Paths of Freedom

A new project will film eight Israeli teenagers setting out on the routes the Bericha movement used to spirit Jews out of post-Holocaust Europe.

The 70 years that have passed since Yossi Chen's childhood trauma added many chapters to the convoluted story of his life, but they didn't dull his memories. He shares them in his new autobiographical work, "The Light at the End of the Forest" (Moreshet Publishing House, in Hebrew ).

Chen, a resident of Ramat Hasharon, was born in 1936 in Lakhva, Belarus. It was a small town of 6,000, a quarter of them Jews. In 1941, it fell to the Nazis.

Bericha - Moreshet Archive - Jan 2012
Moreshet Archive

There were bigger and more famous ghettos than Lakhva. But one detail got this little ghetto into the history books. At the Holon cemetery, where special tombstones commemorate lost communities during the Holocaust, there's one for Lakhva. "Lakhva - First to Rebel," it says.

The uprising there, on September 3, 1942, broke out seven months before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The Germans planned to lead the ghetto's inhabitants to pits that had been dug nearby and shoot them.

"First thing in the morning. the entire community stood in the narrow street, between two rows of wooden houses. The moment the Germans entered the ghetto the uprising began," Chen says, recalling the events he witnessed at age 6.

In the first stage, the Jews set the ghetto on fire. Then Yitzhak Rochzyn, one of the leaders of the uprising, pounced on a German soldier and bashed his head in with an ax. Other Jews too, equipped with axes, shovels and logs, attacked soldiers. The young men of the ghetto took the wounded soldiers' guns and shot more Germans.

"The Germans were taken by surprise and even scared. After all, they didn't expect any resistance. That moment was used to break through the fences and gate, and there was a mass escape," Chen says. "Under a barrage of bullets from rifles and machine guns, people began streaming through the fences and out of town."

Around 600 of the 2,000 Jews in the ghetto managed to escape, but most were soon captured and killed. Others died fighting for partisan units or in the Red Army. Only about 100 veterans of the uprising survived. Chen is the youngest. While fleeing the ghetto he lost hold of his father's hand. He was alone but kept on running. He was later reunited with his father, but his mother, brother, grandfather and uncles were murdered.

teens film - Jan 2012

For the next two years Chen hid out in marshes and lived among the partisans in the Belarusian woods. At age 7, he practiced shooting for the first time. At the end of the war, the second key chapter of his life began: the escape from Europe.

He came out of the forest with his father and returned to Lakhva. From there they moved to the big city nearby, Pinsk. Their next stop was Lodz in Poland, from where they moved on to the Czechoslovak border en route to Austria and Germany. In July 1947, after two years in displaced persons camps, they boarded the refugee ship Exodus, the symbol of Holocaust survivors who made their way to Israel.

In the coming months, Chen, today 76 and a grandfather of nine, will return to the continent he escaped from in childhood; there he will take part in a new and unique docu-reality film. The film, "The Escape 3G," will try to reconstruct the routes used by Bericha, the clandestine Zionist movement that spirited Jews out of Europe.

This chapter had its start late in the war, at the close of 1944, and ended in 1948, with the foundation of Israel. "This is an unparalleled story of adventure and suffering - a story of initiative, bravery, determination and cunning in which all means justify the end," Yohanan Cohen, one of the first emissaries from Mandatory Palestine to organize the escape from Poland, wrote in his book "Crossing Every Border."

Bold improvisation

The Bericha people operated in a Europe suspended between past and future, without clear law and order. They discovered routes that let them wander between cities, forged transit papers, bribed soldiers at border crossings and showed extraordinary courage and improvisation.

The creator of the new project is the film and television veteran Micha Shagrir, who last month received a lifetime achievement award from the Israel Film Academy. Shagrir's many credits include, as producer, the film "Betzeyt Israel" ("When Israel Went Out," 2010 ), in which a group of Israelis reconstruct Ethiopian Jews' journey to Israel in the 1980s. Now he's using the same concept to reconstruct a Jewish journey from another era, in collaboration with the nonprofit organization Ofot Hahol, which produces films about Holocaust survivors and the new lives they built.

For the past few months, Shagrir's staff has been visiting schools across the country and auditioning candidates to choose eight youths between 16 and 18. After receiving training, they'll set out on the routes in Europe the Bericha movement used.

"We're trying to address the Holocaust from a different point of view and conduct an experiment with a journey that will be both an educational field trip and a formative experience," Shagrir says.

The participants will include an Israeli Arab girl, an Ethiopian boy, a girl from Lod whose parents emigrated from Russia, the daughter of migrant workers from Colombia, the son of a settler rabbi, and descendants of Bericha leaders. They'll experience the dilemmas faced by the people who took part in the escape.

