Remembering Luboml   Images of a Jewish Community

A conversation with Aaron Ziegelman:
"What would you like people to feel after they have seen the film Luboml: My Heart Remembers?"

"Personally, it's very important to me that everyone realize that before these people became victims they were first individuals. Life in Luboml was real. It had highs and lows and was not a romanticized version of Fiddler on the Roof. After watching the film, I think people will share a sense of loss that comes when people you know, or get to know through this film, are murdered. I would imagine it's not dissimilar to the ache survivors felt after their co-workers died in the World Trade Center. By learning about village life through personal remembrances, we're able to look beyond statistics and see that each person who perished was just that, a person."

What has been the reaction among Jews and non-Jews who have seen the Luboml exhibit?

"As you would suspect, the reaction among Jews was very emotional especially for those who lost relatives. It was as if the photos in the exhibit brought them back to life. It also gave them an opportunity to learn what life in the shtetl was like. Many Jews and non-Jews felt that they became more educated about Jews in Eastern Europe. They learned that many of those who perished were hard working tradesmen - tailors, carpenters and machinists. They weren't wealthy landowners or businessmen."

Do you see this film used as an educational tool?

"I certainly do. I think it offers both adults and young people an opportunity to learn about a community and a way of life that no longer exists. I also think that children, both Jews and non-Jews, will feel connected because much of it touches upon what it was like to be a child growing up in a shtetl. Children seem to have the gift to relate to other children wherever they may be."

Where will this film be seen?

"It's our objective to make this film available to every interested outlet. Right now we've been talking to individuals who are interested in a possible television broadcast. We are also anxious to bring the film to parochial and non-parochial schools, synagogue groups, Jewish Community Centers, The Holocaust Museum and other venues. We've already been in discussions with The Board of Jewish Education, Israeli television and a number of Jewish think tanks. We also have plans to submit the film to Festivals worldwide."

Tell me about your collection going to the Library of Congress.

"I am so thrilled that these artifacts have found a permanent home in The Library of Congress. What's particularly exciting is that they'll be housed in the American Folk Life Center where scholars of all religious and national backgrounds will be able to study them. The American Folk Life Center preserves and presents American folk life - the traditional expressive culture of all our nation's people."

Describe the collection that you are donating.

"This is the largest concentration of photographs from one shtetl ever assembled. The collection not only includes the oral history of survivors, but a collection of everyday life artifacts. For example, we have a child's school report card, wedding invitations, silver wine cups and rare postage stamps. The collection also includes a street sign from the Luboml ghetto, fragments of a silver menorah and labels from locally produced vodka."

What motivated you to mount the traveling exhibition?

"I believe the first instinct came after seeing the movie Schindler's List. I wanted to know about the people in the camps before they were brought there. The idea was also reinforced when I started having the Luboml Book translated from Yiddish into English. I realized that this was a good starting point to tell the story of life before death and destruction."

Did you always want to create a film that was an offshoot of the exhibition?

"It never occurred to me to make a film. I read an article written by Eileen Douglas in Jewish Week that she was making a documentary about her grandfather in a shtetl. I called to offer my help and advice. She came to my office and showed me a part other film. I told her that I had so much more material and asked her to postpone her project. That's how it began."

What was the creative process like when you were making the documentary?

"The part of the film shot in Luboml was exciting and emotional. Reliving my childhood, going to places that I remembered and the scene at the mass grave was very profound. I kept thinking of my uncle and aunt and their two daughters. These girls were my playmates and I saw them everyday. I imagined the terror they must have had being marched, all together, to their deaths. I refrained from voicing these feelings during the film because I knew that I would break down."

Tell me about your own notion of guilt.

"I was a teenager when I received the news that my whole family in Luboml was killed. My first reaction was 'I'm glad I got out in time' and I went about my teenage activities. It was only years later that I truly understood the enormity of the tragedy and I would say that I felt guilty about my own initial reaction. Of course, the reality was that the whole world was silent including most of the Jewish community in America."

How did the Jews and Gentiles of Luboml get along?

"As a child I had very little contact with Gentiles. When there was interaction I would say it was cordial. Everyone knew that there was some anti-Semitism but I never had any fear of bodily harm. My mother had a restaurant and I believe many of her customers were Gentiles. She always seemed to be friendly with them. Occasionally some of them got drunk and I remember that the Polish police immediately came to protect her."

How did you find the participants?

"My mother is a member of the Luboml Benevolent Society, which originally helped arrivals in the U.S. Now it primarily raises funds. The people you see in the film are also members of this organization."

Tell me more about your role in the Reconstructionist movement.
What about its philosophy makes you respond personally?

"When I came to America at 10 years old I was sent to a Yeshiva. In Poland I went to a public school during the day and to religious school in the afternoon. I have to be honest and say that I wasn't happy about going to a Yeshiva. By fourteen I stopped being religious and stopped going to the synagogue.

Once my wife and I had children we felt that they should be exposed to Judaism and we went in search of a synagogue that reflected our beliefs. I remembered attending a Bar Mitzvah at a Reconstructionist synagogue. It was somewhat traditional with the congregants wearing skullcaps and prayer shawls. The philosophy states that the Torah was written by man at various times in history and the past has a vote but not a veto. I firmly believe that Judaism is a civilization and like all civilizations it must evolve with the times while remaining faithful to its tenets. We hope to incorporate into our daily lives the best of American culture (freedom and democracy) and the best of Judaism (justice and charity). I believe that God is not omnipotent, one that rewards and punishes, but is more of a concept of godliness."

This conversation was edited by Andrew Freedman.

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