His film-in-progress, “The Remembered,” explores Polish-Jewish relations in the years immediately before, during and after World War II. It brings forward fresh testimonies about the range of responses of Catholic Poles to the persecution of Polish Jews.
Now, with a grant from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Potash will be able to include a wealth of documentary materials about the subject held in the JDC Archives.
“I know they have documents, such as personal letters written by people in the town describing the things they were seeing,” said Potash, who anticipates completing the feature-length film this year. “With the rise of anti-Semitism in the world today, there is a new relevance to the film that I didn’t quite foresee when I first started working on it.”
The winners of the 2019 JDC Archives Documentary Film Grant were announced Wednesday, January 8. The competitive award carries a $10,000 purse and is intended to cover postproduction, distribution and/or JDC Archives licensing costs.
Two finalists were also announced: Julia Mintz for “Jewish Partisan” and San Francisco’s Steven Pressman for “Holy Silence: The Vatican, the Americans and the Holocaust.” Pressman was a 2019 artist-in-residence at the S.F. Jewish Film Institute, which produces the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
The JDC, a humanitarian assistance organization, has been operating internationally since since 1914. Its archives house one of the most significant collections in the world for the study of modern Jewish history, with over three miles of text documents; 100,000 photographs; 1,100 audio recordings, including oral histories, historic speeches and broadcasts; and 1,300 video recordings. JDC’s historic films comprise another invaluable resource, ranging from the late 1920s to 1979.
“It is an honor to have their support, and to be connected to the ongoing humanitarian work of JDC in this way,” Potash said upon learning that he was the recipient of the award. He also recognized the Jewish Film Institute, Koret Foundation and Taube Philanthropies “for their continued and ongoing support” of his project.
Potash, an award-winning writer and filmmaker, is an artist-in-residence at JFI and a recent associate of the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s journalism school. His previous documentaries include “Crime after Crime” and “Food Stamped.”
“The Remembered” combines intimate end-of-life interviews with animated sequences to illustrate the subjects’ memories.
As in most Polish towns where Jews had formed substantial communities before the war, most of the Jews of Gniewoszów were subjugated and later murdered after the Nazis invaded Poland. A minority escaped and others were deported to camps. What was particularly scarring was that survivors who made their way back to the town at the war’s end were met with hostility and even violence from their former Polish neighbors.
After conducting interviews with some of the Polish villagers who lived through or took part in some of the events that impacted the Jews, Potash was able to track down one of the survivors in Israel and facilitate his return trip to the village, where the man learned new information about what had transpired there. Potash said that his film also includes some “very fond, loving recollections of the Jews by Poles who were children when the Germans invaded and who still live in the town.” Gniewoszów is located about 70 miles south of Warsaw.
At least three of the witnesses have died since he interviewed them for the film, Potash said.
Also during the years since filming began, the Polish government passed a law making it illegal to blame Poland for the Holocaust or persecution of the Jews.
“It certainly seemed to me an attempt to silence the truth, since these prohibitions would seem to include the very people I was interviewing,” Potash said.
He added, “I see anti-Semitism as a canary in the coal mine for democracies heading in the wrong direction. Wouldn’t it be nice if this film was just a look back at the way things were?”