For the narrator in Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” it was the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea that set off memories of his childhood. For Lilka Elbaum, it was a still-life painting.
Proust’s seven-volume novel, whose title, when translated directly from the French in which it was written, is “In Search of Lost Time,” is widely considered to be an influential classic of 20th century literature.
Ms. Elbaum’s documentary, “Still Life in Lodz,” well, not so much — though some of it is saved by the appearance of New Jersey native Paul Celler.
Ms. Elbaum, 71, grew up in Lodz. Between 1945 and 1968 her family lived relatively happily in a spacious apartment on a busy street in town. Ultimately, a rising tide of government-sponsored anti-Semitism forced them to emigrate, first to Canada and then to the United States. She now works at Boston University’s Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies.
It’s unclear from the film exactly when Ms. Elbaum returned to Lodz, but she did, to attend the wedding of the great-granddaughter of the farm family that shielded her mother during the war. While she was there, Ms. Elbaum met a childhood friend, a member of the family that bought her family’s furnishings when they were forced to flee the country. The friend asked Ms. Elbaum if she wanted to see the painting that hung over her bed all that time. Ms. Elbaum hadn’t thought about the painting in years; seeing it again set off a flood of memories — and this film — in motion.
The result is largely unfocused, more Picasso than Dutch master. Though not really a Holocaust documentary, it spends the bulk of its time tracing Lodz life leading up to the war, including substantial footage about the notorious Lodz ghetto. Yet Ms. Elbaum, born in 1949, did not live through the Holocaust.
And her life in Lodz, as shown in the film, seems largely uneventful, at least until the Polish government returned to its anti-Semitic roots and pushed Jews out. This is covered relatively quickly toward the end of the film.
Perhaps that’s why she and filmmaker Slawomir Grünberg felt they needed reinforcements. For these roles they recruited Roni Ben-Ari and Paul Celler, the New Jerseyan — he grew up in near Lakewood — who provide the film’s emotional force.
Ms. Ben-Ari’s family lived in the Elbaums’ building but left Poland in 1925. A noted photographer and multi-media artist, Ms. Ben-Air was born in Israel, and her relationship to the building and the painting a century later seems tenuous at best. Perhaps she was selected to participate because she had an exhibit at a local museum.
Similarly, Mr. Celler’s mother, a camp survivor, has no connection to either the building or the painting. But as the son of two camp survivors, he at least has a fascinating story to tell.
Interestingly, all three participants had been in Poland separately before, so this was not a voyage of discovery, but of rediscovery — for the camera.
“I got involved through a mutual friend,” Mr. Celler said in a telephone interview. The friend arranged a meeting. “I met Lilka. We sat down in a hotel lobby and I brought all kinds of artifacts. Pictures of my mom’s family. My dad’s family. All kinds of stuff of interest to Lilka — and I became part of the film.”
It’s likely that his story is familiar to second generation survivors. His mother, Rosa, a native of Lask, a suburb of Lodz, was a seamstress in the ghetto from 1942 to 1944. When the ghetto was liquidated and she was about to board the last transport to Auschwitz, a younger sister tried to accompany her. But the guards just shot the sister in cold blood, in front of Rosa.
Rosa survived and met David, a survivor of the Kielce ghetto and Auschwitz who became her husband and Paul’s dad, in a Munich DP camp. (Perhaps because he was from Kielce, David is barely mentioned in the film.) They married in 1946 and came to the United States two years later, first settling in the Bronx with a great-aunt.
David was a skilled mason and soon prospered. “When he came here he got a union card and was working for a German mason,” Mr. Celler said. “He was taking home $75 a week in 1948.” While that does not sound like a great deal, the federal minimum wage at the time was 40 cents an hour.
The family prospered, and eventually bought a small farm in Perrineville, located, in Jersey descriptive, off Exit 8 on the Turnpike. David built three chicken coops and “my mom was in charge of the egg business,” Mr. Celler said. David went into the home-building business. At one point he had “300 people working for him.”
His dad spoke a little about his experiences, his mom even less, Mr. Celler said. In the film, he talks about early on how Jewish women were forced get on their hands and knees to scrub the streets. My mother “felt betrayed by neighbors she thought were friends,” he said. “They were clapping, happy watching mom’s humiliation.”
Throughout the film, Mr. Celler wears either a New York Giants cap or a kippa. He went to a yeshiva in Lakewood for one year, but was raised Conservative, not Orthodox, “My parents grew up Conservative,” he said.
As an adult, however, he became more observant and Shabbat observant. “I just decided I needed something that was a day of rest,” he said. “I needed something where I was shut off from everything, because I worked a lot during my lifetime. I also had a life-altering experience.”
Pressed, he added: “I walked into my house in the middle of a home invasion and I was shot. I’m very lucky to be alive today.” He lived in Livingston at the time.
He got married in 1981, to a Chilean second-generation survivor. At first they lived in Princeton and then they moved to the MetroWest area, where their three children went to Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy and Solomon Schechter before going to public high school. Their son, Michael, who now is a lawyer, went to Israel to study for a year after high school, then extended for a second year. And it was his Israeli class that went to Poland with Paul as chaperone in 2009.
“I was very apprehensive,” Mr. Celler told me. “I knew it was going to be very emotional. It was 40 kids. When we got to Warsaw everybody would be staring at you, because, look, there are Jews here. I knew we were in a place that had a history of a lot of anti-Semitism, and it’s still there.”
It’s true. As Mr. Celler discovered on the journey, the small Lodz Jewish community that survived is still harassed, with local toughs revving their engines and blocking the synagogue entrance on Shabbat morning. As one congregant tells the filmmaker, “times were better under the communists.”
Frankly, after the first trip, Mr. Celler didn’t think he’d ever return to Poland. When the opportunity arose, however, he couldn’t resist. He’s a talented musician, so one of the highlights of the journey for him was the opportunity to play the piano in the Posanski Palace, formerly the home of a wealthy Jewish trader and now a museum. And when we talk about the film, he stresses how beautiful the musical soundtrack is.
Mr. Celler, who lives in Manhattan now and has a home in Colts Neck, says he feels “Still Life in Lodz” was a way to fulfill the commandment to honor your father and mother. “I feel very fortunate that I had the opportunity to be part of this film, I’m very grateful, and thank God every day.”
The film opened in New York and other cities last week.