The cast and crew of "The Assembly" entering the gates of Auschwitz, Oct. 16, 2022.
The cast and crew of "The Assembly" entering the gates of Auschwitz, Oct. 16, 2022.

Silicon Valley Jewish film fest: ‘The Assembly’ sees the Holocaust through young musicians’ eyes

“The Assembly” is a different kind of Holocaust documentary.

For one, it’s a musical journey that commemorates the life of the late Eva Libitzky, who survived the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz and shared her story at student assemblies across the U.S. — hence the film’s title. Without minimizing her trauma, the film also celebrates the prewar life of Europe’s Jews with Libitzky’s reminiscences and through the music of a klezmer band and pianist-filmmaker Hershey Felder.

For another, the film illuminates Holocaust horrors through the shocked eyes, hugs and tears of eight student musicians from San Diego — most of whom are not Jewish — who visited Poland together in 2022. In the film, they take in the mountains of hair, glasses, shoes and crutches at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum on the site of the former concentration camp. And they walk across the grounds singing “Ani Ma’anim” (“I Believe”).

In interviews interspersed with musical performances in Krakow and with their visits to Lodz and Auschwitz, the student musicians reveal their own stories and commonalities as outsiders because of their religion, ethnicity, disability or sexuality.

“My coming here just opened up so much empathy,” J. Isaiah Foster, an African American singer and dancer, says in the film. “We’re so much focused on our own oppressions and our own communities. When we try to venture out and learn about others, it’s hard to get that perspective.”

“The Assembly,” which premiered at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival in May, is streaming through the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival, which runs Oct. 15 to 29. Another film directed by Felder, “Musical Tales of the Venetian Jewish Ghetto,” will also be available for streaming during the Silicon Valley fest.

Felder, a Canadian who now lives in Italy, is best known for his one-man shows — including at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and Berkeley Repertory Theatre — in which he portrays composers such as Leonard Bernstein, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Irving Berlin. Since the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020, he has moved increasingly into film.

His role as the documentary’s director was that of a “quietly observing eye,” Felder said in an email to J. “I am the person observing, asking questions, revealing the emotions, ever present, but very quietly. Nothing was ‘scripted’ and no one was ever asked to ‘act a certain way.’ What you see is all real, but I am the one through whose eyes you see everything.”

He originally envisioned “The Assembly” as a 2020 musical for the San Diego Repertory Theatre, with actress Eleanor Reissa as Libitzky. Students from the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts would be audience members and have roles in the show. Then the pandemic began, the theater closed, the students graduated and Felder returned to his home in Italy.

Felder later hoped to take Eva Libitzky, son Moses Libitzky and the students to Poland to film a documentary. But in 2021, she died of Covid-19 in Florida at the age of 97.

Eva Libitzky shares her Holocaust survival story in "The Assembly."
Eva Libitzky shares her Holocaust survival story in “The Assembly.”

He decided to re-craft the project and traveled to Poland last year with the now college-age students and Reissa, whose father was a prisoner in Auschwitz.

The documentary features clips of Eva Libitzky telling the story of her happy prewar life as an Orthodox Jew in Poland, her horrific experiences in the Lodz Ghetto, where her father died of starvation because he wouldn’t eat nonkosher meat, and her determination to survive against all odds, even at Auschwitz, where her mother was murdered.

The stories of the students add another dimension.

“Unfortunately a lot of my connection to Judaism was through Jewish trauma rather than celebrating my culture,” Olive Benito, who is Ashkenazi Jewish on her mother’s side, says in the film. Feeling like a misfit on more than one level, she later discovers she has autism. In the film, she delivers a gripping rendition of “Where Is It Written?” from “Yentl,” with Felder accompanying on piano.

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Moses Libitzky, who has homes in San Francisco and Piedmont, was born in Germany after World War II and grew up in Connecticut. In the film, he says that he and his American-born sisters were not fully aware of their parents’ wartime experiences when they were young.

“It was a story. I had no pictures. There were no pictures. I had no grandparents, aunts or uncles,” he says in the film. In 1990, he spearheaded a family visit to Poland, and in 2010, his mother published her memoir, “Out on a Ledge: Enduring the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, and Beyond,” edited by Lehrhaus Judaica founder Fred Rosenbaum.

“It meant a lot to me to be able to walk these young people through my mother’s story,” Moses Libitzky said about “The Assembly” in a phone interview. “It’s important that the Holocaust be remembered, but there were some good memories, too. She had a good life before the war.”

Despite the film’s focus on tragedy, it ends on an upbeat note at a rollicking klezmer fest in Krakow. Moses Libitzky whoops it up as he finds himself hoisted on a chair and the students dance around him.

“How can you sing and dance after experiencing such a tale?” Felder poses in the film’s text. “It was Eva who gave us the answer. ‘Never forget what happened, but always celebrate that you are alive.’”

“The Assembly” (90 minutes, English) is available to stream Oct. 25 to 28. $18.

The Libitzky Family Foundation, for which Moses serves as principal officer, is a major donor to J.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].