The story of a shooting star

The story of a shooting star

The Polish, American, and Jewish life of film maker Slawomir Grunberg

Slawomir Grunberg filming “Szymon’s Return” in Ukraine.
Slawomir Grunberg filming “Szymon’s Return” in Ukraine.

Is he a Polish-American filmmaker? An American-Jewish filmmaker? A Polish-Jewish filmmaker? A Jewish-Polish filmmaker? Or maybe a Polish-Jewish-American filmmaker? Or maybe…okay. You get the idea.

Slawomir Grunberg, who was born in Lublin, grew up in Warsaw, and now lives in north Yonkers, just south of Hastings-on-Hudson, plays with those questions. “It depends on who asks the question,” he said.

“I consider myself a Polish-American filmmaker when I am in Poland. Other times, I think of myself as an American with Polish roots.”

What about the Jewish part? “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “People look at me and see my last name, and already they assume I am Jewish. But in Poland, people are afraid to ask the question, because even today the word Jew, among Poles who are not Jewish, sounds like a bad word.

Mr. Grunberg, who will talk about his 2014 film, “Szymon’s Return,” at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades on Wednesday (see box), grew up in Poland. He was born in Poland, in 1951; the war had been over for six years but “it was there, in the air, in the streets of Warsaw. Having a Polish education, you would go to concentration camps. The war surrounded you, even though it was over.”

Mr. Grunberg, right, filming “Still Life” outside the synagogue in Lodz.

Mr. Grunberg’s father, Karol Grünberg, was 16 in 1941; he and his mother, Hancia Levi, lived in the part of Poland controlled by the Soviet Union. “When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, they took a train and got off it at the last stop.” That was in Armenia, they waited out the war there, and returned to Poland in 1945, the only survivors of an extended family of 60 people. “My father worked in a coal mine,” Mr. Grunberg said. “He didn’t want to tell me much about that time. What he remembered was hunger.

“But he came back with his mother, and they stayed in Poland, and my father became a professor of history, first in Warsaw, and then at the University of Torun, his son said. He specialized in modern European history. “The Second World War was his subject. He wrote more than 20 books; the most well-known of them is a biography of Adolph Hitler. He wrote one about the SS, and about the Hitlerjugend,” the Nazis’ youth group. His work never was translated into English, though. “He and his mother stayed in Poland,” Mr. Grunberg said. “They never immigrated to Israel, even after 1968, when a lot of Polish Jews were forced to leave.” But that was when he left the University of Warsaw for Torun, a much smaller, less visible school.

Mr. Grunberg’s mother, Jadwiga Nowicka, meanwhile, was born to parents who had converted to Catholicism around the turn of the 20th century. “She was brought up as a Catholic, but she and her mother both had a very obviously Jewish look. During the war, they had the right papers, but they found it necessary to hide anyway.

“But my grandfather” — his name was Stefan Czosnowski — “was arrested and executed in Katyn Forest” — he was one of the approximately 22,000 Poles slaughtered by the Soviet Union in the spring of 1940. “My grandmother had a boyfriend in the village. That’s how she and my mother ended up there,” and that’s how they survived.

His parents’ marriage ended in divorce, and Mr. Grunberg was brought up mostly by his mother’s parents. Even though they nominally were Catholic, he wasn’t brought up in that religion; his grandmother’s husband was a communist then, so any kind of observance was seen as a relic of more primitive times. He often would see his other grandmother, though, and she kept “a Jewish home. It wasn’t religious, but I would see there oranges and other fruits from Israel.” His other grandparents were “quite poor,” so there was no fruit of any kind.

“Both grandmothers loved me so much that the Polish, converted one decided to baptize me, and the other one decided to circumcise me,” he said. “I was covered. And you have to realize that at that time, people were still afraid. They were afraid that the war was not really over, that it would come again in some form or other. So it was better to be covered.”

Top, Chancia with Slawomir’s father, Karol Grünberg. Second row, Slawomir’s grandmother, Jadwiga Nowicka; Karol Grünberg. Bottom row, Young Slawomir with his grandmother, Chancia Levi; his mother, Danuta Czosnowska.

