They could dance. Oh, could they dance.
Really, they shouldn’t have been able to. They were Holocaust survivors, people who had lived through hell and seen more and suffered more and lost more than the rest of us could begin to imagine seeing and suffering and losing.
And they were in their what? Eighties? Nineties? Surviving the Holocaust hadn’t stopped the aging process. They were old.
But they had energy and life. And also memories of sadness and unspeakable horror. And also all the ailments that the ever-creative human body can inflict on people who have the temerity to grow old.
All of this — life, sickness, death, joy, hope, despair, and remarkable gumption, plus some real estate, which is an unavoidable truth about life in the metropolitan area — are on display in a surprisingly subtle documentary, “Four Seasons Lodge,” which will be screened at Congregation Beth Shalom. (See box.)
The film is about a Catskills bungalow colony whose residents all were Holocaust survivors.
Its director, Andrew Jacobs, will be at the screening, and he will talk about the film and answer questions after it’s shown. And Ester Geizhals, an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor who spent many summers at the Four Seasons Lodge, will be there and answer questions as well.
Mr. Jacobs was not a filmmaker when he made “Four Seasons Lodge,” and he has not finished another film since, although he is working on one now. But he was so taken with the stories at the lodge, and so sure that the best way to tell them was to show them, that he decided to tell them on film.
In real life, he’s a New York Times reporter. He lived and worked in China from 2008 to 2016; since then he’s worked on international stories, and now he’s a science reporter. “I’m not at all a science guy,” he said; that’s a good thing, however, because he is able to translate science-speak into English for the vast majority of the rest of us, who also are not science guys.
“Four Seasons Lodge” was released in 2008. “We filmed it over the course of two summers,” Mr. Jacobs said. “But I discovered the place in 2006. I was doing a series for the Times then on summer life in the Catskills, and I sort of stumbled on this place.”
He’d talked his Times editors into the series because he was so fascinated by the Catskills that he convinced them that readers would be too. His interest, he said, went back to his childhood.
“I went up there a lot when I was a kid, driving around in the summer, in the old Borscht Belt, and I had a house up there,” he said. “The old Borscht Belt is really fascinating. You see the formerly majestic crumbling old hotels, and an archipelago of bungalow colonies occupied by chasidim, like some 17th century shtetl. It is the combination of those worlds that intrigued me.
“The series I wrote was about bungalow colonies, and someone down the road from the Four Seasons told me, ‘You should check up on this one. All the residents are Holocaust survivors,’” he continued. “So I drove by and pulled up and met Hymie Abramovitz, one of the leaders of the lodge. And we started talking, and I was just smitten by him.”
Hymie features prominently in the documentary. The Four Seasons Lodge was a co-op, and Hymie was both an owner and the resident manager. He was in charge of maintenance, so in one sequence we viewers get to hear a series of residents call, yell, shout, practically yodel, “Hymie!” “Hymie!!” “HYMIEEEE!!!!” It’s charming for us, but it was not at all charming for him.
“Hymie told me that this was going to be their last summer,” Mr. Jacobs said. This idea — that this would be the lodge’s last summer — provides the only plot the documentary has. The residents voted to sell the place, then reneged on the decision and kept it going for another two years before selling it for real. They were old before the first sale was made, and not surprisingly did not get younger as time passed.
So Mr. Jacobs knew that he wanted to tell the lodge’s story, and he wrote a small piece about it in the Times, but “by then the summer was over, and the story ended up being really short, and I wanted to do something more.”
Although he’d never made a movie before, “I thought it would be the best way to capture them. Not in a book, because the personalities, the essence of who they are, wouldn’t be compelling in a book. The way they talk, the way they interact — I didn’t have confidence in my ability to tell that story in a book.
“So then I thought that I would try it.”
