While promoting their newest projects, many filmmakers would make an effort not to spoil any major plot turns. However, Israeli director Alon Schwarz is taking a different approach with his documentary Aida’s Secrets, opening on Jan. 12 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto.
In his award-winning film, Schwarz focuses on Izak and Shep, two brothers born after the Holocaust who were separated shortly after their births and reunited nearly 70 years into their lives. Izak grew up in Israel without any knowledge of a brother in Canada. Shep, who lived in Winnipeg since the age of two, was unaware of Izak, as well as the fact that his mother, Aida, lived in Canada as well.
In the documentary, Shep gets the opportunity to meet Aida, although he is filled with questions about why she never reconnected with him. He believes she still possesses secrets. One of those mysteries, solved in the film’s closing minutes, is that Izak and Shep have another brother who lives in Toronto, though he was born in Montreal on April 3, 1949, under the name George Zasadzinska, and was later adopted.
“We need to get the word out,” Schwarz tells The CJN, adding that both brothers are keen to meet their long-lost relative.
I think some secrets are buried so heavily that people don’t want to open up later on.
An exclusive video with testimonials from Izak and Shep is currently circulating online. Schwarz is hoping that the clip, alongside the film’s Canadian release, will help local audiences track their brother down.
Schwarz has a personal connection to this discovery, as well. He is Izak’s nephew, and says he remembers hearing as a child that his uncle had a blind brother who lived in Canada. This information came directly from Aida, who visited Israel to see her son on several occasions.
According to a letter from Aida, she sent Izak to Israel so he could receive a Jewish education. However, when her application to that country was denied, she immigrated to Canada. However, Aida was determined that Shep’s existence would never reach Izak’s ears. She told her son’s family not to utter a word.
“People were hiding this secret and not knowing why they were hiding it,” Schwarz says. “I think some secrets are buried so heavily that people don’t want to open up later on.”
When Izak and his granddaughter returned from a trip to Poland, explaining he may have found proof of another brother, Schwarz confessed that he knew this for decades.
“He throws me out of the house,” Schwarz says, referring to Izak’s reaction. “It’s also what started the film.”
A couple of days later, the director arrived at Izak’s home and began to shoot Aida’s Secrets.
Although Schwarz had never helmed a film before, he gained some production experience working with his brother Shaul, also a filmmaker, on the 2013 documentary Narco Cultura. He also received assistance from researchers on the online genealogy platform MyHeritage.
The rookie director quit his job as a product manager in Israel’s high-tech sector to pursue this project, and Shaul later came on board as a co-director.
Aida’s Secrets has since become a hit in Israel, winning the audience award at Tel Aviv’s documentary film festival in 2016.
Beyond the humane true story at its centre, the film made headlines for exploring a mostly forgotten chapter of postwar history.
In the latter half of the film, Schwarz and various researchers excavate photographs and footage of Jews thriving in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp in Germany after the Holocaust ended.
“Most of (the survivors) were mentally and physically hurt, but a lot of them also rebounded into life,” Schwarz says.
It is these sections where we learn about Aida’s life after the war, her romance with a man named Grisha, and the events that led to Izak and Shep’s separation.
Now, the Schwarz brothers are working together on another film, although they are still hopeful they will receive information about Aida’s third son.
Canadians who may know about this brother are encouraged to email information to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“You have to be very lucky to be set up with a secret like this,” Schwarz says. “I had no idea that we would find (Shep), and … I had no idea that there was a third brother that we’re still looking to reunite.”