Film Review: Aida's Secrets

Documentary about a World War II refugee's two children, raised in two countries and unaware of each other's existence, is an engrossing genealogical mystery-drama with soap-opera twists.
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World War II didn't end in 1945, if you count the reverberations that rumbled across an apocalyptic Europe for years afterward. After V-E Day, millions of refugees displaced from their homes began swarming back, with many survivors having done what they had to in order to survive, and others, including one Aida Szewelewicz, about to do what they had to for their children to survive.

In this first film by writer-director Alon Schwarz—a software entrepreneur-turned-documentarist aided by his filmmaker brother and co-director Shaul Schwarz—one of those children was his 68-year-old uncle, Izak Sagui. A gardener in Israel, Izak has what seems a contented life with a wife, three children and eight grandchildren. And when he was seven or eight, he learned his parents weren't really his parents.

Or not his biological parents, at least—as Izak's two older siblings attest, he was their brother in all ways and was raised in a loving family. But he wanted to know who his birth parents were, and discovered that his mother, the titular Aida of the secrets, had given birth to him at the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp in Germany after the war and then immigrated to Canada. She reunited with him when she flew in for his bar mitzvah and they remained in touch long-distance. As for his father, well—secrets. It's only when Izak's daughter finally investigates her family's past that four immigration certificates crop up, showing Izak was sent to what was then Palestine, while Aida (a.k.a. Jadwiga and Jadza) and husband Grisha (a.k.a. Greisha, Grisza and Gregory) moved to Canada along with—hey, dad, you'd better come look at this—a brother, Szepsel, that Izak didn't know he had.

This initiates a trail of sleuthing for Schwarz, who enlists the genealogy site MyHeritage.com and senior researcher Laurence Harris to help track this brother down. (The company is thanked in the end credits for helping the project "on a humanitarian basis.") They discover the now 67-year-old Shepsel Shell, blind since infancy, in Winnipeg, and you’d best believe he and Izak have a tearful reunion at the airport there.

This reunion takes place just 21 minutes into Aida’s Secrets, and proves to be only the beginning of more mysteries. Shep was 16 before learning that his "mother" was really his stepmother. And now it's unclear whether Grisha, who died in 2008 and was by Shep's account a terrible father, was in fact his—and/or Izak's—father. Who was the unidentified man in an old postwar family-picnic photo with both baby sons? Where does Bergen-Belsen nurse Zippy Orlin fit in, or Grisha's secretary at the camp, a woman named Ilush? There's a second tearful reunion at a nursing home in Montreal where Aida—now Aïda Zasadsinksa—now lives. But to say more would be to undercut the delicious mystery and methodical, police procedural-like investigation that takes Alon to archives in Montreal and Amsterdam and, of course, to Uncle Sid and cousin Dianne.

Add a crash course in the eye-openingly upbeat, live-for-the-moment world of postwar European refugees—"Back then you could have any girl for a watch or a pair of boots," Aida's friend at the time, Marisha, tells Schwarz without judgment, "back then it wasn't about emotions”—and Aida's Secrets transcends even the amazing family story it is to become something richer, more layered and darker, with twists equally worthy of Saul Bellow or a romance novelist.

Some quick points: First, the running time is 95 minutes and 20 seconds, not the 90 minutes that the press materials claim and that even The New York Times wrongly printed. And second, while the film subtitles its frequent Hebrew and the occasional thickly accented English, it needed to have more; the sound recording sometimes leaves much to be desired, including in an echoic room in Shep's home where the family is sitting around talking. As well, it would have been nice to know more about the burly Shep other than his being a forthright sort who becomes, very understandably, an approval-seeking little boy around his mother.

No matter—small things. Aida's secrets should be shared with the world. They're about more than just one family.

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