Fighting stereotypes

Fighting stereotypes

Brooklyn chasid, Teaneck producer team up for film on Christian Poles

Menachem Daum
Menachem Daum

If you want to fight stereotypes, it’s really helpful if you can be a walking, talking, and thinking, always thinking, refutation of stereotypes yourself.

Menachem Daum is a Gerer chasid, a descendant of a long line of Gerer chasidim. He lives in Brooklyn. His religious devotion is reflected in his clothing, and in the way he lives his life.

Menachem Daum also is a documentary filmmaker. That’s his second career; his first was as a social gerontologist. As he says, “I have advanced degrees from two Jesuit universities.”

He’s the DP-camp-born, naturalized American son of two Holocaust survivors.

He’s also a citizen of Poland, not by birth but because he chose to apply for that citizenship as an adult.

Menachem Daum, far left, and Kamila, a Memory Keeper, meet for the first time in 2002. There are a pile of maps on the table in front of Kamila.

He’s deeply involved in a movement in Poland called Memory Keepers, a group of mostly young, overwhelmingly Christian people who are devoting themselves to maintaining Jewish cemeteries in Poland, and through that work to uncovering and celebrating Jewish history in Poland.

Dr. Daum is working with Steven Fischler, a Teaneck-based film producer, on his latest project, “Gone But Not Forgotten,” an 80-or-so-percent finished, covid-interrupted documentary about the Memory Keepers and other Poles.

“I met Menachem at a screening, and I really liked him and I really liked his film, ‘Hiding and Seeking,’ that he made a number of years ago,” Mr. Fischler said. “In it, he goes to Poland with his wife and two of his children, to find the family that kept his in-laws alive. It was a Christian farming family that hid his wife’s family.

“That kind of opened his eyes to the fact that if you ask a lot of Jews in the States what they think about Poles, often their first reactions is ‘They’re the worst antisemites in the world!’ But the film got him to reassess and rethink that. And in the following years he went to Poland — he’s been a number of times by now — and he discovered that there are groups of people, separate, decentralized groups, it’s a very local thing, who have been very active in restoring and preserving the Jewish cemeteries in Poland, many of which had been trashed over the years.” Those are the Memory Keepers.

So Mr. Fischler agreed to work with Mr. Daum; they hope to raise enough money to be able to go back to Poland and complete the film.

It’s important work, they both say. “It’s an ethical statement,” according to Mr. Fischler.

The Daum family gathers around a TV in Schenectady in about 1952.

It confronts facile assumptions, Dr. Daum adds.

“As a Jewish filmmaker, I use film to challenge stereotypes. I feel that every group — whether it’s Blacks or Muslims or Jews or anybody else — needs internal self-criticism to call out racism within our own group. Blacks should call out Black racism, Muslims should call out Islamic racism, and I take it on myself to challenge Jewish racism by showing films about ‘exemplary others.’

“It begins to crack stereotypes. If Jews thought that all Poles were incorrigible antisemites, I can show films about the Poles who protected my family, and Poles who now are going to great lengths to protect Jewish cemeteries.

“Even if you say that these people are exceptions, it begins to crack the stereotypes.”

But Dr. Daum is a documentary filmmaker, and so he thinks in practical terms. “The problem with making films about good people is that saints are boring,” he said. “The challenge, if you are going to make films about exemplary people, is not to sermonize.” You are making a movie, not filming the delivery of d’var Torah.

Menachem Daum, a first-grader, beams in a formal portrait.

Dr. Daum has been thinking about making this film ever since he finished “Hiding and Seeking” in 2004, he said. The question was how to engage viewers; how to turn it into a narrative instead of making a series of little inspirational bits. But “I had a hard time getting people interested,” he said. “Most people don’t care about Poles, or about Polish history, or about Jewish cemeteries in Poland.” He had to personalize the film.

“So I began to try to interweave Polish history with my own family story. It’s a way of bringing people in. It’s no longer a history lesson then, but a story about being raised to see something one way, but then being able to see it another way.”

“The project has morphed from telling the Memory Keepers’ stories into being about Menachem’s interest in it,” Mr. Fischler said. “We’ve come to the conclusion that using him as the storytelling device has made the story stronger.

“I know that Menachem didn’t set out to make another film where he is the protagonist, but I think that it works in this case. And the result is to help people understand what he is trying to say.”

Okay. What is Menachem trying to say?

The way into his own story is from the beginning.

In 1947, Moshe Yosef and Fayga Mindel Daum hold baby Menachem. They’re in Landsberg, Germany.

