"Surviving"

A Haunting Documentary Examines
Growing Up and Growing Old in Kew Gardens

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Photograph by Diana Shaman
Surviving - A Haunting Documentary Examines
Growing Up and Growing Old in Kew Gardens
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Reviewed by DIANA SHAMAN

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In one of the many poignant moments of Surviving, a documentary by Lori Petchers, an independent film maker, her mother, Bronia Kleinhammer, begs the daughter - who has just confronted her with some unhappy memories of her childhood - not to destroy her own cherished memories.
"Don't take away the things I'm going to take with me," she pleads.
Surviving, which will premiere next month at the Portland, Oregon, Women's Film Festival, was filmed in Kew Gardens over a six-week period in the fall of 2009. Lori, married with two children, temporarily moved into her mother's apartment on Austin Street for two reasons, she said. "I wanted to spend time with her and do a personal film. And I needed to get things said before she dies."
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As mother and daughter examine their relationships, Surviving is often brutally honest. But what shines through is the great love, compassion and respect between two women, one 51, the other 88, who realize that both must come to terms with their emotions while there is still time to do so. The power of the film lies in the universal theme of two generations struggling with different agendas.
"We tried to give you everything; Lori, you were my God," the mother says.
"That's the problem," Lori responds. "I felt like I was solving the world for you."
Lori was adopted by Bronia and her husband, Hesio, as a three-day old infant, six months before the couple, survivors of Hitler's Holocaust, moved to Kew Gardens in 1960.
Bronia went through unimaginable suffering after she and her family were wrenched from their homes in a small village near Krakow. They were first imprisoned in a ghetto where she watched as her mother, father, brother and sister were all murdered. She, 18 at the time, was spared because of her sewing skills and was sent to Auschwitz to make uniforms for the German army, Surviving its horrors for four years.
Close to liberation, the guards packed camp inmates into trains to take them to the crematorium, but someone shouted at Bronia, "Jump! Save yourself!" And she did. She broke her spine when she landed from the train and a bullet tore through her body.
But she survived again, spending the next five years in a rehabilitation center in Munich, where she learned from Jewish refugee agencies that all 90 members of her family had perished and that she was the last one left. At the hospital, she met her husband Hesio, a former neighbor in her Polish village, who had also lost his entire family. They married and were granted permission to emigrate to the United States where Hesio worked for the U.S. Postal Service and Bronia earned money as a dressmaker.
Because of her Auschwitz experiences, she was unable to have children of her own. But then a miracle happened, Bronia said. "I got Lori, and then I started to live. Then I blossomed."
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Lori remembers her growing-up years in Kew Gardens as a happy time. The building on Austin Street had many girls her age and they all played together. The candy store on Lefferts Boulevard, the soda shop on Talbot Street, and the Austin movie theater where she saw Gone with the Wind, are among her fond recollections.
But overshadowing that childhood was the evil the Hitler years had inflicted on her parents and how that adversely affected her own life. Those memories, long suppressed, come pouring out in Surviving; they are feelings that she had never voiced before she made the film.
"Because you had such a horrible life, I always felt I couldn't carry the burden of being your dead mother, your dead sister, and your dead brother," Lori explodes at her mother in one scene.
"What bothers you? What did I do that I messed up?" her bewildered mother asks.
"I always felt like an outsider in the family," Lori responds, "like I didn't belong in this family because I was from somewhere else. It was a crazy, crazy house . . . all the fighting constantly made me feel awful."
"I don't understand what you want, Lorinko. I wanted a baby and from then on my life changed to nothing but the best. I didn't know that you feel not comfortable with this."
Some of Bronia's friends say they are horrified by the film, that Bronia gave Lori everything and that the emotions that come pouring out should never have been expressed to her 88-year-old mother - that this is gross insensitivity.
But mother and daughter feel differently.
"Some people looking at this feel I was hard on her," Lori said. "I had no intention of being hard. Our relationship is such that we're comfortable with being honest with each other. Spending this time with my mother and getting questions answered brought us a lot closer."
In another emotional moment in the film, Bronia leafs through a stack of Mother's Day cards, all of which she had saved over the years. "I want you to read this and tell me you didn't mean it," Bronia says, following one of Lori's angry outbursts. She holds out a card on which Lori had written, "Words can't express how grateful I am to have you in my life. You are a wonderful mother and I love you."
Commenting on the film, Bronia has nothing but praise. "I liked that she was so open. After she showed me the movie, we were talking, and kissing, and crying for hours. People who criticize this movie don't understand."
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Some viewers mistakenly call it a film that is primarily about the Holocaust, and how second and third generations of survivors continue to suffer from what was inflicted on their parents and grandparents.
All of that is touched on, but Lori calls it a film about relationships.
"I have one regret," Bronia says at one point, "that Hitler could not have let live one person from my family; my grandmother had nine children."
"But you have me," Lori responds softly.
The film first shows mother and daughter in the cemetery where Hesio, who died in 2000, is buried. On the way home, Lori helps her mother strap on her seat belt. The same tenderness manifests itself throughout as she assists her mother with her eye drops, with shopping, with walking through the neighborhood. Bronia proudly stops passersby on Austin Street with, "This is my daughter; she is making a documentary of my life."
Over her 50 years as a Kew Gardens resident, Bronia built up an army of friends. As the years went by, many died, but remaining ones are fiercely protective. As Bronia gets her hair done in a local beauty parlor, the hairdresser describes her.
"She's wonderful. She's the best."
When Lori began filming in 2009, she was taken aback by her mother's daily life. "I had no idea how old she had gotten, the difficult daily existence. The world is not designed for old people. But she likes her independence and she is happy in that sense."
Bronia has lost the sight of one eye and now has difficulty reading. Because of her continuing back problem, dating back to her escape from the death train, she walks with a walker, but that does not stop her from getting out and getting around. Sometimes, she conquers loneliness by sitting in the lobby of her building to watch people come and go.
She speaks proudly of Lori's two sons, Adam and Brian, and her husband Neil, a CEO at an alternative energy company. Brian is an aspiring film maker working in New York; Adam attends Brown University.
Lori, who attended Stuyvesant High School and graduated from Emerson and Brandeis, worked as a producer and director at several television stations, including PBS. Now she works for herself and has produced and directed five films. She was the producer of The Amistad Revolt: All We Want is to Make Us Free, which in 1994 won a New England Emmy nomination.
Surviving will be submitted to other film festivals including the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. She herself shot the 60 hours of film, now edited down to 43 minutes, using a high definition video camera and using a tripod when she was part of a scene.
The original score is by Bryan Senti, but the soundtrack also includes songs sung by Lori as a young child, taken from videos shot by Hesio. As Bronia lies in bed listening to one of the tapes Lori found among others in a closet, the child's voice sings, "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray, you'll never know dear how much I love you, please don't take my sunshine away." It sums up the story that this film tells.
The film editor was Dina Guttman. The credits include, "Special Thanks to Bronia Kleinhammer," and, "Thanks to All the Wonderful Neighbors in Kew Gardens, N.Y."


