Eight People Who Changed My Life

I count eight people who in one way or another changed my life. Had I not discovered at age 52 that I was really a Jew, I would never have had the pleasure of finding so many wonderful friends. Each one added valuable insight and information that helped me uncover the mosaic of my family’s history. Some were in my life only briefly, some for longer and with some I continue to remain in contact. But all of them have had a lasting impact

Ironically, it all began with my mother. A few months after I turned fifty I had a heart attack.

Lil '95

During my recovery I had to have her ejected from my hospital room when she suddenly became emotionally unstable, crying that is was all her fault. But it took two more years for me to find out what “IT” was all about. That was a major turning point in my life because it was the day she could no longer hold back her long held family secrets, finally revealing to me that we were Jewish. ( The Day I Learned I was a Jew)

Then a few weeks later I had another emotional incident, when my parents introduced me to my cousin, Helen Shapiro. Having grown up with no siblings, and no known living relatives, she was a revelation.

My cousin, Helen Shapiro
My cousin, Helen Shapiro

Helen and her husband, Colin were visiting from London, and wanted to meet my father, since her grandfather was Dad’s brother. But she had no knowledge that Dad existed until a short time before they left England. (Anatomy of a Family Feud)

Meeting Helen was a viscerally jarring experience because I could no longer hide behind my denial. She was the living breathing proof the I really was a Jew. Afterwards, Helen and I spent a few hour together discussing our family’s mutual secrets. Then a short time later, she sent me a copy of our families’ genealogical history, tracing it back to the 17th century –  a monumental step in finding out who my ancestors were.

That was nearly thirty years ago. Since then we’ve remained great friends, continuing to stay in touch via email, with occasional visits to either side of the pond. We’ve gone to two of their three son’s Bar Mitzvahs, while Helen and Colin have also visited us on a number of occasions. But the most memorable one for me was in 2007 when Helen, Colin and their three sons came to visit us, joined by her sister, Linda Fishman, her husband, Anton and their daughter, Charlotte. That was the first time I was truly surrounded by family.

For the first time, my family.
For the first time, my family.

Dad passed away in 1994, and my mother followed in 1998. A short time later I discovered almost 2000′ of 16m film in their garage, shot mostly by my mother, plus six family photo albums that she also left behind.

Then one day I happened to find a catalog in the mail  from the nearby University of Judaism. As I was browsing through it, more out of curiosity than with any specific subject in mind, I stumbled onto a class titled, “The Jewish Documentary”. But what really caught my eye was in the class description, promoting the appearance of one of the guest speakers, a woman who only discovered at age eighteen that her family was Jewish. Her name was Lisa Lewenz. Ironically she was a woman with whom I would have the least contact, yet her own film,“A Letter without Words”, would become the genesis for mine.

I signed up for the class, but as fate would have it, Lisa had a scheduling conflict and wasn’t able to appear. So we never saw her nor her film. However, undaunted, I was able to reach her by phone at her New York home, and get a copy of it.

We spoke half a dozen times, which was when I learned that she was an artist, and sculptor in addition to being a film maker. But it was her own discovery of her Jewish heritage, plus her discovery of hundreds of feet of a deceased relative’s motion picture film hiding in her family’s garage, which paralleled what I found in my parents’ garage and later became the motivation to make my own film.

But I lost contact with Lisa shortly after 9/11. She had suffered a severe arm injury, not from the actual attack, but as a volunteer giving aid to some of those who were.

Then a year or so later I discovered Stacie Chaiken, again in a Uof J catalog. She had created a class called, “What’s the Story”. As an actress and writer, Stacie had already written and acted in her own one woman play called, “Looking for Louis”, about her search for the true story behind her recently deceased uncle. Out of that experience, she developed an on going series of classes to help others with their own family stories, and how to find their own ways to tell them.

This is Stacie
This is Stacie

But her class at UofJ was limited to four meetings, which barely scratched the surface for our own explorations. As a result, we decided to continue by meeting in our homes. That was 2001. I’m happy to say that we’ve continued to meet ever since.

Stacie has also been very involved in humanitarian causes with the emphasis on genocide prevention. She worked with the Shoa Foundation at USC for a number of years, spent months in Rwanda organizing their 20th anniversary commemoration of the end of their own genocide’ plus she has made a number of trips to Israel working with theater groups to promote harmony between Muslims and Jews. Out that came her latest play, “The Dig” which is slated to open this spring.

While Lisa’s film was the genesis for mine, Stacie has given me the focus and motivation that helped me put it all together. But to reach that lofty goal, I found myself in the midst of serious genealogical research, attempting to discover the stories behind those nameless faces in my parents’ photo albums.

That’s when I found my new BFF living in Berlin. It was Lars Menk, world renowned within genealogical circles, as a specialist in the research of Jewish Family histories and the author of, “A Dictionary of German-Jewish Surnames”. With his lofty reputation, I thought Lars would be in-accessible. Yet when I found it necessary to contact him regarding some bit of family ephemera, I found him to be a warm, affable and a fascinating individual with interests way beyond genealogy.