Dr. Daum, who told his story in the Forward a few weeks ago, is the son of two parents who both lost everything in the Holocaust. (And to be straightforward, “lost everything” means that the Nazis killed their families, including their spouses and children.) His father, Moshe Yosef Daum, was drafted into the Polish army. He compromised by shaving off his beard and payes, but he ate only raw vegetables, spent nearly two years in service, and was discharged honorably, back into a Poland that tolerated Jews (until, of course, it didn’t). His mother, Fayga Mindel Nussbaum Daum, was born into a wealthier, still very observant but worldlier family. After the war, they were relocated first to Schenectady, in upstate New York, where they were not at all happy, and then to Brooklyn, where they remained.

Their son Menachem — or Martin, as he was called in Schenectady, in an effort to fit in — earned a master’s degree from Fairfield University in Connecticut and then a doctorate from Fordham, in the Bronx, in educational psychology. He specialized in statistics and research design, and ended up using those skills as a researcher in social gerontology, first for the city’s Department of Aging and then for Brookdale Center on Aging at Hunter College.

He did that for about 25 years, Dr. Daum said, until he ran into what might be called an advanced case of Shoemaker’s Children Syndrome. “My mom developed Alzheimer’s and my father had strokes. And I was supposed to be the expert, and to have all the answers, and I realized that I was confused. I was facing all these dilemmas. And I realized that there must be millions of people who are caregivers, and who are even more lost than I was.

“So I decided that instead of writing research papers on caregiving, I would make a film on caregiving, and on the moral dilemmas caregivers face in taking care of the frail elderly.” That film, called “In Care Of,” was hosted by Hugh Downs; it was nominated for an Emmy.

“I was happy that the film helped people,” Dr. Daum said. “The thing about being a caregiver is if you think that you are the only one facing this, you second guess yourself. It is a profoundly isolating experience. The purpose of the film is to let people know that they are not alone. You are not alone. There are no perfect solutions, but you have to be good to yourself.”

Dr. Daum retold a story that his father told him. “My mom needed full-time care,” he said. “My father didn’t want to put her in a nursing home. He thought that he would be abandoning her. So he asked a friend who often goes to the Gerer rebbe to get a blessing from him to explain his situation to him.”

Menachem Daum’s father, Moshe Daum, served in the Polish army before the war.

His friend did, and came back with a message for Moshe Daum. “The rebbe said that if first you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else. So put your wife in the nursing home, and visit her every day.’

“My father did — and he wouldn’t have done it if the rebbe hadn’t told him to do it.”

So Dr. Daum started thinking about his future, what he’d learned, and what he wanted to do with his knowledge.

“I realized that if I have something to say, I have a much better chance of getting my thoughts out through mass media than through obscure academic publications that only a small handful of people will ever see,” he said.

He could afford to make that midlife career change in 1988, he continued, because “my kids were almost grown up and I had almost paid off my mortgage.” He made that choice carefully, he noted, and Rifka, his wife of nearly 52 years, agreed with it.

Dr. Daum first went to Poland with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who was touring the country.

But “you know that in the Jewish tradition, if someone wants to convert, you are supposed to say something like ‘Why? God loves all his children.’ And if he comes back a second time, you have to try to dissuade him again. You say that there is no need to convert. And if he comes back a third time, then you embrace him.

“I do the same thing with people who want to become documentary filmmakers. I say, ‘You know that you won’t be able to support a family. It is an expensive hobby.’ I do that twice. And the third time, I tell them whatever they need to know.”

He is firm in his desire to help aspiring filmmakers because “once I realized that I had moved away from gerontology into filmmaking, I had no idea how films were made. But my one skill was that I had written many research grant proposals. I decided that instead of writing a research proposal, I would write a film proposal.” That proposal would detail what problems he was going to investigate, and who that investigation would help. “Fortunately, that worked,” he said.

Next, in 1997, “I decided that I wanted to make a film honoring my father’s generation of chasidic survivors, who were told when they came to America that this” — their chasidut — “will never take on American soil. It’s an old way of life, and it will antagonize the goyim, so they should just leave it behind.

“But my father and other chasidic survivors said that they didn’t care. They would rebuild their chasidic way of life despite the naysayers.” And they did.

“That was my first PBS film, ‘Chasidim in America.’” (He worked on this film, as on many others, with co-director Oren Rudavsky.) “Not everyone is interested in that, but it challenged the stereotypes that people had about chasidism. And we got Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker to do the narration.

Memory Keeper Kamila Klauzinska copies information from a gravestone.

“They did it at scale,” he added.

“Leonard Nimoy told us that his dad was a barber, and he would go to shul on Shabbes morning and then would rush back to make a living. These chasidim persevered in a way that his own family didn’t, he said, and he admired their tenacity.

