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Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012

The Flat

Israeli documentary screens at Jewish Film Festival

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Although the Israeli documentary The Flat explores the shadows cast by the Holocaust over survivors, perpetrators and their descendants, it’s also an essay with universal significance on memory, forgetfulness and family secrets.

The story came to filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger with the death of his grandmother, 98-year-old Gerda Tuchler. When the responsibility fell to Goldfinger and his mother Hannah to clear out the elegant Tel Aviv apartment where Gerda lived since immigrating to Palestine in the 1930s, the cleanup led to more than the discovery of shoes still in their boxes and a profusion of formal gloves tucked away in dresser drawers. Goldfinger found a file of Nazi newspapers reporting on a trip to Palestine by Gerda and her husband, Kurt, representatives of the German Zionist Federation, and a Nazi official, Baron von Mildenstein and his wife. Even though Hannah was born in Berlin, she was a small child when the family arrived in Tel Aviv. The apparently cordial encounter between the Star of David and the swastika was unrecorded in family lore. But as Goldfinger thought about it, he realized that scarcely any lore had been passed on in his family.

Gerda’s large library all in German was a mute witness to the one thing all her children and grandchildren knew: Kurt and Gerda never really left Germany, and their flat was an outpost of the land where the family had lived for centuries. Some of their descendants recalled that Kurt had been a judge before Hitler took power. Little else was known. Until Goldfinger began excavating in the trove of photographs and paperwork filling his grandmother’s cabinets, no one had considered how the Tuchlers left Germany, apparently with all their possessions, at a time when the persecution of Germany’s Jews was becoming the country’s official policy.

Goldfinger’s grandparents were at the forefront of a short-lived scheme that saved some Jewish lives by encouraging immigration to Palestine. This was merely surprising; shocking was the gradual revelation that the Mildensteins and Tuchlers were friends. After all, Mildenstein had been Adolf Eichmann’s boss before transferring from the SS security service to the ministry of propaganda. The Palestine junket was something of a vacation, with stops in Venice and leisurely afternoons in the outdoor cafes of Jerusalem. The Tuchlers and Mildensteins continued to correspond until World War II cut the lines of communication. After the war, the Tuchlers visited the Mildensteins in Germany several times, bearing gifts.

And when Goldfinger tracked down the Mildensteins’ daughter Edda, he was surprised to find the mirror image of his own ignorance of the past. Edda had wondered little about what her father did during the Third Reich; he was an executive for Coca-Cola after the war and, she believed, a journalist before it. She heartily echoed Hannah’s explanation for her lack of knowledge about her parents: “I didn’t ask. They didn’t tell.”

In The Flat, Goldfinger expresses perplexity over why his parents and siblings seem content to live entirely in the present, unconcerned that the present is largely constructed by the past. Maybe everyone realizes subconsciously that history can be painful and messy. For the inquisitive Goldfinger, making The Flat was a lesson in how the past, when examined closely, often fails to conform to the neat categories taught in school.

The Flat
screens 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16 at the Marcus North Shore Cinema as part of the 15th annual Jewish Film Festival. The festival of Jewish-themed films from several nations runs Oct. 14-18. For information or to purchase advance tickets, email mseinfeld@jccmilwaukee.org.