Earlier Articles:
  •   Through the Looking Glass:  Kew Gardens as Seen by a New Generation of Photographers
  •   Spirits come alive in "Spirits Alive" at Maple Grove Cemetery
  •   Killer storm hits Kew Gardens
  •   Jazz at Maple Grove Cemetery
  •   The Blizzard of 2009
  •   Filming in Kew Gardens
  •   The 95th Annual Meeting of the Kew Gardens Civic Association, Inc.
  •   Let It Snow - Scenes from Forest Park
  •   A Community Discovers Its Village Roots
  •   Spirits Alive! (2007) at Maple Grove Cemetery
  •   Day of Remembrance at Maple Grove Honors the Dead with a Celebration of Life
  •   Summer in the City
  •   Concerns Over P.S.99, Post Office, And Impact Of Potential Landmarking Draw Large Crowd To Town Hall Meeting
  •   Kew Gardens Community Day (2007)
  •   A Parking Lot Becomes a Flea Market
  •   A Touch of Soho on Austin Street
  •   Kew Gardens Merchants - The Bliss Café
  •   Kew Gardens Lights Up for the Holidays
  •   Queens Borough Hall Garage in Kew Gardens
  •   The House on 116th Street
  •   New Development in Kew Gardens
  •   Autumn Scenes in Kew Gardens
  •   Lantern Festival at Maple Grove Cemetery (2006)
  •   They Lift Up their Voices Every Friday