Exploring Poland’s Remarkable Jewish Renaissance

April 8, 2014

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For Los Angeles-based filmmaker Dina Kadisha Aspen, the past is personal.

In the JDC Entwine-produced film “The Revival of Jewish Poland,” Aspen explores the inspiring Jewish renaissance happening in a country many had formerly written off as the graveyard of European Jewry. For an inside look, check out our video profiles of Jewish life in Warsaw and Krakow — and view the trailer to Aspen’s film.

In advance of her film’s premiere at several high-profile film festivals, Aspen took the time to answer questions about her filmmaking process, her family’s history, and more.

Q: In making the film, what were you looking to showcase?

A: I had always felt very personal about the Holocaust and felt somewhat powerless to change the horrific fate of what happened. Filming what’s left of Poland 70 years after the Holocaust gave me an opportunity to reveal that the narrative of Polish Jews is not long gone.

I discovered a reemerging, vivacious Jewish community that is slowly restoring a broken generation and its centuries-old culture. “The Revival of Jewish Poland” reminds us that while we are unable to change the past, the present equips us with the power to redeem the future.

Q: Was the story you went in intending to tell the same one you found as you completed the process? What, if anything, changed?

A: Every day there were new revelations and extraordinary people that would add yet another dynamic layer to this already very complicated narrative. We ended up including my husband’s grandfather’s story — a Polish Jew who was the only survivor in his family, among few others, from Pinczow, his village.

Q: What did you find most surprising about the Polish Jewish community? Most exciting?

A: I actually found the Jewish revival in Poland to be surprising. I was a bit pessimistic as to how a revival was taking place — but after witnessing the current vitality of life, culture, and interest of people reconnecting to their Jewish roots, I became so hopeful.

It was exciting to see how similar the Jewish elementary school in Warsaw was to Sinai Akiba Academy, the Los Angeles school I grew up in. Or how similar Polish Jews’ Shabbat dinners were to the ones I have with my Persian family Friday evenings. I felt incredibly connected to being a part of one Jewish world.

Q: What do you see as JDC’s role in Poland?

A: With a significant focus on the younger generation and a fledgling educational infrastructure in place, the re-emerging community is embracing its past and starting to stand on its own feet. The necessity for programming initiatives and Jewish school education has become more urgent than ever before. JDC helps provide the very platform for Jewish youth to reconnect with their lost roots. In a sense, this is the last opportunity we get to prove that we are still here and will continue to be for generations to come.

Q: What does JDC offer that sets it apart from the rest of the Jewish non-profit landscape?

A: After witnessing JDC’s rescue work in Ethiopia, renewal programs in Morocco, and relief work in Cuba, I knew I had discovered one of the best-kept secrets of the Jewish world. I always say it’s like a combination of the Jewish Red Cross and the Jewish United Nations. JDC’s capabilities are endless and their work is no doubt the reason so many impoverished and vulnerable Jewish communities have survived.

What some of us may not always realize is the sheer extent of Jewish need around the world; each day hundreds of thousands of Jews across all time zones count on JDC’s ongoing support. From small communities in Algeria to hundreds of thousands of underprivileged Jewish elderly and children all across the former Soviet Union — JDC provides food, homecare, and medical support to those in need each day. JDC’s aid sees no boundaries — and that’s unparalleled to anything that exists today.

Q: Did “The Revival of Jewish Poland” influence your own feelings of Jewish identity at all?

A: Making this film and meeting people from all walks of life has been revolutionary for me. It has certainly strengthened my connection to my people, and has given me a newfound respect for life.

Next month, Aspen’s documentary is set to screen at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, Sunset Film Festival Los Angeles, and is nominated at the American Online Film Awards. In August, the film will screen at the Santa Monica Film Festival. She’s also seeking network distribution for the film and international festival exposure.

For more on JDC’s work in Poland click here.

JDC’s work in Poland is generously supported by the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island, the Kronhill-Pletka Foundation, the Koret Foundation, the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture, and Benay and Steven Taub and family.

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