Four Winters debuted at the New York Jewish Film Festival last month and will be wending its way around the festival circuit in the weeks to come. It’s an unusual Holocaust documentary, in that it focuses not on concentration camps but on Jewish resistance, on young partisan fighters hiding out from Nazis in Eastern European forests and engaging in guerilla warfare. It’s surprising, moving, horrifying …and sometimes shockingly funny.
Filmmaker Julia Mintz never set out to do a Holocaust movie. “I’d been raised on Anne Frank and Auschwitz and Jews being led like lambs to the slaughter,” she told me in an interview. “But I stumbled on an article about a Jewish partisan and learned that there were 25,000 people living in the woods and fighting. I had no idea there was a resistance movement. It fascinated me. I’d never even worked on a Jewish film, let alone made one, but I needed to know more.”
Over the course of almost a decade, while working on other projects, Mintz tracked down survivors, conducted interviews, and gathered vintage photos and film footage. “I was rubbing nickels together,” she reflected ruefully. “I was a first-time director and it was hard to get major funders on board. I raised money $18 and $36 at a time.” Some survivors were reluctant to speak; she approached one repeatedly for four years. “Finally he said, ‘Come for Shabbat dinner,’” she said. “At the end of the meal, he said, ‘OK, you can interview me.’”
Another challenge was Mintz’s desire to challenge preconceptions about Jewish victims. She succeeded. One moment at the festival screening drew gasps: A former partisan named Gertrude Boyarsky—white hair glamorously coiffed, lips bright with what appears to be Cherries in the Snow lipstick—tells a story about recognizing her prom date, a local Polish boy, among the soldiers herding her and her family into the woods to be shot. “I called him by name,” she says in the film. “We went to school together.” The boy answered her, “You’re a Jew and you have to die.” In her elegant accent, she recites dispassionately what happened next: “All the bullets I felt come around me. I was all alone in the woods. Sky was blue. Snow was white.” Her mother, sisters, and baby brother were massacred. Boyarsky survived to join the partisans, spending four years—four winters—in the woods. One day, her colleagues captured a small group of Nazis and Polish collaborators; among them was her former prom date. “That guy that killed me,” she said. Her fellow resistance fighters, knowing what he’d done to her family, gave her the opportunity to kill him. Boyarsky pauses for a long moment in the movie: “Yes,” she says, “I was able to kill him.”
A handful of other former partisans tell similarly shocking stories of violence as well as loss. Mintz weaves the speakers’ stories together in artful thematic montages about learning to shoot a gun, sleeping in the woods, being perpetually hungry, doing field medicine, having babies and abortions, derailing trains, raiding towns for rifles and kerosene. Dramatic music, quick edits and sound effects propel the narrative. In old photos, groups of partisans—including those we meet in the film as elderly people—pose smilingly in the snowy woods, holding guns and ammo they’ve stolen from Polish farms and Nazi factories. (One of them, Luba Abramowitz, tells viewers mischievously, “As you know, women have more places to hide weapons than men. Yes?”)
The narrators’ stories are frequently harrowing … but the tellers themselves are sometimes hilarious. (It feels almost sacrilegious to laugh during a Holocaust documentary.) Isadore Farbstein, in a brown plaid grandpa shirt and twinkling eyes, talks about his difficulty finding partisans to join up with. “The forest is not a hotel that’s waiting for you!” he exclaims. Michael Stoll tells a heartbreaking story of leaping from a moving train headed to the camp, but he peppers the telling with jokes. It’s jarring and it’s real. (“Humor is a survival strategy,” Mintz said. “It was important to me to show that.”) Of a cluster of people in the corner of the cattle car praying, Stoll snorts, “Jews have a habit of speaking to God. I say it’s ridiculous. You think He’s gonna listen to you?” Moments later, as he stands outside the train car on a narrow railing, he says, “I’m sorry, God, I insulted you! Don’t let me fall!” After he’s jumped from the train, a Polish peasant sees him, marks him as a Jew, and—instead of ratting him out points him to the location of Jewish partisans on the other side of a river; Stoll says dryly, “Now I have a conflict. Maybe God sent him … but I don’t believe in You!”
One of the partisans in the film is immediately recognizable to Tablet readers: the glamorous young Faye Schulman, wearing a leopard coat, her hat at a jaunty angle, making a bandoleer of bullets look like the latest from the Paris runways. “All I owned was a rifle, a leopard coat and my camera,” she says in the film. She learned to make her own developer so she could document the horrors: “I developed the pictures in the woods; I covered myself with a blanket. That was my darkroom.”
These storytellers feel like indelible, individualized characters. But Mintz also shares images and old movies that make Jews look anonymous and dehumanized—herded naked and vulnerable into pits, beaten by laughing villagers and soldiers, dragged by their hair, hanged in a town square. Those images reflect the way we’re used to thinking about the Jews during the Holocaust; they too are the truth, but they’re not the whole truth. “Seventy-five years later, I wanted to not to just look at the Nazis’ photography or the liberators or the righteous gentiles or the historical context,” Mintz said. “I wanted to show the partisans as real people, and to think about what it takes to fight back. As a kid, I used to think, ‘Why didn’t they jump from the trains? I would have jumped from the train!’ But making this film, I learned how hard that actually was. I tried to capture the physiological experience of what it was like to jump. You left people you loved on that train. Today I think, would I really have left my sister or mother or lover?”
Four Winters feels like the kind of film that should have a long life in high schools and colleges, especially now that the last Holocaust survivors are dying—Boyarsky passed away shortly after her interview was completed—and anti-Semitism is on the rise again, now that two-thirds of American millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is and 41% don’t know that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust. Teaching about genocide is daunting and difficult to do well. It’s hard to make such education absorbing without making it too traumatic to endure; it’s hard for kids to identify with faceless corpses instead of fully formed people; it’s hard for kids to imagine not standing up to injustice themselves. Four Winters shows the challenges and the furious, vengeful, sickening thrill of violent resistance. It also shows why it’s so difficult to stand up to tyranny.
Mintz finished Four Winters only 60 hours before the screening at Lincoln Center. “I wrote and produced this in my attic in Northampton,” she told me, her voice a hoarse croak. “I’m not sleeping; I’m talking to distributors … but I’m also not ready to give it away.” She’d love to do an exhibit to go along with the film, incorporating topical maps, photos newly restored for the film, and historical objects. And she’s still looking for funding. “I’d love to release the film theatrically, because that’s how people will hear about it, but just to do one theater is around $25,000—that’s low budget—and you need a machine behind it to promote it. But Lincoln Center sold out in four hours; the Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival sold out and I only know like five people there.” (Full disclosure: My brother Andrew Ingall worked for the Foundation for Jewish Culture, which provided some financial support to the film; I didn’t know that when I decided to write about it.)
The film’s end credits are set to Leonard Cohen’s gorgeous “Dance Me to the End of Love,” a song Cohen has said was inspired by the string quartets that played in concentration camps. The lyrics seem terribly fitting:
Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love.
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.