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AIDA’S SECRETS (2016) review

December 31, 2017

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produced by: Alon Schwarz
directed by: Alon Schwarz and Shaul Schwarz
rated: not rated
runtime: 90 min.
U.S. release date: December 27, 2017 thru January 4, 2018 (Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL) 

 

News stories of long-separated family members reuniting for the first time have been around forever. They may get the coverage that they used to anymore, but I recall seeing them on the news as a child and getting teary-eyed, something that occurred during a recent viewing of the Israeli documentary “Aida’s Secrets”, directed by Alon and Shaul Schwarz. The two brothers dig into the roots of their family tree, initially focusing on the quest their uncle Isak Szewelwicz has been on for some time to learn more about his own past, specifically revolving around his biological mother, Aida. What is uncovered are some answers but more mysteries loom as several new questions surface, in this intimate and personal journey.

Isak was born in 1945 at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany. When he was three years-old, he was sent to live with a foster family in Israel by his Polish mother, Aida Zazadsinski. It wasn’t until he was a teenager that he developed a line of communication with his biological mother, who had emigrated to Canada not long after sending off her son. Aida would even visit him on rare occasions, but it wasn’t until Isak was 67-years-old that he found out he had a younger brother. This was a shock to him, of course, and became the source of his quest – to find out why his mother never told him about his brother, Shepsel.

After enlisting the services of investigators and agencies specializing in displaced Jews from after the war and family lineages and shuffling through the few family photographs they found of Aida and her sons, Isak discovered that Shepsel (who goes by Shep Shell), who was born blind, lives in Winnipeg. He too was given up for adoption at a very young age, which is how he learned that Aida brought his brother with her when she moved to Canada. This leads to more questions – why did Aida never mention Shepsel to Isak? Why did Aida take Shepsel with her to Canada, only to give him up as well?

 

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The Schwarz brothers follow Isak as he learns more about Shep, filming their emotional reunion after he flies to Canada with his wife from Israel to meet for the very first time. Each brother has their own accent from different corners of the world. It’s surely the first of many heartwarming moments between the two brothers (who are absolutely sweet together), but what comes after this encounter in “Aida’s Secrets” turns the film into an even more intriguing and heartbreaking experience. This is where the filmmakers delve into the long-lasting traumatic effects of the Holocaust, specifically for Aida – who is still alive and living in a nursing home a mere two hours away from Shep (which is a mere two means that all his life he lived nearby a biological mother he never knew) – as we follow the two brothers as they visit their mother together for the first time since they were infants. It’s yet another emotional moment, but it leads to lingering questions.

 

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The more time spent with Aida, the more questions the brothers have – as do the viewers, no doubt. It’s hard to determine how many questions to press this fragile 89 year-old though, but it’s clear by her reactions to certain queries that she has built up a protective wall over the years.  She becomes a different person when Isak asks her about Shep and during a later visit, when Shep asks her directly why she gave him up, she shuts down and gives one word answers that essentially end the conversation.

Who knows the real reason Aida gave up her sons and why she chose to move to Canada or who the other man was with her in the photograph of her and her two infant sons. She is definitely grateful and overwhelmed by the presence of her sons, but she isn’t interested, or is unable to, explain the past to them. We see her answer, “No” or “I don’t remember” and one would assume she has blocked out this time of her life over the years as a form of self-preservation.

In the somber third act of the film, an investigator contacts Isak with yet another family discovery/mystery tied to Aida. They get nowhere bringing it up with Aida and it adds to the sadness of the effects of trauma.

It’s hard not to think of the seniors in your life while watching “Aida’s Secrets” and be reminded that each one of them has a story. There are undoubtedly certain memories they’d prefer not to share and after a while either a script has developed in their minds of what to say or that part of their past has been blocked off entirely.

There have been many films about the horrors of the Holocaust and what transpired in the various concentration camps, but “Aida’s Secrets” offers a different perspective, which is the state of displaced persons after World War II, as well as the effects it had on them and their family. The secrets and lies uncovered and those that remain are at the heart of “Aida’s Secrets” and most of them remain when the film concludes. Nevertheless, the reunions alone make for a very rewarding viewing experience.

“Aida’s Secret” continues to open in limited release since its run on the festival circuit that started in May 2016, where it premiered at the Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival in Canada.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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