Imagine growing up in Roman Catholic Poland only to discover that you have Jewish heritage. What do you do?
Filmmaker Adam Zucker explores this question in his documentary “The Return.”
Speaking from his home in New York, Zucker, 55, explained that after the Holocaust and through the fall of communism in 1989, Poland’s few Jews generally hid their ancestry. In general, only when a grandparent was nearing death would he or she reveal the truth to their families.
The question then for young people is, what do you do with that knowledge, particularly in a country that has little organized Jewish life?
“For many people the answer is nothing, and for some people the answer is, ‘I don’t know but I have to figure it out,’” said Zucker, who spent four years traveling back and forth to Poland documenting the lives of four Jewish women in their 20s. “For some it represents a spiritual yearning; for others it represents a chance to explore a different side of themselves in a very homogenous country.”
Out of a population of 38 million, there are somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000 Jews in Poland; estimates vary.
“It’s 95-percent white Catholic, if not more. To find out, in a demographically boring society, that you’re an ‘other’ is actually very attractive at that age,” Zucker said.
Some people explore Judaism a bit and move on. Others wrestle with it for a long time, and it becomes a strong part of their identity.
In America, Jews can choose what they like from the rich smorgasbord of Jewish expression, everything from strictly cultural to deeply observant. In Poland, it’s more complicated.
“In Warsaw, if you want to be religious, it’s clear what you do,” he said, noting that, until recently, there was only one synagogue in the city — it’s Orthodox.
“The challenge is more is if you strongly identify culturally, ethnically with being Jewish traditionally, but you don’t embrace Orthodoxy or don’t embrace a strong religious background,” he said.
Teens join Jewish youth groups, and young adults find a circle of friends with whom to share Shabbat dinners.
Starting in the 1990s, American Jewish groups, such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, poured money in to revitalize Jewish life in Poland and other former Eastern-bloc nations. Zucker believes, however, that the communal infrastructure Americans associate with Jewish life hasn’t fully developed in Poland yet, with most of that nation’s rabbis still hailing from outside the country.
“As wonderful as they are, and they are wonderful, I think that if you are Polish and Jewish you probably would ultimately connect with someone who understands your situation and speaks your language better than a foreign imported rabbi,” said Zucker. “But that requires a certain crucial mass of population and leadership and trained individuals; it’s not really at that place yet.”
Zucker and his cameraman made numerous trips to Poland over a four- year period, staying for a week or so at a time, in order to capture the subjects’ lives as they evolved and went in new directions.
“There’s been movement away from Judaism. There’s been movement toward Judaism. So on all life levels and as well as spiritual levels, there’s been opportunity for their relationship to their Jewish identifies to evolve in ways that are very tangible,” he said.
With a couple more trips to Poland and post-production still on the horizon, Zucker will likely spend another six to eight months on “The Return.” He has a Kickstarter campaign, and he’s received financial backing from several organizations, including the Lynn & Jules Kroll Fund for Jewish Documentary Film. Nevertheless, money is a continuing headache. Zucker is keeping expenses down by producing, directing and editing the film on his own. Still, when all is said and done, he estimates “The Return” will cost $150,000.
“It’s hard to make good documentaries. It’s wonderful. It’s the most wonderful thing in the world, but financially it’s really hard,” he said.
If all goes well, by the middle of next year, he’ll start screening “The Return” at film festivals. With luck, he’ll land a TV deal. He expects the film will eventually circulate on college campuses through Hillel and to synagogues and other communal sites.
He hopes “The Return” reaches Jews, of course, but he also hopes it plays for broader audiences. Most importantly, he wants viewers to open their eyes to the dynamic reality of Poland today.
Poland “is not frozen in 1945,” he said.
Zucker, married with an adult son, spent many years working as a TV and commercial editor. At age 30, he discovered documentary filmmaking and embarked on a new phase in his career. Making documentaries doesn’t always pay the bills, so he continues editing while at the same time pursuing his own projects, such as “The Return,” when he can. In 2006, he made “Greensboro: Closer to the Truth,” a look at and reconciliation process undertaken 25 years after the 1979 murders of five Communist Workers’ Party members by the Ku Klux Klan in Greensboro, N.C.