Yoav Potash (second from right) directs a reenactment scene for his forthcoming documentary "Diary from the Ashes." (CIRRUS WOOD)
Yoav Potash (second from right) directs a reenactment scene for his forthcoming documentary "Diary from the Ashes." (CIRRUS WOOD)

Prestigious NEH grant for local film on teen’s Holocaust diary

A documentary on the life of Rywka Lipszyc, a 14-year-old Jewish Polish girl whose diary was discovered in the rubble of the Auschwitz crematorium in 1945, has been awarded a coveted grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The diary — which has a San Francisco connection — is being adapted for a documentary by East Bay filmmaker Yoav Potash, whose work in progress was one of only nine films to be supported. Potash will receive $75,000 of the $22.2 million awarded for 224 humanities projects across the country, it was announced April 7.

Jon Parrish Peede, NEH chairman, said in a statement it was a “joy” to announce the grants “in these somber times, when every individual, community and organization in America is feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.” He said the funded projects “will produce vibrant humanities programs and resources for the reopening of our cultural centers and educational institutions.”

Yoav Potash
Yoav Potash

Potash’s film, “Diary from the Ashes” will bring the teenager’s experiences to the big screen by investigating the mystery of the diary Lipszyc kept while confined to the Lodz Ghetto during World War II. The diary, which she brought with her when she was deported to Auschwitz, was pulled from the ashes of the destroyed concentration camp by a medic with the Soviet army.

The story has a particular local significance because the medic gave the diary to her granddaughter, who immigrated to the Bay Area in 1991 and eventually brought the artifact to the JFCS Holocaust Center in San Francisco.

In turn, the center, a project of S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, authenticated, translated and published it in 2014 as “The Diary of Rywka Lipszyc,” in partnership with the East Bay-based HaMaqom | The Place.

Potash, who lives in El Cerrito, said he was “humbled and honored” to get the grant and is excited because he now has “a greater opportunity to give voice to 14-year old girl who wrote about her experiences 75 years ago, and who, like countless other victims, might never have been heard.”

A UC Berkeley graduate, Potash has made three full-length films, including “Crime After Crime,” a documentary about a Jewish attorney’s fight to free a long-imprisoned woman that debuted at Sundance in 2011 and won more than 20 awards, many of them high level. The film is available on Amazon Prime. Right now, he is one of four filmmakers in residence at the Jewish Film Institute in San Francisco.

“The Diary of Rywka Lipszyc” will be part documentary and part dramatization, Potash said, similar to the style used by California filmmaker Roberta Grossman in her film, “Who Will Write Our History?” Potash admired that 2018 film and has recruited Grossman to executive produce his film.

“It is a technique I approach with caution,” Potash said. “I feel a special responsibility to the truth when filming Holocaust stories, in that the only people who got to pick up a camera during that time were the Nazis. And there was enough drama, anguish and emotion in Rywka’s story without me making up more. But as a filmmaker, the onus is on me to make the diary visual.”

Potash has shown excerpts of “Diary” at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow as part of a traveling exhibit on Rywka’s diary that is expected to come to the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco at some point.

“Diary from the Ashes” also has received support from the Koret Foundation, the Laszlo N. Tauber Family Foundation, Holocaust survivor Helena R. Foster, Taube Philanthropies and the Berkeley Film Foundation.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.