He met with the legendary documentary maker Albert Maysles, who had worked with his brother David on such movies as “Grey Gardens,” and who continued to work after his brother’s premature death in 1987. Mr. Jacobs “pitched him the idea — we thought that he’d be perfect, because he was the same age and demographic as the people at the lodge” — he was Jewish, born in 1926 — “and because we wanted the verite style” that he and his brother had pioneered.
“I got him on board,” Mr. Jacobs said. “And I raised some money, and started going upstate on weekends.” Meanwhile, he kept his day job.
The documentary includes a lot of close-ups of faces and a lot of wider shots of the countryside. It begins with the survivors closing up their houses in Queens. (It’s identifiably Queens, to anyone who’s spent any time at all in that borough, or knows anything at all about that borough’s bizarre street and house numbers.) Then it follows them upstate, to their own bungalows and the common spaces where they eat and dance and talk and daven.
Some of them daven, at any rate. “I would describe almost all of them as pretty Reform,” Mr. Jacobs said. “Some are atheists, with a smattering of Conservative.” Still, the film shows candle-lighting (true, they let a photographer film them beginning Shabbat) and havdalah. “They didn’t have a lot of religiosity,” he said. “Most of them were in the camp of where was God? But they didn’t throw it all out. There was a comfort in the rituals of Judaism. You have a sense from them of ‘They wanted to stamp this out, so we should keep it going.’ I think there was an attachment to ritual and tradition and history, not so much the faith.”
The film shows the countryside, which is rural without being particularly beautiful — parts of the Catskills absolutely are gorgeous, but not these parts. It shows the bungalows, inside and out; the insides have that shabby florescent-and-plastic-tablecloth-and-linoleum-floored look that perfectly defines the time when they were built.
Everyone at the bungalow colony is a survivor. Most of them left the camps orphaned and family-less; their friends, most of them Holocaust survivors too, became their family. The bonds connecting them are extraordinarily and visibly strong. In the film, many of them talk about how they searched each other out, because no one else could understand, how the shorthand they used did not have to be fleshed out into lengthy explanations, which anyway would be too hard and too painful to make.
It’s always a mystery, how some people survived the Holocaust, and how some of them managed to have good lives later on. We see these survivors laugh, gossip, bask in the sun, tease each other, and often they seem happy. They all have numbers tattooed on their arms, and sometimes they talk to the camera about some of what they endured. The daytime is fine, one of them says, but it’s at night that the terror returns.
Mr. Jacobs is not the son or grandson of survivors, but he is close to many of them, and he has done a great deal of research into their lives. “Ultimately, in surviving the Holocaust, the first component was luck,” he said. “And then there is something about survivors, the decisions they made. Whether is was their cunning, their craftiness, their will — once they had the luck, there was something about them that allowed them to be able to survive multiple death camps…
“There are plenty of survivors who took a different route,” he said. “Their lives afterward were stark and bitter. Not that some of the people here weren’t dark and bitter,” he added. “But there were plenty of survivors who surrounded themselves with non-survivors. There were plenty who boxed themselves off from that experience. But these guys consciously chose to be almost exclusively with other survivors, and who had a real gusto for life. No one was sitting in their bungalow alone. No one was crippled by the trauma. They all had lived through terrible trauma, but they embraced life with a gusto that helped them get through the rest of their lives.
“And in some ways having a good time was a distraction. It distracted them from the memory that was always hovering. You don’t want to sit too long, because that’s when the demons would creep out.”
At the start of “Four Seasons Lodge,” a heavily made-up singer belts out “Life Is a Cabaret.” At the end, “I Will Survive” plays over the credits. Both of those songs seem particularly appropriate.
Who: Andrew Jacobs, the director of
What: “The Four Seasons Lodge,” will talk about the documentary at
Where: Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave. in Teaneck
When: On Sunday, March 4, at 7 p.m.
How much: It’s free, but reservations are requested by March 2
For more information and to register: Go to www.cbsteaneck.org
And there’s more: Survivor and Four Seasons Lodge resident Ester Geizhals will join Mr. Jacobs and answer questions.