Nephew documents wartime romance in a new film about his aunt and uncle

MONTREAL — Clara Greenspan and Chaim Blum met and married in Warsaw one year before the outbreak of World War II.

They were ordinary people, but they were caught up in extraordinary times.

War, politics and legal red tape turned their personal romance into an epic love story that survived the Holocaust, spanned three continents, changed Canadian law and endured for nearly six decades.

The couple's nephew, Montreal filmmaker Garry Beitel, has now brought their story to the screen in "My Dear Clara," a moving and mesmerizing documentary that packs the power of a box office blockbuster into only 44 minutes.

It's a love story that also teaches a lot about history, said Beitel, who is hoping to get it screened in this year's S.F. Jewish Film Festival and San Jose Jewish Film Festival.

Chaim was a Warsaw plumber, Clara a secretary from Montreal. Both were active in communist politics. They met, fell in love and married after a whirlwind romance when Clara was on a trip to Poland to visit relatives in 1938.

Clara went back to Canada shortly after the wedding, under the mistaken impression that she would be able to send for Chaim and arrange for his immigration on her return.

Canadian law, in fact, allowed men to bring over their foreign-born wives, but it barred women the same right to bring over their foreign-born husbands.

It was nine years before Clara and Chaim were reunited in 1947; they remained together until Chaim's death in 1995.

Throughout their long separation before, during and after World War II, Clara tirelessly lobbied for a change in Canada's discriminatory immigration policy.

"One gets brave when one has nothing to lose," she wrote to Canadian Prime Minister William Mackenzie King in a letter that finally helped get the law changed.

Chaim, meanwhile, along with his sister — who would become Beitel's mother — fled eastward after the war broke out. Like many Polish Jews, he survived the war in the Soviet Union, working as a coal miner in the Ural Mountains and then as a brigade leader in a sugar factory in Uzbekistan.

"My Dear Clara" is based on recently discovered personal material including nearly 100 love letters that Chaim wrote — in close-spaced Yiddish — to Clara during their enforced separation.

"This is a story that I grew up with," Beitel said in an interview. "I always imagined that it would make a wonderful feature film shot on location in Canada, Europe and Russia — a passionate love story told amid the backdrop of World War II.

"But as a documentary filmmaker, I couldn't imagine how I could possibly tell such an epic story until my aunt died in 1998, and I discovered several boxes of love letters, family photos and official correspondence," he said.

"As I started to translate these wonderfully poetic love letters, which my uncle wrote from Poland to my aunt in Montreal, I realized that I had the raw material with which I could construct an archivally based love story," he said.

The movie blends excerpts from these letters, read by an actor, with photographs, on-screen interviews with friends and family members and rare archival film.

"It was fascinating for me to discover the romantic, poetic side of an aunt and uncle that I knew very differently as I was growing up with them," Beitel said.

"Especially my uncle, who had become much more disillusioned after the war. The letters revealed a young man deeply in love with my aunt, a forward-looking man for whom no obstacle was a deterrent to his optimism, a plumber with astute observations about the situation of Jews in Poland and the deteriorating world situation.

"He was also my mother's brother, so I was learning about her and her world," he said. "It felt like a real privilege to be allowed inside their world, inside my family's personal history as it was being lived."

Beitel's personal involvement imbues the movie with a sense of discovery that is almost painfully palpable.

"It's an epic love story, so tangible that the two protagonists move the viewer to depths of emotion that don't usually mark documentary," filmmaking, wrote critic Heather Solomon in the Canadian Jewish News.

Beitel said the exploration had a profound effect on his family as a whole.

"As I was reading the letters and reconstructing the events they experienced between 1938 and 1947, I felt like I was becoming the family historian, retrieving a history from which we had become disconnected, a history told to us in fragments as we were growing up but one we never really integrated," he said.

But, he added, the story of his aunt and uncle had a much broader meaning and shed new light on the experiences of Jews in Europe during the Holocaust.

"Telling this story enabled me to retrace the survival stories of Polish Jews who had escaped the Nazis to the Soviet Union — Holocaust stories that have been so rarely told," he said.

"I grew up feeling that Holocaust survivors were those people who had survived the camps and that my parents weren't really Holocaust survivors because they had been in Russia," he said.

"Now I understand that their stories of survival are equally important as stories of resourcefulness and ingenuity in the face of the horrors in Europe and that their subsequent sadness and devastation after the war is so important for us, as their children, to understand."

"My Dear Clara'' has been made in both French and English language versions. In November, it was featured at two Montreal film festivals. It is due to appear this winter on Canadian television.