“He had a great voice. It was like the oracle of Delphi. But it had a lot of ying but no yang, so we decided that we needed a female voice as well as his. Sarah Jessica was very sweet.”

The filmmakers ended up recording two full versions of the narration. “We cut it back and forth,” Dr. Daum said. “We used it as if they were interacting with each other, and finishing each other’s sentences.” That made the narration seem more interactive, and more welcoming.

“I am always looking for ways to broaden the audience rather than to preach to the converted,” he added.

Dr. Daum, left is with Memory Keepers Carolina and Piotr Jakowenko in Bendzin, Poland. They’re in an apartment that used to be a shtiebel; it’s now an educational center and musuem.

His next film, again with Oren Rudavsky, was “Hiding and Seeking,” about his family trip to Poland, starring the Daums. “I love the counterintuitive way you began ‘Hiding and Seeking,” Mr. Fischler said. “You ask Jews in America what they think of the people in Poland, and they all say that they should drop dead. They’re the worst antisemites in the world.

“But nothing is that simple, and you discovered a sense of humanism in some of these Poles. I thought that it was inspiring.”

That brings Dr. Daum and Mr. Fischler back to “Gone But Not Forgotten.”

The timing is ironic; Poland is next to Ukraine, and taking in refugees. “Now Poland is in the headlines,” Dr. Daum said. “I sent some money to my parents’ hometown. They have taken in 600 refugees, and I want to be part of that mitzvah.

“I admire what the Polish people are doing now. It is even more amazing to me because it wasn’t so many years ago that the Poles and the Ukrainians were massacring each other. What they’re doing now is refusing to be enslaved by their history of animosity and violent confrontation. They are letting all that go, and they all are doing what they can.”

These are the posters for three of Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky’s documentaries.

As for Dr. Daum, “I’m busy now in my own community. I have my issues with Jewish nationalists, who ask why we are helping Ukrainians, who are a bunch of antisemites. I get that almost every day. It’s one thing to help Ukrainian Jews, they say, because of course we should help our own.

“But Ukrainian Jews aren’t being persecuted now because they are Jews. They are being persecuted now because they are Ukrainians.

“I say, look, Ukraine now has a Jewish president and a Jewish prime minister, but they don’t care.”

So, “Gone But Not Forgotten”?

First, Dr. Daum said, the idea of being the memory keeper is personal for him. “I look around my shul, and I see the ghosts of my father and his friends who are no longer with us and I see the younger people who didn’t know that generation. I try to pass on some of the stories that I heard over the years.

“I wouldn’t say that I am the institutional memory, but I am like the family historian. And I hope that this film will be able to give people a sense of what it was like to be a young chasid going on a spiritual journey before the war in my home town.

“I want to give the viewer a sense of what is no longer there, of what it is that these people are trying to preserve.”

Dr. Daum first went to Poland in 1988; he traveled with the charismatic singer/songwriter Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. “I knew that prewar Poland didn’t exist, but I figured that there were some Jews living in Poland who remembered it, and so I could go there and touch it. Honestly, I was very disappointed. The Jews who remained in Poland after the war, I quickly realized, were not representative of the diversity and richness of prewar Poland.

“A lot of them were apparatchiks. Their Jewish identity was an accident.

“Anybody who wanted to live a Jewish life, whether they were religious or a secular Zionist, knew they had to get out of the country. Most of the ones who remained either were old and couldn’t get out, or their identity as Poles was very strong, and so they decided that their Jewishness was an accident of birth.”

But Rabbi Carlebach’s concerts were packed with enthusiastic non-Jews who loved his music and his message. “I started meeting these younger Poles who were almost as obsessed as I was with Jewish things. So you look for one thing and you find another.”

What drew these young Christian Poles to Jewish things? Why go to a Carlebach concert? Why go far beyond that to become a Memory Keeper? “It’s a good question,” Dr. Daum said. “I asked them that often. A lot of them were being hassled when they worked to preserve Jewish cemeteries. I asked them why they did it.

“For some people it was such a holy thing to do that they couldn’t even put it in words. One young woman said ‘I didn’t chose it. It chose me.’

“I think that basically there are two reasons. One is that the people who do it consider themselves to be real Polish patriots, even though right-wing Poles don’t agree with them. They loved Poland, and the last time Poland really was Poland was from 1918, when it got its independence, to the eve of World War II.”

Real Poland was multicultural; ethnic Poles were surrounded by Ukrainians, ethnic Germans, Jews, as well as other, smaller groups. “About 35 percent of the population was not Polish Catholic then,” Dr. Daum said. “These young people yearn for the multicultural Poland that once was and is no longer. Now it’s 95 percent ethnic Polish Catholic.

