History of the Film

This is how it all began:

For over fifty years, I believed that I was just another guy who grew up in Los Angeles. As the only child of German immigrant parents, I wasn’t aware of any close relatives other than my mother and father, and a “ne’er-do-well” uncle somewhere in England. But, that would all change. 

A ten year-old boy at table with his mother.
Me n’ Mom 1943

In my early fifties, I suffered a heart attack. My mother visited me in my hospital room and, to my shock and dismay, proceeded to have  a highly emotional and paranoid outburst. Later, as I began to recover from my cardiac episode, I became obsessed with her strange behavior, and wanted to discover the reason behind it, and  what my parents’ lives were like before I was born.

As my mother was not emotionally well, her continuing fragility made it impossible for us to have any kind of serious discussion. So, I distanced myself and put off meeting with her for nearly two years. 

When I finally did, her reticence about our family began to crumble. She could hold back no longer and she finally shared a long-held secret: our family was Jewish. The floodgates suddenly opened, and she revealed more and more details about my family, both in America and in Germany.

Two images: left, a cigar chomping man wearing a pilot helmet drives an early 19th Century phaeton with its top down as his chauffeur sits beside him and two ladies occupy the rear seat holding a small bulldog; right, two couples pose in front of a palatial manner house.
Uncle Siegfried Baruch, successful Berlin publisher, poses in the driver’s seat of his new phaeton, while the chauffeur looks on. In the back are Lina Baruch, Siegfried’s then wife, and Lily behind Fifi, the bulldog.


A few years later, after my parents passed away, I found a half dozen photo albums from Germany containing several hundred family pictures dating back to the turn of the century, along with dozens of reels of 16mm film. 

As I viewed those tiny photos magnified on my computer screen, I found myself drawn into a world that no longer existed. This was  an era of upper, middle class life in Germany before WWII.  It was a time when my parents were young and carefree, surrounded by their relatives and happy young friends, with no inkling of what was in store for them within a decade.   

Two images: on the left, three couples dressed up for a costume party; right, a man and woman sharing tea at a colorful table with a silver service and cut flowers.
Left: Feb. 1929: A costume ball for grownups. Lily is second from the right mit monocle, tie und snapbrim cap.
Right: High Tea with Lily and her cousin, Bari Baruch, circa 1926. This is one my my favorites.

Little by little, like pieces of a puzzle, I started to identify these strangers in the photographs and the compelling history of my family began to unfold before me and my documentary was born.

But by 2007, seven years into the project, I was desperately in need of a fresh perspective. Fortunately, my friend, Bob Sallin, was intrigued by my story and offered to lend his assistance and expertise. Bringing his many years as a director, producer and writer, Bob joined me as my creative partner and instantly became both a welcome and vital addition.

As a result of our collaboration, FOR THE LIFE OF ME has evolved into a personal history that reaches people on many levels.  Centered around the discovery of my Jewish heritage ––which is played out against decades of tragic European and American history –– it is also a searing indictment of repressed family secrets, and the pain this can ultimately cause to loved ones –– an experience that resonates with all human beings, Jews and non-Jews alike. 

A woman and three young children stand side-by-side atop a pile of split firewood arms around each other.
Paul & Lily Rehfisch on the left. The woman and boy are unknown.



But, equally important, is the observation that if we don’t understand history, we are in danger of reliving it.



7 thoughts on “History of the Film”

  1. Hi, I think we are a DNA match thru myheritage. I’m intrigued by your story, your pictures and where your family is from. Would love to know more. From julie Cohen mcnair

  2. I’ve watched the clip from the beginning of the film, and read this far in the history of how the film came into being, I am affected by your journey. What a shock to rediscover your identity. In a way, it’s unsurprising that after a heart attack you suddenly experienced yourself within the context of your history. I can see how this project became so vitally important to you. It’s been good to meet you through twitter.

  3. David,
    Expanding on your question,first of all, my father was beginning to suffer from Senile Dementia at the time. Once his anger had subsided, which took a few days, I tried to sit down with him and a family tree that my newly found cousin had given to me. At first he wanted no part of it. But after a couple of weeks, he relented and did give me a few details about some of my relatives. Now that the secret was out, most of the subsequent details came from my mother. Incidentally, some pages from that family tree appear in the film.

  4. — After your father got angry at your mother, did you try to talk to him and ask questions about your past that your mother had just told you? it’s not like you were a kid afraid of his father. At this point he was elderly and your best source to the past.

  5. — After your father berated your mother, why didn’t you ask him questions? Why didn’t you ask more of your mother? You weren’t a kid, so even though your father may have been angry, I would think you could have at least tried to talk with him.

    • Sorry David but your comment got lost. The answer to your question is, I did ask him, but it took awhile before he would respond.


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