As a result we became internet pen pals, not only discussing the frustrations of the day, but finding common interest in literature, history, politics and you name it. At the same time Lars has been an invaluable guide, pointing me toward priceless resources, while admonishing me to stop using Google Translate in my attempts to communicate with them.

He has often surprised me with pages of valuable family information that I never even asked for. I’m so grateful to have Lars as a friend, because he’s provided me with another layer of historical richness that couldn’t have been achieved otherwise.  

I’d been in periodic contact with Ralph Hirsch ever since I found the Jewish Genealogical Society web site. But it was when I began researching my cousin Eva’s story,  that he really became my “Go to Guy”.

Born in Berlin, Germany in 1930, in 1940, at age 10, he fled to Shanghai with his family to escape Nazi persecution, just as Eva had done. Remaining in China throughout the war, he emigrated to the United States in 1947, and served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. Years. Later, after moving back to Germany, Ralph co-founded the international network, “Council on the Jewish Exile in Shanghai” (CJES). He was certainly the right guy being a vital link to other writers, film producers, university scholars and journalists.

Tea with Ralph Hirsch in Hannover.
Tea with Ralph Hirsch in Hannover.

I had the great pleasure of meeting Ralph and his wife, Angelica in a park in Hannover, during one of our trips to Germany. The last time I heard from him, he was then living in Celle, Germany. I sincerely hope he’s still with us.

Coincidentally, Celle, Germany was also the location of the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and so becomes a natural segue to my relationship with a fabulous woman by the name of Marion Blumenthal Lazan, who I’m honored to call my friend. She is a true survivor of the Holocaust, having lived through internment in Bergen-Belsen and the “Lost Transport”.

Marion has been telling her story to high school and college students, as well as young adults all over the world for over twenty years. She continues to be motivated by the knowledge that she is the last of her generation to speak first hand about the horrors and adversity that she lived through, and about the anti-Semitism that caused it – that the current generations to whom she is speaking, will be the last to hear of it first hand from a living survivor.

Marion at Cope Middle School
Marion surrounded by adoring school children.

I found Marion when I was researching my uncle Paul’s story, which eerily parallels her own. Fleeing from Germany, to Holland, to the transit camp at Westerbork, to Bergen-Belsen and finally ending in the German village of Troebitz by way of the Lost Transport.

The first time we talked on the phone, her voice sounded so familiar that it felt like she was a member of my own family. From then on we became phone pals. And she may well be family since Marion is a Blumenthal, just like my grandmother, Gertrude was. Plus she grew up in a village that was only 50 miles from Hannover, where my grandmother lived.

After years of trying to meet in person, we finally got the chance just last spring, when she spoke to 500 students at Cope Middle School, in Redlands, CA. And once again, I felt like I was with a member of my own family.

But I would never have finished the film nor would I have begun blogging had it not been for Bob Sallin. I’ve known Bob for years since both of us worked the in world of TV commercial production, although we had never actually worked together. Then a few years ago a mutual friend convinced the two of us to meet for lunch. The timing was perfect because I’d just had a not too satisfying screening of my film for my two English cousins, Helen and Linda, while they were visiting us.

Even though they were seeing their grandparents’ history depicted on screen, they seemed quite confused by it. That’s when i knew I was in trouble. And thankfully that’s when Bob got interested in the project, and came to my rescue as my creative partner.

With a fresh eye, Bob immediately saw the flaws in the structure and was almost ruthless in throwing out sections of the film that didn’t work, while restructuring the continuity and focus. At the same time he convinced me renew my quest for details in order to add another story,which I had abandoned earlier for lack of sufficient information . It was Eva’s story, which could actually be a stand alone movie.

My creative partner, Bob Sallin.
Bob Sallin, my creative partner.

Bob was also ruthless in rewriting the script, Since I was doing most of it, I began to realize that under his tutelage I was finding a renewed confidence in my own ability to write – at least enough to get me blogging.

Finally, after a three year collaboration, we had a compete film which we were then able to show in private screenings with very favorable results.

Bob has had an incredible career as a producer, director and writer, while moving between motion pictures, television and advertising. A couple of high points in his massive list of credits are as the producer for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, starring Ricardo Montalban, and as the director of “Picasso Summer” starring Albert Finney and Yvette Mimieux. But that barely scratches the surface.

And now my latest association is with yet another person who I’ve known from the world of TV commercials, Leslie Zurla. She’s originally a New Yorker, beginning her career in little theater. But then she joined the ranks of those of us producing TV commercials, working on both sides, with the production companies, and with the ad agencies.

Leslie Zurla, artist, consultant, Leslie Zurla, artist, consultant, production resource, etc., etc. resource, etc., etc.
Leslie: There’s nothing she’s incapable of.

Les was also an advisor at the renowned Jazz Bakery, spending many years on the board of directors. As an accomplished artist in her own right, now retired, she teaches art at the Westside Jewish Community Center, using her unique style to inspire fledgeling artists, both young and old.

Last spring she joined me when we began a concerted effort to raise the funds to properly finish “For the Life of Me” and pay for all the necessary licensing, clearances and music rights to allow us to show the film in public, and enter it in film festivals and on TV.

I’m very lucky to have her as a collaborator because Leslie is destined to become #9.


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