Seeking Holocaust healing

For most documentary filmmakers, it’s enough to change the world. Menachem Daum wants to heal it.

Daum’s first collaboration with Oren Rudavsky, “A Life Apart: Hasidism in America,” was a sensitive, layered portrait of a community that would prefer to remain unassimilated and, perhaps, mysterious.

Their most recent documentary, “Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust,” is in some ways even more ambitious. This deeply rewarding film chronicles Daum’s modest campaign to narrow two gulfs — between fervently religious Jews and the secular world, and Holocaust survivors (and their descendants) and the Polish people.

Now available on DVD, “Hiding and Seeking” was one of the highlights of the 2003 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, where it screened as a sneak preview of a work in progress.

The film belongs to the subgenre of documentaries that records the return of survivors or their adult children to their prewar homes in Eastern Europe. Since neither the subjects nor the filmmakers know what they’ll find, such expeditions are cinematic crapshoots. For every film that arrives at a profound emotional catharsis there are a dozen boring travelogues.

Daum raises the stakes even further by overtly setting up his family’s trip to Poland as an eye opener for his sons. Concerned that “every religion is in danger of being hijacked by extremists” at this moment in history, the Brooklyn filmmaker frets that his Jerusalem yeshiva bocher have lost touch with — and empathy for — the non-Orthodox world.

A deeply observant Jew who has never fully reconciled the Holocaust with his faith, Daum is a philosophical seeker and becomes the eloquent soul of the film. He’s a true mensch, who routinely acts justly and compassionately.

Once in Poland, they locate Daum’s father’s boyhood home, which has been replaced by an unmemorable apartment building. After stops at an overrun cemetery and a ruined synagogue, it’s on to Zdunska Wola, the village where Daum’s father-in-law was hidden, along with two brothers, on a farm for an unbelievable 28 months during the war.

This meeting and its aftermath provide the crux of “Hiding and Seeking.” Although the touching yet awkward reunion is clearly meaningful for both the Jews and the Poles, it raises some thorny issues.

The three brothers had promised their guardians payment for food and protection, but didn’t send so much as a postcard after emigrating following the war. So what is the responsibility of the Daum clan, half a century later?

As for the Polish family, if they concealed the trio for financial gain they hardly qualify as heroes. But they unquestionably risked execution if they were caught, and so must have been inspired by something other than money.

Daum’s sons are discernibly moved in the course of this saga — from skepticism to good-humored acceptance to eyes truly opened. But since this is real life — as opposed to reality TV, or an Aesop fable — “Hiding and Seeking” doesn’t conclude with a declaration of transformation or a tidy moral.

The concept of tikkun olam, or healing the world, is an ongoing and messy process, Daum suggests. It’s also one that requires everyone’s participation.

If healing the world begins at home, “Hiding and Seeking” is an ideal catalyst. This valuable film is a natural for family viewing, with a lively discussion guaranteed to follow.

“Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance After the Holocaust” by Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky, (First Run Features, $29.95).

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.