What’s in the box, kid?

What’s in the box, kid?

Local woman's story of loss, grief, fear, and Holocaust nightmare is screened

Tom Whitus, in blue, gives direction to actors Manny Lieberman as the rebbe, Zaki Sky as Hershel, and Leo Hojnowski as Aaron (with his back to the camera) during the film’s climactic scene.

An orphaned 11-year-old Holocaust survivor, Daniel (played by Giorgio Poma), arrives at a Brooklyn yeshiva in 1946. He is to study and live there. He is befriended by Aaron (Leo Hojnowski), a boy with a stutter. Their classmates, who regularly mock Aaron, torment Daniel about the mysterious small box that he clutches all the time.

These two boys are the protagonists of “Greenhorn,” a children’s-book-turned-movie written by Anna Olswanger of Fair Lawn. “Greenhorn” premiered October 23 at the Museum of Tolerance in Manhattan for donors, cast, and family.

The story is a fictionalized version of a recollection Ms. Olswanger heard in the 1980s from Rabbi Rafael Grossman of Englewood, who was then the rabbi of Baron Hirsch Synagogue in Memphis, where she lived at the time. His story was so sad that she did not envision it as a children’s book until many years later.

Rabbi Grossman was the little boy with the stutter.

“I went on a synagogue trip to Israel led by Rabbi Grossman,” Ms. Olswanger said. “As we approached Jerusalem on the bus, he told this story because only the previous year he had met his childhood friend again, who had become a pediatrician in Jerusalem. They hadn’t seen each other since sixth grade, when the little boy had the box.”

Ms. Olswanger – then beginning her career as a literary agent and children’s book author – wrote up the touching story for the synagogue bulletin.

“I felt compelled to write it,” she said. “At first, what really struck me as most poignant was Daniel’s loneliness. He’d lost his family and had nothing but that box. Friendship was the one thing that rescued him.

“More than that, I was touched by the hope at the end that the boy could bury his box, and the idea that there is a country – Israel – where the boy could find a real home.”

Since the book’s publication in 2012, readers have responded to other poignant aspects of the plot. The Stuttering Foundation of America honored “Greenhorn,” and the organization’s director, Jane Fraser, arranged for the film’s showing at the Museum of Tolerance.

“The book wasn’t published until 2012 partly because it’s a tough story and partly because it’s hard to get Holocaust stories published,” Ms. Olswanger continued. Around the time of the 2005 publication of her first children’s book, “Shlemiel Crooks,” which became a Sydney Taylor Honor Book and a PJ Library Book before being adapted as a family musical in 2011, she self-published a limited-edition, hand-bound miniature version of “Greenhorn” with pen-and-ink drawings by Harold Eckstein. She sent one to her publisher as a gift.

“Her 12-year-old son read it, and convinced her that it should be a book for kids,” Ms. Olswanger said. In the NewSouth Books version, illustrated by Miriam Nerlove, the author tried not to add much more to the story than what Rabbi Grossman had told her years before.

“There are a lot of ethics involved in writing about the Holocaust and in writing about cruelty,” she said. “I didn’t want to bring more of that into the world. I tried to stick to what Rabbi Grossman told me, although I had to invent dialogue.”

One of her clients put her in touch with director Tom Whitus. “He liked the book and wanted to make a film of it. He asked me to be a co-producer, which meant I did the fundraising.”

That process took more than a year. Meanwhile, Mr. Whitus wrote the script. “When someone makes a film from your book, they have their own vision, and you have to let go of yours,” Ms. Olswanger said. “It can be hard, but I have to admit this is an artistic creation I would never have had the vision for, so I’ve enjoyed the experience.”

She involved another local rabbi in the project; Rabbi Abraham Weintraub of Fair Lawn served as the Yiddish and Hebrew coach for two of the young actors.

“Greenhorn” was shot at the Actors’ Temple in Manhattan, with exteriors in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Other interiors were shot at Joria Productions in Manhattan and in Louisville, Kentucky.

Though “Greenhorn” debuted in Los Angeles in September, neither Ms. Olswanger nor Rabbi Grossman was there. The October 23 event – which featured two screenings – provided an opportunity for the rabbi to see the film. He was there with his wife, Shirley; their daughter Aviva, who lives in Israel; their sons Yehoshua of Teaneck and Hillel of Riverdale, N.Y., and several grandchildren. (Another son, who lives in Israel, was not able to get to the screening.)

“The film was superbly done,” said Rabbi Grossman, a past president of the Rabbinical Council of America. “It’s a very painful story, but it has a powerful message that applies to everyone.”

After his childhood friend recognized Rabbi Grossman on a Jerusalem street 30 years ago, Rabbi Grossman visited him and his family. “He lives a very normal, religious life,” Rabbi Grossman reported of his friend.

The Museum of Tolerance is tentatively planning a public screening of “Greenhorn” in November as part of its Kristallnacht program. “I think this film’s biggest potential is as an educational piece,” Ms. Olswanger said. She noted that five states – California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York – have mandated Holocaust education in public schools. “Since ours is such a visual culture, we hope this is something teachers will want to use to spark discussion.”

The movie probably will be shown in other museums across the country, and it has been entered for consideration at several Jewish film festivals. It will be released on DVD early next year.

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