Mr. Grunberg went to university in Warsaw, and then he moved to Lodz for film school; he graduated five years later, in 1981. His first film was about one of the founders of the Solidarity movement, Anna Walentynowicz.

That film, “Anna Proletarian,” got him noticed.

“The Museum of Modern Art in New York sent me a letter that said that they would be interested in screening the film,” he said. “Using this letter, I was able to get a passport from the Polish government to premiere the film.”

Slawomir Grunberg in film school, in Lodz in 1979.

But the government didn’t release the film — “it was November 1981, and the government declared martial law six weeks later,” he said. “The film was arrested,” he said. “It was never released.”

But there was Slawomir Grunberg, a married man with a new baby back in Poland, adrift in New York, “with no film. I had no idea that the film was arrested. I was waiting for it to arrive.”

Luckily, he had spent some time in Great Britain during university. “I would travel there to make money, working for restaurants and construction and so on.” (That was way pre-Brexit.) “So I spoke good enough English.”

One problem down, but many others to go.

That’s how he found himself selling peanuts on 42nd Street.

“I arrived in an apartment in Washington Heights,” he said. “I had no money. I had to survive.

“I found an ad in the Village Voice. It said ‘We are looking for artists to become street vendors.’”


“Yes, it said exactly that.

“When I read that part, I like it because of the part about artists, but I didn’t know what the word ‘vendor’ meant,” he added. “It wasn’t a word I had seen. So I went there without knowing what vendor means. It was an Indian guy from Bombay, who had a pushcart. His office was in Hell’s Kitchen, in a little restaurant. I went there and he said ‘Okay, here is a pushcart full of nuts. You can sell it on the streets and keep 30 percent of what you sell.’”

Why did he want artists? They’re flexible, Mr. Grunberg said. “And he was kind of artist, and he knew that artists are always looking for work.” And also it wasn’t entirely legal…

Mr. Grunberg stationed himself on Fifth Avenue, right by the public library. “I was there for nine months,” he said. “I did great business.”

Slawomir Grunberg shoots his new documentary, “Still Life,” in the Jewish cemetery in Lodz.

At the same time, he put together “a group of young Polish filmmakers who like myself had ended up in New York, and we started to screen films that were already in the States,” he said. “Poland was front-page news at the time. We would show these films at universities, at Columbia, at NYU, and we would travel with them.

“I was here on a tourist visa, and at one point it expired. So now I am stuck.

“You have to remember — when I left Poland I was married, with a six-month-old child, and I left for six weeks. And they were there and I was here, and suddenly there was martial law, and no communication. No letters. No phones. No nothing.

“So I was stuck. I wanted to go back to Poland. It was never my intention to immigrate. But I was getting information that my film and my name were on the front page of the military newspaper, as someone who used public money to support anti-communist propaganda.

“When I got this information, I knew that I was not going back. So now the question was how to bring my wife and daughter to the States.”

First, he had to fix his own immigration status, Mr. Grunberg said. Applying for asylum was the obvious choice, but it would have taken too long and would be subject to quotas and a nearly random system. “My chances were very small,” he said.

Instead, he went to MIT, where he went to see the influential documentarian Richard Leacock — “he was a guru in the documentary world,” Mr. Grunberg said. “I told him that I was in this situation, that I had no papers, and he said ‘I believe that I can get you visiting scholar status.’” He did.

So he became a visiting scholar, and then a professor of film and photography at the University of Cincinnati. Eventually, his wife and daughter joined him. “My child was 4 ½ when I met her in Chicago,” he said. That marriage eventually ended, but first he and his wife had two more daughters together. From Cincinnati, he taught in Chicago and then in St. Louis, and then spent four years at Ithaca College in upstate New York.

“I was there from 1986 to 1990, but in 1990 I stopped teaching,” he said. “I resigned from a tenured position. I thought, ‘My heart is somewhere else.’ And I went to full-time documentary filmmaking.”

Since then, he’s made more than 40 films; he also works as a cameraman, and he’s won many awards, including two Emmys, and has been nominated for Oscars.

What about the Jewish part of his identity?

