In this column, I usually write about my kids and my experiences as a parent, but this month I decided to interview my own father, David Himmelstein.
He’s a screenwriter, and his latest film, “My Name Is Sara,” is the first one he’s written on a Jewish theme. It tells the true story of a 13-year-old girl who survives the Holocaust by hiding under a secret identity in the Ukrainian countryside for two years, utterly alone in a stark, isolated place.
Sara never spoke about her experiences to her children, but late in her life she gave two interviews to the USC Shoah Foundation; these formed the basis of her story as seen on screen.
I talked to my dad about how he brought Sara’s story to life and how he blends the drama of moviemaking with historical events. “My Name Is Sara” was screened virtually by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and as part of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival.
Holocaust stories continue to be told and retold, decade after decade. Why does the world need another Holocaust movie, and what does this story bring that is new?
What attracted me to this project as a writer was that it immediately struck me that this is the polar opposite of the Anne Frank story. A constant theme of Anne’s diary was her complaints about not having any privacy. You have her family and another family, a total of eight people, who are crammed into a few hundred square feet, whereas Sara, who was almost Anne’s exact age, was on her own. Her family had been murdered, she was the only survivor. She was walking, this young girl, walking by herself, with literally just the dress she had on, down a country road.
Beyond that, she was compelled to make incredibly difficult moral decisions that all stemmed from her promise to her mother on the night before she and her older brother escaped from the ghetto just before it was going to be liquidated. Her parents made the decision they would stay with their two younger sons, who were 3 and 5, and the best chance for the family was for Sara and her older brother to escape through the fence. Her mother says to her, “Your survival will be our revenge. Promise me you’ll do whatever it takes to survive.” Everything you see in the movie stems from that. A 13-year-old is supposed to decide, what does whatever it takes really mean? It’s almost overwhelming.
You were born shortly after World War II to parents who were both born in the U.S. How central was the Holocaust to your understanding of Jewish identity growing up?
My parents didn’t talk a lot about it. One vivid memory stands out. My father’s sisters lived in Brookline, Mass., on Beals Street, in a Jewish neighborhood. My memory is that we would go to this bakery around the corner to get cookies or challah. It was the spring or summer — it was warm outside — and the woman who was behind the counter was very friendly to me. She just exuded warmth. She had an accent. She reached over the counter to hand me the cookies, and I saw numbers tattooed on the inside of her arm. I instantly knew what that was. I just remembered a jolt seeing that. Looking at this smiling, warm, engaging woman and knowing what she must have experienced so far from Brookline, Massachusetts. What had always been an abstraction was so real and vivid.
You’re the parent of two girls, but this is the first of your films to focus on a young, female protagonist. How did you humanize Sara as a teenage girl amid the upheaval of her circumstances?
The movie had to imagine all the things that weren’t discussed about her as a girl. She left when she was 12 or 13. She ended up under a false identity staying with a farm family, taking care of two young boys who were ironically about the same age as her younger brothers. In the movie, the boys’ mother, who was only in her 20s, is particularly suspicious of Sara’s identity and her story, and also of her husband’s interest in her. There was a tension between them. And I created this scene where, in the farmhouse, she has her first period, and there’s a moment of warming the ice: a mother to daughter, or older woman to young girl, that we hadn’t seen up until then. She was relating to her not as an object of suspicion but empathy for the first time in the movie. And their relationship warms after that.
You’ve written two films about baseball. One of them, “Soul of the Game,” focuses on the events leading to the integration of the major leagues. How do you approach writing about historical characters and events?
You try to get the historic milestones in place and correct. You try to accurately portray the feel and the tensions and the real-life stakes of ordinary people at that time. But also, as a writer, your first obligation is to aim for a compelling universal human story. You hope that above all, that you can deliver the emotional truths of what it was like to have lived that time under those circumstances.
Sometimes you have to bend the facts in service of the human drama. When I was writing “Soul of the Game.” I portrayed Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson as being a lot friendlier than they actually were to each other when they were playing in the Negro Leagues right after World War II. People who were experts immediately pointed that out. But your primary duty is to the story, using it as a springboard to illuminate greater truths. And that same dynamic and push-pull is there whether you’re talking about Jackie Robinson or Sara Goralnik. That’s always the writer’s dilemma.