"Reality isn't a dirty word," Shagrir says. "We'll use the methods and language of reality television to create a new way of bequeathing the history of the Jewish people to the younger generations," he says. "Not only so they'll learn and understand what happened, but so they'll think about what's happening and what's going to happen."

One of the teens is Itamar Konfino, 18, from Kochav Ya'ir. Konfino is the great-grandson of Enzo Sereni, who with other paratroopers from pre-state Israel was dropped into occupied Europe in 1944; the goal was to help Jews escape the Nazi terror. He was captured by the Germans and executed at Dachau. Kibbutz Netzer Sereni is named after him. His wife, Ada, who searched for him, was appointed commander of the clandestine immigration operation Aliyah Bet in Italy, which organized the escape's final stage: the transfer to Israel of tens-of-thousands of Jews on dozens of ships.

"In the new film I realize I'll be able to experience what my great-grandfather and the other Jews went through after the Holocaust. It's fascinating," Konfino says. "As far as I'm concerned, the Holocaust proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they don't want us anywhere in the world and that Jews have no country except Israel. There's no other way." Next year he plans to join an elite military unit, "to contribute as much as possible."

His cousin, Ariel Sereni, also passed the film's preliminary tryouts. He too is 18 and is due to join the Israel Defense Forces next year. Sereni, who was born in New York and studies theater at Ironi Alef High School in Tel Aviv, doesn't share his cousin's outlook. "After the visit to Auschwitz I began to have qualms about the military draft. I was horrified by what can be done with weapons," he says. "In general, my connection to Judaism is terribly small. My father is Christian. We celebrate, as secular people, both Christmas and Thanksgiving. Ultimately, the most important thing is to be humane."

Israeli Arabs take part

Another participant in the film is Nardin Elias, an 18-year-old Arab Israeli from Acre. "In contrast to Sereni's great-grandchildren, I don't have a familial or personal connection to the Holocaust. I'm an Arab. My family has lived here for generations upon generations," she says.

"My family espouses humanistic values. They've taught me to be sensitive to other people's suffering. It was important to my mother that I know what befell the Jewish people and the wrong done to them. I can read about the Holocaust in books, but there's nothing like going to the places themselves to see the soil, feel it and touch it. I don't think this is something reserved only for Jews. It's a subject that ought to preoccupy everyone, first of all as a human being."

When she decided to attend a Jewish school, where she is the sole Arab student, she realized that even these lofty values carry a price. "I suffered curses and physical and verbal abuse from Jewish students at the school, who didn't like the fact that an Arab girl was studying with them," Elias says. "But I don't regret this decision, because I changed the negative opinion some of them had about Arabs."

Also, when she visited Auschwitz with a student delegation, not everyone looked kindly on it. "There were Jews who told me it was none of my business, even though all I was asking was to learn about the history of the Jewish people. But after I explained to them where it was coming from, they appreciated me," she says.

"Just as I wanted to hear about how the Jews were wronged, I also wanted to know what my family went through in 1948," Elias adds. She talks about "the Jewish soldiers who broke into the village of Bi'ina during the war and arrested all the men." Among those arrested was her grandfather. Her grandmother "hid the small children and fled to Acre."

While her classmates worked on family roots projects about the Holocaust, Elias wrote about the history of her family in 1948 - "not from a place of hatred, incitement and racism, but out of a sincere wish to know the roots," she says.

The teens' journey will take them to Germany, Austria, Italy, France and Poland. The filmmakers are also using diaries and testimonies from people who were involved in the escape movement; the young people will meet with some of them.

"Escape entailed heartrending moments that its hard not to be moved by," says director Alon Levi, as he gives an overview of peoples' memories of the escape organization. An episode he found especially moving is the pogrom in the Polish city of Kielce in July 1946, little more than a year after the war's end.

Following a blood libel that a Polish boy had been kidnapped by Jews, Poles murdered 42 Jews and wounded scores more. "And then along comes one Jew, who was among the leaders of the Bericha movement, and with a pistol and papers from the United Nations rescues the wounded and brings them to safety, accompanied by a convoy of American tanks," Levi recounts. "That moment symbolizes the transition from passivity to activity. People who until a little while earlier were camp inmates suddenly showed unbelievable daring."

Tal Barda, the film's producer, says, "it's not going to be a simple journey. The teens will pass through snowy mountains and along cliffs in impossible places - like the route the Jews covered in the Bericha movement - to try to understand what they went through." But the physical journey will be the easy part. "They will undergo a very personal, serious journey, and the dynamic that forms will be a central part of the film," she says.

"We want to know how teenagers in today's Israel connect to the Holocaust and remembrance. We'll show them other things and open up students' minds in different directions. Yes, to help them undergo change you need to be provocative. In a way, we're offering an alternative to the trips to Poland."