Family trip to Poland makes for moving documentary

Menachem Daum loves his sons, but when he saw them giving a wink to hatred, he decided to do something about it.

His sons, both Chassidic yeshiva bochers with kids of their own, had grown isolated, deeply mistrusting the non-Jewish world at large and preferring the fervently religious world of Jerusalem.

How Daum, a big-hearted Brooklynite, wrested his boys from that insular frame of mind makes for riveting viewing in “Hiding and Seeking,” a new P.O.V. documentary set to air on KQED and other local PBS stations Tuesday, Aug. 30.

Known for his previous PBS documentary “A Life Apart: Hasidism in America,” Daum has as deep an understanding of Orthodox Judaism as anyone. He grew up in that world and remains a fervently religious man.

But he also became a devotee of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and his ecstatic brand of universalism. Seeing all human beings as created in the image of God, Daum felt keenly his sons’ contempt for all things non-Jewish.

“Hiding and Seeking” is about a journey Daum undertakes with his sons, Tzvi Dovid and Akiva, and his wife, Rifka. The family travels to Poland to find the village and — if they’re lucky — the Polish Catholic family that hid Daum’s father during the Nazi occupation. Daum’s hunch: Maybe if his boys can see decency in Poles, “they can see holiness in all people.”

Daum is a clever filmmaker, setting up that journey with scenes of intense but loving debate among the family members. He plays a tape recording of a sermon by a fervently religious rabbi who urges Jews to teach hatred of the “goyim,” a sentiment his sons basically shrug off.

We meet Daum’s aged father and father-in-law, both of whom urge the family not to make the trip. “Tell them I’m dead,” says the old man to his son.

But Daum cannot be dissuaded and off they go to the country where the flower of European Jewry was wiped out 60 years ago.

The film includes some gently comic scenes, like when Daum places a little note of prayer into the rubble of a former synagogue, much to the bemusement of his sons.

But things take a dramatic turn when, as they near the village where Daum’s father and uncles hid under a bale of hay for months, the family picks up the trail of the couple who risked their own lives.

Turns out Woitek and Honorata Muchas were still alive. Though bent over with age, Honorata remains sharp as a tack and recalls every detail of her heroic act. The reunion is a bit strained, but the tears flow when Rifka and her sons recite a prayer of thanksgiving. The Muchas only regret: that the lads they saved never contacted them again to say they had made it to safety.

Daum’s mission was to correct that, and thankfully he shared that mission with the world.

The film concludes with a moving ceremony at which Israel’s ambassador to Poland, himself a former Polish Jewish refugee, presents Israel’s Righteous Gentile award to the Muchas. The whole village turns out to witness the ceremony, itself an astonishing moment given the sorry history of Polish anti-Semitism.

While undeniably uplifting, “Hiding and Seeking” is no Panglossian whitewash. We see scenes of young Poles looking askance at the kippah-wearing Jews. One can almost feel an incipient suspicion and loathing bubbling under the surface.

But Daum prefers to err on the side of love and generosity.

“Hiding and Seeking” is an enormously powerful film that will resonate with Jewish viewers (the liberal use of Yiddish as the lingua franca among the Daum clan is a delight). But this is a story bigger than the sum of its mostly Jewish parts.

Early in the film, we see Shlomo Carlebach in concert, performing for a mostly Catholic Polish audience in Warsaw. The rabbi chants the words “we are all God’s children” while Poles, perhaps the sons and daughters of former Jew haters, wipe tears from their eyes. It’s a catalytic moment, but only first of many in this must-see documentary.

“Hiding and Seeking” airs 10 p.m. Aug. 30 on KQED. Check listings for other PBS stations.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.