By Ernest Barteldes
Last weekend Renata and I braved the bitter cold outside to attend a screening of The Return, a documentary by Adam Zucker that was partially financed via a Kickstarter campaign. We’d heard about the film through the Polish Cultural Institute’s 2015 program, and after a chance meeting with Zucker at a cocktail party downtown we decided to check it out.
The screening happened at the Lincoln Square Synagogue – it was only the second time I’d ever set foot inside one (the first was during a service for a friend about two years ago). The movie follows four young women from Warsaw and Krakow who struggle with the concept of being Jewish in Poland – a country that was once home to over 4 million Jews but has now dwindled to about 25,000 mainly due to the horrors of the Holocaust.
Zucker filmed the documentary over the course of five years, and it was impressive to see how these women evolved. Two embrace Orthodox ways (not a spoiler, you can see that on the trailer) while the other two explore their Jewishness in very different ways.
Of the three women, only one – Maria – was apparently aware of her roots from the start. She was raised in a secular family, but after meeting an Orthodox man she embraces that way of life, quickly getting married and having children. The other three (Kasia, Katka and Tusia) only discovered their roots later in life, and embrace them in completely different degrees.
As the stories progress, we also see many manifestations of Jewish culture in Poland – there is footage of an acoustic set by Mattisyahu (who has a huge fan base there) and glimpses of the Jewish Music Festival in Krakow. There are also two Orthodox weddings and scenes from rituals inside a synagogue. Though mostly shot in Warsaw and Krakow, there is also plenty of footage taken in Jerusalem (where both Kasia and Maria went to pursue their studies), Prague and Bushwick, where Tusia (a dual American and Polish citizen) lives while pursuing a Masters’ degree at NYU.
The imagery is very rich – we see various locales around the two cities – I recognized the tram we took in Warsaw and the area where our hotel was located, and also the former Jewish district of Kazimierz where Renata and I stayed during both of our visits to Krakow.
The main question the film makes is if Poland is a viable place for young Jews to live in, and the conclusion is up to the viewer. During one of the various interviews, Katka states that today in Europe, one is seen as cool if you have “black, a Jewish and a homosexual one,” but in another moment she says it is “very hard” to pursue the Jewish lifestyle in Warsaw because there are “very few facilities and a very small community” as she walks around a residential neighborhood.
I thought it was a very touching film – yes, they make references to the Holocaust (we catch some glimpses of Auschwitz) but it’s not something they dwell on, because the film is really about being Jewish in today’s Poland, with all its intricacies and complexities. The film is being screened in various locations (you can check them out on the film’s website http://www.thereturndocumentary.com/) , and I highly recommend it.