“When I came to the United States, I could talk loudly about my Jewish past, and I was not scared of using the word Jew,” Mr. Grunberg said. “Suddenly my identity started to change. I got involved in many documentaries that dealt with Jewish subjects.” He worked on a documentary called “Shtetl,” directed by Marian Marzynski. “That was in 1996, and it took me to this subject, and then I did close to a dozen films about Polish-Jewish relations or other Jewish subjects. One of the most important films I did was ‘Karski and the Lords of Humanity,’” about the Polish resistance fighter. “Szymon’s Return,” the film that the JCC will screen, is another of his Jewish films.

“Now I’m working on a film called ‘Still Life,’” he said.

It’s a true story, the story of a still life, a painting of “a table with fruits and vegetables and flowers and a curtain, quite big,” that hung in an apartment in Lodz for more than 100 years. “A Jewish family bought the painting and hung it and lived there with it until 1939,” when the Germans forced them into the ghetto and then to a concentration camp, where they died.

The next family to move in was German; “there were empty apartments in Lodz, so when the Germans moved in they moved to this apartment. They were dentists. When they left” — they were expelled at the war’s end — “they couldn’t take it with them, it was too big, so like the Jewish family they left the still life behind.

“And then the family of a woman who lives in Boston — Lilka Elbaum — it ended up in her family’s hands when they moved to this apartment. She is main narrator. She is Jewish; she was thrown out in 1968.

“Her family was saved by Poles during the war.

“After that, a Polish family lived in the apartment. Friends of Lilka’s family — business buddies — bought the painting with the rest of their furniture. They still live in Lodz, but they have a summer house, and they keep it here.

“In one of the film’s scenes, we bring it back to the apartment, which is empty now. The building is in bad shape.

“I’ve started to experiment with animation,” he continued. “In the film, the painting will be animated. The painting will watch. It will observe. It will see the Germans parade through the window.

“I don’t like to repeat myself in documentaries,” Mr. Grunberg said. He hopes that this film will be out by next year.

“Szymon’s Return” is the story of Simon Redlich, a professor who retired from Ben Gurion University. Dr. Redlich and Mr. Grunberg met in Israel. “He was saved by a Polish family, and he also was saved by a Ukrainian family,” Mr. Grunberg said.

Shimon Redlich at Brzezany, Ukraine, where he survived during the war.

“He had been a child actor after the war; he acted in a film called ‘Unzer Kinder’ — ‘Our Children’ — the last film made in Yiddish in Poland,” he continued. “He loves to travel back to the places where he lived. He is a very energetic person. He likes to sing. He likes to dance. He likes to entertain. He is a perfect character for the documentary.

“We went to the village where he was saved, and he went to Lvov, where he hid in an attic when the Jews were gathered in the ghetto.

“He is a happy man.”

In Brzezany, Ania Kontsevych, who saved Shimon, sits with him.

Mr. Grunberg also has a happy life. He has three daughters — Karolina is an artist, Sarah teaches sociology at Ithaca College, and Joanna is a photographer. Just as he and his wife, Barbara (who wrote a book about him, “Slawomir Grunberg — A Man with a Camera”) each have been married more than once and have children from different marriages, so too did both of his parents marry more than once. His family is both complicated and close. He has two brothers and two sisters, all from different marriages; all but one brother live in the United States. They’re all formidably well-educated and have impressive careers.

Mr. Grunberg goes back to Poland often; he’s an active member of the JCC in Krakow and of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews. “I go to Poland for the Jewish cultural festival there every year,” he said. “Everyone in the Jewish community there knows my name. They know how to find me.”

What: A photography exhibit, “They Risked Their Lives: Poles Who Saved Jews During the Holocaust”
Where: At the Waltuch Gallery at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Ave., Tenafly
When: Until December 31
What Is It: An exhibit, on loan from the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Washington, showing images of stories that were collected as part of the Warsaw-based Polin Museum project called “The Polish Righteous — Recalling Forgotten History.”
Also: A screening of Slawomir Grunberg’s documentary “Szymon’s Return,” followed by a discussion with Mr. Grunberg. (The film was co-directed by Katka Reszke.)
Where: At the JCC; the gallery’s on the second floor.
When: Wednesday, December 19, from 6:30–7:30 p.m.
How much: It’s free
For more information: Go to or call (201) 569-7900

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