“These young people know that something is missing, and they know that if you don’t know Polish Jewish history, you don’t know Polish history. Learning multicultural Polish history is a major motivator.”

Another motivator is postwar communist history. “In 1968, the communist government kicked about 20,000 Jews out of the country after the Six-Day War. Poland’s communist government and Moscow sided with the Arabs, and broke off diplomatic relations with Israel. A lot of Polish Jews and other Poles were rooting for Israel — they were under communist domination, and they felt that their side, the Jews, beat the Russian’s Arabs — and the Polish government responded with an ‘anti-Zionist campaign’ that resulted in the expulsion of 15,000 to 20,000 Jews.

This gravestone was plundered from a Jewish cemetery and used as a grindstone.

“A lot of young people looked at this and recognized it for what it was — an antisemitic campaign. And they decided that if the Polish government would be antisemitic, they would be anti-antisemitic. They decided that ‘We will stick it to them.’”

Once democracy returned to Poland in 1989, “suddenly all these hidden pages of Polish history that the communists were trying to erase were discovered. People started finding them. My friend Kamila Klauzinska, in my parents’ hometown, Zduńska Wola, had no idea that the space near her house with the funny stones with the strange inscriptions, was a Jewish cemetery. She hadn’t known that Jews had made up one third of the town’s population.” There had been a systematic erasure of Jewish history. “The school system never mentioned anything about minorities, about Jews or any other ethnic group,” Dr. Daum said. “So the young people decided not just to uncover but to recover Jewish history. They also discovered an abandoned Ukrainian cemetery, because the Ukrainians had been kicked out. They started uncovering all these hidden pages of Polish history.

“I remember that Rabbi Carlebach would quote the Baal Shem Tov,” Dr. Daum continued. “He would say that history can be a terrible slavedriver.

“I am so proud of my Memory Keeper friends.”

This is from the opening ceremony of the Polin Museum in Warsaw in 2013.

He plans to resume work on “Gone But Not Forgotten.” “I hope to go back to Poland this summer,” he said. “It will be the 80th anniversary of the liquidation of the ghettos. Most people were sent to death camps; the others went to slave labor camps.

“Every year, Kamila has a crowd of over 100 people come to the Jewish cemetery and she tells them about the contribution of the Jews who once lived in their town. This year, we will remember and acknowledge the end of Jewish life in that town, and I plan to be there. I hope that the fact that my father was in the Polish army somehow or other will connect to the Polish people, that being in the Polish army makes you a real Pole.

“The problem is that if you uncover Jewish history, you also uncover dark aspects of the relationship between Jews and Poles, especially during the Holocaust. Right after the Holocaust there was a lot of Polish violence directed against surviving, returning Jews. The nationalists wanted a judenfrei Poland. They were grateful that their country had been rid of Jews. There were acts of violence.

“Some of the Memory Keepers come across some of this history, and they commemorate it. That does not sit well in some of the smaller towns, because it contradicts the nationalist narrative that Poles were only victims, never victimizers.

“The new right-wing Polish government is uncomfortable with this kind of history,” he continued. “They have something called a historical policy that basically means that history shouldn’t be left to the historians. The government should determine history. The government doesn’t want anyone to teach a ‘pedagogy of shame,’ so they have to get rid of anything that doesn’t show the noble Polish struggle.”

The contract of the director of the Polin Museum, the showcase for Polish Jewish history in Warsaw, ended in 2019 and wasn’t renewed. The director, Dariusz Stola, waited for a year because he wanted his job back, but eventually he gave up and withdrew. “That’s because he was raising embarrassing questions,” Dr. Daum said. “That’s the struggle that Memory Keepers face today, to preserve history honestly and self-critically.”

It’s a complicated issue that cannot be simplified into any kind of black-and-white understanding. Jews were in Poland for a long time; the history holds both unspeakable evil and also human joy. Dr Daum feels that deeply.

“I remember the first time I went to Israel, for the international gathering of Holocaust survivors,” he said. “It was 1985. For the first time, I was going to be at the Western Wall. I had heard so much about how it connects us back to our history, to 2,000 years ago. People had been telling me about the feelings they had when they saw it.

“And I remember going to Israel, and seeing the Wall, and eh. It’s a wall.

“Yes, I know that King David was here 2,000 years ago. But when I go to Poland and sit under a tree in a cemetery, I feel a visceral connection to my ancestors that I never feel at the Wall. If I want to feel a connection to my zayde and my bubbe, I go to the cemetery.”

Dr. Daum and Mr. Fischler will continue to work on raising the funds to complete “Gone But Not Forgotten.” There’s more information about it on Dr. Daum’s website,

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