With families, there’s always something. But with those sharing a bloodline with 67-year-old Izak Szewelwicz, the journey to discovering all of the members of their extended family is not only agonizing as often as it is joyous, but it also opens a few doors in this captivating documentary that have been sealed shut for nearly 70 years.
The uncle of director Alon Schwarz and co-director/executive producer Shaul Schwarz (also the co-director of the recent festival-favorite doc Trophy), Szewelwicz was born in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp just after the end of World War II and soon thereafter was sent by his mother for adoption in Israel, where he still lives. He eventually did find his birth mother, Aida, and had a cordial relationship with her. But years later when searching for his birth certificate, Izak discovered that he had a brother, Shep, born blind and 10 months after Izak. With the help of his filmmaker nephews, Izak sets out not only to find his brother but reunite him with their still-living mother, now living in Canada.
While Izak seems perfectly content simply meeting and becoming close with his newfound “baby” brother, Shep (who grew up raised by the man believed to be the biological father of both boys) has more questions and seems to require specific answers that Aida has been hesitant to answer in the years since she was a displaced person, at the mercy of Allied soldiers. Aida’s Secrets is part investigative piece, part emotional rollercoaster, and there’s no getting around the fact that if you see this film, you will weep openly at some portion of it.
Aida’s reaction to meeting Shep for the first time is somewhat muted, and she never hesitates to show her preference for Izak, which hurts Shep a great deal. But as she tries to make clear, she had to cut herself off emotionally from her children when she was younger to gather the strength to give them away in the hopes of offering them a better life than she could. But when pressed for details of why she did what she did or even on questions of the men in her life and who the actual fathers of her sons might be, she shuts down as protection from the visible pain these memories cause her.
The use of archival footage and photographs as a means of piecing together Aida’s life at the camp is exceptional, and interviews with the few remaining people who knew her when she was young and settling into her new Canadian home enlighten the film even more. Aida’s Secrets offers shocking moments, disappointment, and fulfillment while still finding ways to deepen the mystery of this fragile, elderly woman who lived a life that was both extraordinary and probably quite common in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.