FOR THE LIFE OF ME – The Backstory

What’s a Backstory?

If you’re into films, the theater or books, you’ll often run into the word, “Backstory”. Wikipedia describes a backstory as, “…the history that underlies the existing situation as the narrative starts.” 

That’s pretty broad. But a backstory to a personal film like, “For the Life of Me”, is guaranteed to be both true and unique. Plus, as in my case, it will describe both how and why the film ever came about in the first place. 

That’s an issue I’ve often thought about, especially when I look back on the chain of events that slowly evolved and finally motivated me to make a film. A project that was the final result of learning that my family was Jewish. But only revealed to me after I reached the ripe old age of 50.

At first I just needed to find a way to adjust to my new reality and let it sink in. But there was also much for me to learn about the family I never knew existed. I hadn’t thought of turning this into a film and it would  take a long, long time before I ever considered it.

Reality Sinks In

It also took a more personal event for the true reality of my discovery to really sink in. But that didn’t come until two or three years later, when I was introduced to my English cousin, Helen Shapiro. 

My mother had “spilled the beans” to me a few years earlier that our family was Jewish, but didn’t allude to any family members.

So, it was only a few days before Helen’s arrival that my dad reluctantly introduced the fact that I even had a cousin. And that she was coming from her home in London to meet my parents for the first time. 

We met at a restaurant where I was introduced to Helen and Collin Shapiro. 

It was at that moment that the reality of my being Jewish hit me. It was a physical sensation, like a gut punch. As if all my earlier discussions with my Jewish friends about my being Jewish was simply small talk. Until this defining moment it had been just me on the outside looking in. 

But this was real. For the first time I was confronted by my immediate Jewish family. Up to that point I had no idea that I had any living relatives. Let alone Jewish ones.

Helen Shapiro was the granddaughter of my father’s brother. So Willhelm Weinlaub was my Uncle Willy – Weinlaub being our family name before my father changed it.

Ironically, like me, Helen knew literally nothing about my father or my mother until shortly before the passing of her grandmother, Liesel Weinlaub. And now she was making the trip to California specifically to meet my parents, and bring them the news of Liesel’s passing. At one time she and my mother had also been very close friends.

But being introduced to my Jewish family was just the beginning and still a long, long way from motivating me to make a film about it!

Early Clues

Then, a few years later, after my parents passed away, my attitude began to change…and my curiosity with it.

Dad passed away first. In going through his papers I found many that dealt with the reparations that he and his brother, like many other surviving Jews, were owed for the property that the Nazis had stolen from them before the war. Surprisingly many of the letters were between my father and his brother, Willie, but almost always in English and very business-like. But for the time being, I only had a passing interest in them. 

Then a few years later, after my mother passed away, I found more letters having to do with other family matters, and appeared to have more potential interest. 

One of them really piqued my curiosity because it was written during WWI. But it proved to be a problem because like many of those old letters, it was written in German script, known as “Sutterline Schrift”. A style that is almost illegible, even to Germans who haven’t studied it. 

Finding someone who could translate it wasn’t easy. However, the Internet helped me solve that problem and led me to a woman in Kansas who could do it. She immediately came up with some fascinating information. 

It was a letter written by my mother’s grandfather to her mother. Apparently he had held a kind of family reunion toward the end of WWI, and was updating his daughter-in-law because she had missed it. He named all the participants and all were apparently family. A couple of them were soldiers, who’d come home on leave from the war front. Of course I didn’t recognize any of them. 

I followed up with a couple of other letters to my Kansas translator lady, who added a lot of additional information about family names and birthplaces. At that point I felt it would probably at least be worthwhile to create a file for future reference. It did turn out to be extremely valuable, but much later when I began to learn who these people actually were.

The Turning Point

Then I began to think about the half dozen family photo albums that my mother left behind. They all contained old family photos. Some as old as 1905. But flipping through them, I found little that I could relate to. To make it even more difficult, most of the pictures were 3×5 or less, and some were only contact prints: those tiny pictures printed directly from the negative to photo paper the same size.  

While I found little interest in them, I felt compelled to do something to preserve them… for whatever reason. 

My first thought was to have them duplicated at the camera store and probably kept in an envelope somewhere in my office as backups. Then I realized that I was sitting in front of my own computer, and could do that myself. 

But wait a minute! Now I also had the freedom to blow them up to any size I wanted to and see what was really in them.

That was my “ah-hah” moment because now with the ability to see those people filling my computer screen, they became real. And I was suddenly overwhelmed with the need to learn who they were, how they were related to me, and any “backstories” that they may possess.

That was really the turning point for me, and put me on the first rung of my search to learn about my family. 

A Brick and a Hard Place!

Next was getting involved in genealogy. Something I once said I’d never do…”back in the day!”

But now I was caught between a brick and a hard place because all those family photos were begging to be identified. But my parents were gone and no one else was around anymore who might be able to help.

Then two things happened. First I found and joined the Jewish Genealogical Society. Then after creating a family search, I immediately got a reply from someone who was distantly related. He sent me what turned out to be a very important family document and that really got me off and running. 

As I learned more about members of my family, I became very much aware of how WWII affected their lives: the ones who perished and the scattered survivors who ended up all over the world. 

At the same time I began to connect with people in Australia, Hawaii, Shanghai, London, the Netherlands and more. 

While I found it amazing that I could do this…and at the same time have a lot of fun!

Then a new source appeared. It was a gift that had been sitting right in front of me. While looking for more photos to scan, I realized that one of my mother’s photo albums had actually been put together by my grandmother. And she had done me a big, big favor because she had meticulously written captions under every photograph with names of the people, and where they were at the time.

