On Wednesday, March 11, the Berney Theatre at the Asper Jewish Community Campus was packed for the premiere of Tikkun Olam: Isaac’s Legacy, Winnipeg filmmaker Yolanda Papini-Pollock’s third documentary dealing with mass murder and genocide.
Papini-Pollock’s first such documentary – in partnership with Erol Meryl, premiered in 2016. Never Again: A Broken Promise profiles Holocaust survivor Edith Kimelman as well as Steve Maman (the Montreal businessman who rescued numerous Yazidis), a Winnipegger of Yazidi origin, a survivor of the Rwanda genocide and a survivor of the residential school system.
Earlier this year, she introduced a new documentary, Painful Truth, on the Chinese government’s persecution of the Falun Gong practitioners.
Tikkun Olam was filmed over two years and focuses on the interaction of 94-year-old Holocaust survivor and educator Isaac Gotfried and a class of Grade 12 students at J. H. Bruns Collegiate, a secondary school in southern Winnipeg. The students are taking a Global Issues class taught by Tom Beyak.
The documentary, which was co-produced by Erol Meryl, intersperses historical footage with scenes of Gotfried talking to the students, interviews with some of the students about their reactions and a follow-up visit to the school by Gotfried where the some of the students talk about some of the actions they were inspired to take to better their society.
Gotfried was born in western Poland into a family of six. Only he and his older brother survived. He came to Winnipeg in 1947 as part of a group of war orphans where he was able to rebuild his life, marry and raise four daughters. He has been speaking to young people about his experiences in the Holocaust for more than 25 years. Three years ago, he self-published his autobiography, Lucky to Survive. He is donating all proceeds from the sale of the book to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
The premiere evening began with sombre music. Gray Academy student Mark Pavily played “My Yiddishe Mama” on violin, accompanied on piano by Prof. Oleg Pachanovsky. Jeremy Buzash, a violinist with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, then played “Kaddish” and the theme music from Schindler’s List.
The documentary itself has a running time of about 30 minutes. Following the documentary, Gotfried was joined on stage to answer questions by J. H. Bruns teacher, Tom Beyak, and student, Kaitlyn Madeiros, who served in the documentary as narrator.
“Listening to Isaac helped us realize how good our lives are here,” responded Madeiros to one question. “He also made us aware of the need to be respectful to others.”
She added that she is training to be a nurse and intends to apply what she learned from Gotfried to helping others in her chosen profession.
Beyak noted that the students “couldn’t help but be transformed” by hearing about Gotfried’s experiences. He recalled that when he was going to school students weren’t taught more recent history.
Gotfried pointed out that while Canada “is one of the best countries in the world,” Canada was also complicit in the Holocaust in refusing to let in Jews looking for a safe haven.
“It can happen here, too,” he added referencing the treatment of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples.
“Our hope in making Tikkun Olam is that Isaac’s story will serve as an inspiration for students and help to increase tolerance and respect for others and lead to a more just society,” Papini-Pollock said.
The program was a joint production of Winnipeg Friends of Israel, (a grassroots Israel advocacy group that Papini-Pollock founded in 2015), the Rady JCC and B’nai Brith Canada. The documentary also received funding from the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba.