True stories to treasure

True stories to treasure

Our correspondent talks to a daughter of Holocaust survivors, rock journalist Lily Brett

Lilly Brett, glamorous in red at right, is with actor Stephen Fry, producer Fabian Gasmia, and director-co-screenwriter Julia von Heinz.
Lilly Brett, glamorous in red at right, is with actor Stephen Fry, producer Fabian Gasmia, and director-co-screenwriter Julia von Heinz.

The opening title sequence for the newly released film “Treasure” says it is based on a true story.

And it is, at least sort of. In fact, it is based on the novel “Too Many Men” by Lily Brett, and that in turn was inspired by a trip to Poland the author took with her father, a Holocaust survivor.

In the film, New York-based journalist Ruthie Rothwax (a spectacular Lena Dunham) plans a visit to Poland hoping to reclaim her heritage. “I want to see where I’m from. Get a piece of it maybe,” she tells her father, Edek (equally excellent Stephen Fry), a native of Lodz and (along with his recently deceased wife) a survivor of Auschwitz.

“You come from America,” Edek tells her.

Uninvited, he insists on accompanying her, to protect her, he says. But from what? Most likely painful memories. He wants to move on. She needs to discover more than she can from the numerous Holocaust books she consumes.

She’s overweight, recently divorced, pushy. He is laid back and joyous. The film easily could have descended into a benign father-daughter road-trip movie. But the superb acting, a multilevel screenplay, and Julia von Heinz’s deft direction elevate “Treasure” to a film of note.

There were many moments that resonated with me: when Edek refuses to get on the Polish train his daughter had booked for their trip to Lodz, or when he did all he could to blunt Ruthie’s aggressive quest to get back what she believes is her birthright. Unsaid, Edek’s reticence is so they can avoid conflict with Poles, so no one gets angry and calls you a dirty … .

These and other moments were especially real to me because I am the European-born son of survivors myself. I recognized those anxieties. I lived with those anxieties. So when I got on a Zoom call with author Brett, one of the first questions I asked was if she thought that younger people, who are more distant from the pain, could relate to the story.

“I think it depends on where they were brought up and how they were brought up,” she told me. “My children, my grandchildren have a lifetime of knowing what happened to my parents.”

She recalls what she says was a teaching moment — though she was the one being taught — when her son was about 4 years old. Lily and her mom got into a verbal exchange. “Neither my mother nor I can remember what it was about, but when my mother left the room her son said to me, ‘You really have to be more patient with Nana.’

“He understood that she had something very, very sad in her life.”

Her parents, Max and Rose, were married in the Lodz ghetto and then were deported to Auschwitz. They were separated there, but both survived, and eventually reunited, about six months after the war ended.

Lily was born in a German DP camp in 1948. Two years later, the family moved to Melbourne, Australia, where life was heimish, at least to some extent. They shared a building (and a single kitchen and bathroom) with four other families, each of whom lived in a tiny one-room apartment.

It was better than it sounds. “We were a very tight community,” she said. “We [the greater Jewish community] all lived in the same area as well.”

They shopped at the one Jewish grocery store in the area, run by a Mr. Kirot, where everyone would gather on Saturdays to do their weekly shopping and gossip.

“I would listen to all these wonderful women tell their stories,” she said. “It was just this fabulous community and I loved them all.” And they in turn were proud of her, because she was the first in the group to master English.”

Still, she remembers, “I could feel the grief in my apartment. There was grief in the streets.”

It weighed heavily on her. Against the wishes of her parents, who wanted her to attend university, she dropped out of high school just short of graduation. In part because she had a car and could travel to attend events, Lily landed a job as a writer for a local rock journal. Over the course of her music career (which included time as a TV music show host and a band manager), Brett traveled the world to interview some of the biggest stars in the universe.

Among them: Jimmy Hendrix:

“I’ve never seen a man move like that. The things he did with his pelvis was terrifying. I had to go to his dressing room to interview him, and I was really quite scared. But he was quiet, thoughtful, and highly intelligent. He kept asking me if I was comfortable.”

Mick Jagger: “This was the beginning of celebrity journalism. So there were no PR people with me. I was at Mick Jagger’s house myself. He was very smart and very nice. He listened very carefully. I saw that he was highly intelligent and I asked different questions. The first question I asked was, ‘How do you get on with your mother?’”

She later published “Lola Bensky,” a fictional version of her life as a rock journalist, but before that she wrote the first of several Jewish works. The “Auschwitz Poems,” published in 1986, won two of the country’s top prizes and catapulted her into Australia’s literary firmament. The book was illustrated by Australian artist David Rankin, whom she subsequently married and with whom she moved to New York City.

There followed more poetry collections (“Poland and Other Poems” and “After the War,” among others), fiction (“Things Could Be Worse,” stories about Jewish immigrants living in Melbourne after the war), and several more novels and works of nonfiction, mostly mining what she learned outside Mr. Kirot’s grocery.”

While she believes in inherited trauma and suffered in the sense that her children grew up way overprotected, she’s better now. Probably. She thinks.

“I’ve three analysts on two continents,” she said. “I think that’s very impressive.”

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