Yellow Kodak Boxes

By 1999 while I was still trying to figure out what to do with those old family photo albums I remembered that also sitting on a shelf in my back bedroom was about an hours’ worth of 16m home movies that I’d salvaged for my parents many years earlier. 

I had found their old home movies stuffed away in their garage in dozens of little yellow Kodak boxes. That was back in the 1960’s when I was working in the editorial department at Universal Studios. That gave me access to whatever piece of editing equipment I needed to clean up and splice all those tiny reels together into one continuous hour-long film reel. 

Unfortunately after decades of being stuffed away under old suitcases and steamer trunks, a lot of the film was beyond salvaging. But I was still able to put together about 60 minutes worth, which I then gave to my parents as an anniversary present. 

But the salvage job I did I had never considered as anything more than a simple way of creating a nice anniversary present for them. Otherwise the film held little interest for me.

Back to School!

By 1999, still tracing more relatives, I got a flyer in the mail from the University of Judaism about their classes for the coming fall semester. I’m still not sure how I ever got on their mailing list. But one of the classes sounded interesting enough to find out more about it. It was a film class called “the Jewish Documentary”. 

They had scheduled a guest speaker. A young woman named Lisa Lewenz. Lisa, like me, had grown up not knowing that she was Jewish until she was an adult. 

Then as I read on, I learned that she also happened to find boxes of old home movie footage hidden away in her father’s garage, and when she first learned she was Jewish.  

All the film had been shot by her grandmother in Germany before the war. Lisa never knew her, but she also happened to be part of a prominent Jewish banking family in Berlin. 

Ultimately Lisa fell in love with her grandmother’s film and her story. As a tribute to her, she created an award-winning documentary that she called, “A Letter Without Words “. 

Reading all this overwhelmed me. Her story was so close to my story that I had to meet her. And I immediately signed up for the class. But, because of some kind of scheduling conflict Lisa never showed up. So we never saw her film or had the opportunity to hear how and why she chose to make it. 

While I did see a number of other films done by Jewish filmmakers, nothing inspired me to try and make a film of my own. In fact it was just the opposite. Making my one film looked way too difficult and so I moved away from the idea and began pursuing other interests. Or let’s just say that I put it on the back burner for the time being

The following year when the University of Judaism’s fall semester catalog of classes arrived, I was disappointed to find nothing in the way of Jewish film classes. Or anything having to do with film of any kind, for that matter.

So, any vision of trying to pick up where I left off – or find another Lisa Lewenz – was out of the question. And back I went to thinking about other ways to tell my emerging story. 

Yet Another Class

Another year went by and now it was 2001. Once again when the UofJ’s fall semester catalog arrived they still offered nothing related to film. However there was an odd sounding class called “What’s the Story”. It was described as “a class that will help the students find compelling events in their families history, and learn how to present them in entertaining ways.”

It sounded strange and more stage oriented. Plus the class was listed as being taught by an actress-writer, who’d written a one-woman play in which she also starred. So it really didn’t sound like anything I was looking for. 

Yet I was still curious. So, without much hesitation I got her phone number and called her to find out if by any chance my story would fit in her class’s structure. Her name was Stacie Chaiken, and she convinced me that it did

So I signed up and I took the class with four other students. 

While Stacie’s “What’s the Story” class was only scheduled for four meeting, we became so caught up in what she had us doing, that we convince her to continue the class away from UofJ, because we had barely scratched the surface, and all of us wanted to continue*. She agreed, and added two more of her students from another class. And so we began meeting weekly in our homes. *2

 As a result, with the encouragement of Stacie and my classmate, they became the motivation for me to go ahead and make my story into a film, which ultimately became “For the Life of Me”. 

In retrospect, while Lisa’s film was the genesis for my film, Stacie’s class was the ultimate motivation for me to actually make it.  

EPILOG:

What Ever Happened to Lisa Lewenz?

By the year 2000, months after I took the Jewish documentary class at UofJ, I was still so taken by the similarity of our stories – even though I never met Lisa or saw her film – I wanted to reach out and talk to her, if for no other reason than to share my story with her and compare notes. 

After getting her number from the UofJ office I called her at her home in New York City. She was apologetic for not being able to fulfill her commitment at the University, and graciously shared her story with me. To make amends she also sent me a copy of her film. 

As a result we became phone buddies the next few months…until the 9/11 attack. I phoned her the next day. After some difficulty trying to reach her, she told me that she had been hurt trying to help other people who’d been injured in the attack.

I was eager to learn how serious her injuries were and how she was doing with her recovery. But from that point on, for whatever reasons, I was never able to reach her again. I tried periodically to track her down after that, but with no success. What ever happened to her after 9/11 has remained a mystery ever since. *1

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*1. FYI, Lisa’s Berlin banking family was the Arnholds. Lisa’s grandmother was Ellen Arnhold Lewenz. The family name continues to live on. Whenever you watch PBS and shows like “Nature”, you’ll see in the opening credits, major contributors, usually headed by, 

“THE ARNHOLD FAMILY – In memory of Henry and Clarisse Arnhold”. 

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*2. Except for one girl, who wanted to be a journalist. She had no problem until Stacie had me channel and record – as an exercise – an interview with my paternal grandmother, Gertrude, who committed suicide in 1933. While Stacie thought it would be an interesting way for me to find some answers, the girl freaked at the whole make-believe process and fled from the class. We never saw her again.

For the full story I suggest you read,“Channeling My Grandmother”, on my website, “FortheLifeofMe-film.com. Look for it on my Blog.

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Muriel Cowan - Pete – I just wrote a note re. this story but I think I deleted it.
You write so well and this was so very interesting knowing your past history. You persevered nd did great researching to bring the story up to date!
Be well
Muriel

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