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An Unknown Odyssey of Polish Jews

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 A Film by: Slawomir Grunberg and Robert Podgursky

Produced by:  Slawomir Grunberg and Robert Podgursky

Directed by:  Slawomir Grunberg

Written by:  Robert Podgursky

Photographed by:  Slawomir Grunberg

Edited by: Chris Julian, Malgorzata Lukomska, Marylin Rivchin,

Erika Street

Original Music Composed & Conducted by:  Robert Aceto

Narrator: Slawomir Grunberg


Principal funding for the production of Saved By Deportation: An Unknown Odyssey of Polish Jews was made possible by the generous support of  The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Inc.

Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, 3 million three hundred thousand Jews lived in Poland ­ By 1945 only 300,000 survived. Of the survivors, approximately 80% escaped the Holocaust as a result of Stalin’s deportation deep into the Soviet Union. This film tells the story of seven deportees, who in 1940 were sent to Gulag labor camps.

In 1940, a year before the Nazis started deporting Jews to death camps, Joseph Stalin ordered the deportation of approximately 200,000 Polish Jews from Russian-occupied Eastern Poland to forced labor settlements in the Soviet interior. As cruel as Stalin's deportations were, in the end they largely saved Polish Jewish lives, for the deportees constituted the overwhelming majority of Polish Jews who escaped the Nazi Holocaust. Saved by Deportation tells this historical irony for the first time in mainstream media.

This documentary follows Asher and Shifra Scharf, elderly Chasidic Polish Jews and former deportees, as they travel through Poland, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, revisiting their places of exile, and untangling the threads of time and memory to reconstruct the events of six decades past. Their dramatic journey begins at the train station in Lvov, Poland, from where Asher and Shifra were separately deported with their families in June, 1940. The Scharfs journey next to Chelyabinsk, Russia, located in southern Siberia, where Asher tours the now abandoned coal mine where he and his father were forced to work through the harsh winters, until their release in late 1941. Asher also enters the old wooden barracks where his family and other Polish Jewish deportees lived. Incredibly, the sparse and dilapidated barracks are still used as housing for poor Russian families, and it’s a poignant scene when Asher meets the current Russian occupants, and touches the walls of his former residence that hasn’t much changed in sixty years.

Next, the Scharfs struggle against heat and exhaustion to find the neighborhood in Khujand (formerly Leninabad), Tajikistan, where Asher once lived alongside Muslims, Russians, Poles and Jews from late 1941 to 1945. Asher is warmly welcomed into the household of a 90-year old Tajik man, and it is there that Asher and the elderly man exchange personal stories and memories from World War II. The Scharfs travel next to Jeezax, Uzbekistan, where Shifra finds the street where her family lived from 1941 to 1943. Once again, the Scharfs are greeted with hospitality and given food and gifts by the local population. Finally, in the ancient city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, the Scharfs find the home where they were married in 1945, and are affectionately welcomed by its current owners and the local population.

Returning after 60 years to Central Asia, the local Muslim populations greet the deeply religious Scharfs, who openly observed their religious ceremonies and did not attempt to hide their Jewish identity, with enormous warmth, respect, hospitality, and a bit of curiosity. The Scharfs recall that during the Second World War, when everyone suffered severe deprivation, and Hitler's Final Solution was decimating Eastern European Jewry, the local Muslims assisted the Jewish deportees streaming into Central Asia. During a time of extreme hardship caused by war and Stalinism, many reached out to those of a different ethnic background, and these cross-cultural interactions yielded rich humanistic experiences.

The journey from Poland to Siberia to Central Asia will be told not only by Asher and Shifra Scharf but also by several other Polish Jews, each detailing a particular leg of the journey. While the overall experiences of the survivors have commonalities, certain details of their stories are uniquely different. For example, for Sylvia Becker some of the most vivid memories are from the start of her journey.  Fearing the approach of Hitler’s forces from the west, she fled east with her husband to Soviet-occupied Poland, from where they were deported to a labor camp near the Arctic Circle.  “The knock came in the middle of the night.  We were allowed just a few moments to gather our belongings.  If your name was on the list you were taken to a train depot in horse drawn wagons.  Then, we were loaded onto one of several cattle cars and waited several days, until the train finally headed off to Siberia.”  In Siberia Sylvia gave birth to a baby boy.  In Uzbekistan, after the amnesty, her son contracted typhus and died from a lack of medicine.   Alexander Schenker, who comes from a distinguished, largely assimilated Jewish family in Krakow, Poland, recalls the conflicting emotions he has about his situation as a forced worker in Siberia.  Alexander worked 10-12 hours a day felling trees in the dense Arctic forests, with little shelter from the brutal elements. There was little food, the winters were bitter cold and at night it was a constant struggle to protect oneself from the thousands of bed bugs. ‘Even though it was very difficult, I don’t regret the time I spent in Siberia. In some way, strange as it sounds, it was the first time I felt human.”                                     

Saved By Deportation provides a lens through which a general audience can look at the deportation experience as it pertains not only to Polish Jews, but also to other displaced populations. The film reveals the many unique ways that deported individuals and families attempted to preserve their identity and culture, and poses questions that are relevant to many displaced and immigrant communities. Through personal recollections and scholarly commentary, Saved By Deportation explores the important support mechanisms upon which the Polish Jews depended – family, culture, religion, personal relationships both within and outside their immediate communities – as they endured six years of exile in foreign lands. In addition to examining intra-ethnic relations, Saved By Deportation focuses heavily on the ways in which individualism and inter-ethnic support act as social and political forces, even in the face of a centralized totalitarian state. By highlighting the rich interactions that the Scharfs have with local Muslim populations during their trip, Saved By Deportation explores whether or not preconceived notions of different cultures can be broken down at individual levels of interaction. The film emerges as an inspirational testament to the ways in which individual relationships can belie the generalities of racial and cultural stereotypes.

Shot in the cinema verité style, the film follows the Scharfs in their tireless search for the past. Context and background information are deftly woven into their deeply moving personal stories, thus enhancing them for a general audience. The film incorporates rare historical footage depicting the Soviet deportation transports, the Gulag labor settlements, and the deportees in Central Asia. This material is augmented with personal artifacts, including period photographs of deportees, and is juxtaposed with on-location interviews. The location filming provides striking and evocative imagery – both emotionally and visually. Viewers see the cattle cars that carried the deportees away, an abandoned labor camp comprised of decaying wooden barracks, the vast Russian expanse leading to Central Asia, the ancient Silk Road cities of Tashkent and Samarkand, mosques, and open air markets full of colorful people and exotic foods. They hear the Muslim call to prayer, the hustle and bustle of the bazaar, the clatter of wheels on the rough roads, and the voices of local people guiding the Scharfs on their way – in no less than six different languages. These sounds and images evoke the exotic nature of the Scharfs’ journey and paint a rich visual tapestry for viewers.


Uratowani przez Deportacje: Nieznana Odyseja Polskich Zydow

Project Description (in Polish)

Film opowiada o losach 200 000 polskich Zydow, ktorzy unikneli zaglady w niemieckich obozach koncentracyjnych dzieki... wywozce do stalinowskich obozow pracy w 1940 r. Dokument takze przedstawia historie  Ashera i Shyfry Scharf, ktorzy 60 lat wczesniej odbyli wedrowke z Polski przez Syberie, Tadzykistan do Uzbekistanu w Azji Centralnej. Ta malo znana opowiesc o przetrwaniu jest nie tylko opowiescia przygodowa ale przede wszystkim afirmacja ludzkiej dobroci w trudnych czasach.


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