Three and a half years ago, while finishing my Wexner Heritage program in Israel, I visited Yad Vashem on a free afternoon before Shabbat. I wanted some reflective time in a place that has long been important to me as the son of a Holocaust survivor.
After touring the museum, I settled at a computer to search the database of victims of the Shoah for my relatives that had lived and died in my father’s hometown of Brest, Poland (now Belarus).
As I came to the end of the 70 names of family members that had perished, I was halted by the final name on the list: Yakov Grynberg, my father. This error was a strange and jarring reminder of the fragility of my place on this earth.
A year later, I returned to Israel, this time with my father, now in his early 80s, and took him for his first visit to Yad Vashem to correct the database in person. On that day, I also began shooting a new film, Sacred Names, as a way to understand more fully my relationship to my father, the Holocaust and memory.
This past fall, I traveled to Belarus to shoot what I am hoping are the final elements of the film. Traveling with a small Belarusian crew, I hoped to discover things both new and old. The process of filmmaking at its most exciting is a mix of vision and surprise: the things you set out to capture and those you could never have imagined, that sometimes just descend upon you.
I went on this trip for three main reasons. Most essential, for me personally, was my desire to visit Bronnaya Gora, a forest outside of Brest where 50,000 Jews were shot in open pits, among them all my relatives from the list at Yad Vashem. As the child of a man who never spoke of his war-scarred childhood, I have always been hungry to connect to this legacy, to find tangible elements to hold on to, to illuminate these hazy shadows. I sensed that standing in this forest of unimaginable sadness might help me do just that.
I also went to see how I could help the local Jewish community in their attempt to build a significant memorial. In the 1950s, the Soviets built a soccer stadium on top of the old Jewish cemetery of Brest. Over the past eleven years, as buildings have been rebuilt, Jewish headstones, which had been used by locals as building material, have begun to surface across the city. They are literally coming out of the ground everywhere, on an almost daily basis – a reminder that history can’t be buried or erased as long as there are those willing to pay attention. They have now recovered more than 2,000 pieces of these headstones, some fully intact. They have been inventoried and stockpiled. Plans have been drawn. The city has set aside a piece of land on a corner of the original cemetery, but the community has no money to build a memorial, and politics and Soviet-style bureaucracy are thick.
Finally, I came to Brest to retrace elements of an earlier trip I had taken with my father to his birthplace 17 years ago. In 1998, we had found remnants of his childhood and, ultimately, the woman who hid him in a barn for two years during the war. This time, I was sure that there was more to uncover through my eyes alone.
The trip was overwhelming in ways both expected and unexpected. I found a lot of what I went in search of, and there were wonderful and painful surprises along the way. Portions of the journey are chronicled in a blog I called Sacred Names and also on a Facebook page.
It’s been a couple of months since I’ve been back and I have begun the process of weaving stories in the editing room. Film for me is a canvas, a place to try to understand, to see things anew and to start or continue conversations. I can’t think of a better place to share this process than with the engaged and thoughtful members of the Wexner community. As I found this fall in the countryside of Belarus, the sounds of our Jewish history, while fading against time and repression, are still calling out to be heard, transmitted, studied and honored.
Stephen Grynberg, a Wexner Heritage alum (Los Angeles 09), is an independent filmmaker. He wrote and directed his first feature film, the critically acclaimed Love From Ground Zero, in 1998. Since then he has worked as a writer, cinematographer and director in documentary and narrative films. Stephen’s last film, the feature-length documentary A Life Ascending, about the life of an acclaimed mountaineer, won 11 international film awards. Stephen is currently editing his newest film, Sacred Names, continuing a personal cinematic exploration into his relationship to the Holocaust as the son of a survivor. Outside of film, Stephen is the creator of ILLUMINATE, a web-based initiative to increase the awareness of and engagement with Yom HaShoah in the Diaspora. Stephen also teaches writing and film and is a founding member of the Men’s Leadership Council of the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. Stephen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.