Max Beer knows that his soon-to-be-released film may stir controversy, but he feels now is the time for the truth to come out.
“I don’t know how many people will want to hear what it has to say. There are two points of view and I have to show both of them,” says Beer whose hour-long documentary, set for release this summer, focuses on Holocaust survivors and the local Jewish community.
The big reveal is something that survivors have known since they immigrated after World War II: that the Jews already established in North America didn’t want to be associated with the European newcomers.
Derogatory names like “greenhorn” and “mockie” were levelled at them.
“When they came here, survivors were told to move on and get on with their lives. I asked every survivor I interviewed, ‘Did anybody ask what happened to you in the war?’ One survivor gave me the name of my film when he said, ‘Nobody was interested. Nobody asked.’”
It was not that the receiving community necessarily wanted to be polite and avoid dredging up painful memories for the newcomers. Rather, their reasons included not making the war a “Jewish” problem, dissociating from people who “looked and talked funny,” and being distracted by the Red scare that eclipsed Nazism after the war.
Of course, there were heroes, also featured in the film. Former clothing workers union leader, the late Maurice Silcoff, describes the Tailor’s Project that foiled Canada’s immigration strictures. It brought in hundreds of European Jews under the cloak of skilled needleworkers.
And Joe Schreter of the Main’s menswear store clothed newcomers with generosity and warmth.
But, by and large, not only was the Holocaust pushed from public consciousness, so were its survivors, who were seen as an embarrassment to Montreal Jews who had struggled to reach a certain level of assimilation.
“Survivors were marginalized,” Beer says. “Also, a lot of them were told, ‘You think you had it bad? We had rationing here!’ or their very survival was met with suspicion, implying they collaborated!”
The film was triggered by a discovery Beer made in adulthood. It was that his mother, Genia, who barely survived the war in a slave labour camp, lost her first husband, whom she had married in Radom, Poland, and their little son, Yankele, both gassed by the Nazis.
Beer already knew of the murders of her parents and six siblings. “The reason for my mother’s over-protectiveness and paranoia became clear to me. It explained what I had considered irrational behaviour,” he says.
There were no coping mechanisms offered, and Montreal society was cruel.
Beer wrote his master’s degree history thesis on The Montreal Jewish Community and the Holocaust. He donated the boots he wore as a two-year-old at the Pocking displaced persons camp in Bavaria in 1949, the year he immigrated, to the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre (MHMC). He has been a docent there since 2003.
The retired high school teacher also helped with Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History film survivors’ interviews, continuing the practice for his own project.
He is in the final editing process of the documentary, which he financed and filmed himself, with the participation of additional interviewers Robert Shultz and Beer’s wife, artist Deena Dlusy-Apel. Dlusy-Apel narrates and provides a number of her Holocaust-themed paintings to complement archival material from the MHMC, Canadian Jewish Congress, Canadian Armed Forces, the Jewish Public Library and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
The National Film Board of Canada has agreed to sound-edit the film. A rough clip of the film can be seen on Vimeo.com.