Had history gone another way, I might have grown up in a rural Moldovan village.
So begins Absent, the masterful 2015 documentary film by director Matthew Mishory. As history did not go another way, Mishory’s father and grandparents left Moldova before WWII, and he grew up in Los Angeles. Absent documents his journey to Mărculeşti, a small village in the country’s north, as the first of his family to return since the war. The film has finally completed its run of the festival circuit and is now streaming on Amazon.
Those expecting a whimsical portrait of the old country are sure to be disappointed. Absent is the anti-Everything is Illuminated, and perfectly captures what the author Robert D. Kaplan calls “the familiar hollowness in the ambience common to cities and towns throughout Eastern Europe where the Jews had either been killed or had emigrated”. In the summer of 1941, Mărculeşti, then almost entirely Jewish, was invaded by Ion Antonescu’s Romanian forces, who massacred its residents. A concentration camp was established on the outskirts of the village, one last stop for the Jews of Bessarabia before their final deportation to the nearby Transnistria Governorate.
Mishory and crew wander through the town, asking the residents what they know about their local history. Predictably, most of the children have only the vaguest notions. A woman, proud of her “Jewish house” (it lets in less of the cold, and she can’t afford to pay for heating), guesses the Jews left because “they have a better life where there are now, but I don’t know why they left their houses behind”. Her daughter says that they were killed for their cleverness. A meeting with the town historian is even more disappointing; he speaks warmly of the town’s pre-war period, with its six synogogues, but denies the massacre and the looting that followed.
Though Absent does not dwell much on Mishory’s ancestral story, it is obviously a work of deep personal meaning for him. He visits the mayor in Mărculeşti’s town hall, formerly the Jewish schoolhouse where Mishory’s own grandfather was principal. “These are minor moments in the film, but personally, they have stayed with me,” Mishory told me in a recent interview. “Mostly what lingers is the landscapes, the feel of the place. The family letters I’ve read, the ones from the 1930s about not wanting to leave Bessarabia and reluctantly setting out to Eretz Israel, suddenly made sense.” Mishory’s father’s grandfather, grandmother, aunt, and her husband were all murdered in the massacres of June 1941, in the “Cleansing of the Land”. “They died in a village not far from Mărculeşti, or on one of the death marches to Transnistria,” he said. “It’s probably impossible to know for sure, but they were almost certainly killed by Romanians and not Nazis. My father’s other set of grandparents were ‘lucky’ to have been deported to Siberia for their Zionism by the Soviets just before the invasion. They lived out the war there and died in Siberia. They never saw my grandmother again.”
With its lingering shots of the village’s asbestos roofs and abandoned Jewish graveyard, and its scoreless soundtrack, Absent is a haunting experience. Mishory cites Claude Lanzmann as an obvious influence, but the film is almost Sebaldian in tone, taking its time to painstakingly circumnavigate Mărculeşti’s atrocities before finally and horrifically homing in on its valley of death.
I asked Mishory what his feelings were before setting out on his journey, and whether they changed over the course of putting the film together. “I came into the project a committed Zionist, and came out with my convictions strengthened,” he said. “But the history of Mărculeşti and the Holocaust pose impossible intellectual and theological questions. All I can say is that my feelings about what happened in Mărculeşti are complicated. I remain a practicing Jew. And I also have serious doubts about human nature. I’m angry that people who live overlooking a killing field lie about their history. But I also have a lot of empathy for the current residents of the village and their difficult circumstances.”
It’s been over four years since Mishory and crew paid a twenty-dollar bribe at the Romania-Moldova border crossing to gain entry to the poorest country in Europe, beginning a shoot which Mishory described as quick and difficult. There were logistical challenges, of course, but also personal ones. “My father was already quite ill when I started the film,” Mishory said. “I think I was very much aware that my living connection to the place would not be around much longer, so it was the time to act. And that came to pass; my father died as I was editing the movie. I am now the only living member of my family who has been to Mărculeşti, and I will probably be the last.”