survivor Herb Gildin, made by Herb’s own grandson Tyler Gildin, who was present and answered audience questions after the screening.
Although Gildin, 29, has always been aware that his grandfather’s childhood was impacted by the Holocaust, it wasn’t until Herb eulogized his oldest sister, Cele, in February 2017 that Gildin became aware of many of the significant details in his ancestors’ immigration story.
“I had always known he had a unique story, but I never knew the actual details of it,” Gildin said. “It was the first time that I thought, ‘How don’t I know all of this?’”
Just three months after his great aunt’s funeral, Gildin, who has worked in video production in Manhattan for more than five years, began recording interviews with family members including his parents, grandparents and more, to document his family’s immigration saga.
“He’s alive and has the opportunity to tell his story; I need to be documenting this. If not for a larger purpose then for myself,” Gildin recalled telling himself at the time.
Born in Germany in 1929, Herb was only 10 years old on the evening of Kristallnacht when his family’s shoe store was destroyed, forcing them to leave the country. With the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), an organization that is still active today and based in Silver Spring, Maryland, Herb and his older sisters were able to settle in separate households in Sweden until the war was over.
After a long and indirect trek from Sweden to New York City, Herb and his sisters were reunited with their parents. Years later, Herb and his wife started a light bulb business called SATCO Lighting, which is still in operation today.
While his grandfather’s story is the first long-form and independent release from the filmmaker’s production company, Gildin Media, Gildin’s early talent as a documentarian can easily be seen. Narratively, the interview subjects carry the story’s substance, rather than relying on explanatory voiceovers or text slides to move the story forward. The subjects’ testimonies are enhanced by an emotive music soundtrack and a mixture of family photographs and stock images related to World War II Europe.
“While it’s very personal to my family and maybe to the Jewish community, I think [the documentary] has a larger appeal,” Gildin told the audience after the screening. “I think it’s really a universal story of human strength and perseverance and the idea that even in the darkest of times there are people out there willing to do good things for people.”
In addition to Gildin’s Q&A session, there was a discussion moderated by Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, where panelists Stephanie Hsu from the Baltimore Development Corporation and Chinatown Collective, The Rev. Joe Muth from St. Matthew Church in Loch Raven and Anwar Khan from Islamic Relief USA, outlined the social and economic benefits gleaned from the United States’ immigrant and refugee population.
“One of the great secrets about immigrants and refugees is that they are an economic success story and that they contribute much more to our economy than they take,” Hetfield said. Hetfield went on to cite a September 2017 study by the Department of Health and Human Services that asserted the U.S. refugee population brought in $63 billion more in tax revenue than it cost taxpayers.
Noah Mitchel, the assistant director of community relations for BJC, felt encouraged by the engagement from community members at Sunday’s event, and expressed the importance of hearing stories similar to Herb Gildin’s.
“With the current political discourse we’re hearing about immigrants, it makes it that much more important to highlight immigrant stories and to hear from immigrant services experts,” Mitchel said. “It’s also caused an increased level of interest and engagement from community members, and that was really evident today. That feeling in the room was palpable.”
Gildin noted that this particular event was different from other “Starfish” screenings, and he appreciated the opportunity to be part of a passionate conversation with Baltimore’s Jewish community.
“This screening was really unique in the fact that the film was used to promote a healthy conversation about refugees and the positive impacts they can have on society,” said Gildin. “I think it’s important to have these conversations and I’m glad the film is providing this opportunity.”