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New Film About Summer Camp Holocaust Game

‘How to Make it to the Promised Land’ based on Ellen Umansky’s short story

Stephanie Butnick
June 06, 2013
A still from How to Make it to the Promised Land.(Yoram Astrakhan)
A still from How to Make it to the Promised Land.(Yoram Astrakhan)

What do you do when your modern-day Jewish summer camp gets turned into Lodz, Poland in 1942, and campers get assigned cards that give them new identities either as Jews, Nazis, or passport officers?

That’s the premise of Sam Zalutsky’s new film, How to Make it in the Promised Land. The film is based on Ellen Umansky’s short story of the same name, which was published in Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge and re-published in Tablet in 2007. Umansky was a longtime Tablet staffer and formerly edited the Life and Religion section.

Zalutsky first encountered the haunting, absorbing story at an event where Umansky was reading it. “Immediately when I heard her read it I thought, ‘That has to be a movie,’” he told me over the phone.

We are handed yellow stars and strands of plastic beads that will double as currency. We are given purple, ink-smudged maps of camp on which everything has been renamed. All the Hebrew names are gone: My bunk, formerly called Machon, is the Polish Passport Agency. Bunk Alonim is the bank. The kitchen is the town’s desecrated synagogue and is entirely off limits. The old canyon fire road is the Polish border.

My name is gone too. We are handed ID cards, and I am no longer Lizzie Lenthem, 15, of Topanga, California, but Anya Ossevsheva, 28, of Lodz. I have four kids. I have a long aquiline nose and a hard unsmiling mouth. I look nothing like me.

The story appealed to Zalutsky beyond just its cinematic qualities—it resonated with him on a personal level. He remembered a night at his own Jewish summer camp where the counselors turned the lights off in the rec hall and explained to the campers an activity in which they were refuseniks, the counselors would be KGB agents, and they had to make it out of the country. It was designed to engage them with the movement to aid Soviet Jewry, but it mostly just freaked them out. These are chilling scenarios to be thrust upon an idyllic summer camp experience, and that’s part of what drew Zalutsky to the project.

“The contrast between this place that’s supposed to be so warm and loving becomes very confusing and very strange and potentially really upsetting,” he explained.

He optioned the story and decided to make it into a short film, which he’s now raising post-production funds for via a Kickstarter campaign. The story follows 15-year-old Lizzie, the same main character from Umansky’s story, as she navigates her newly upturned world, where friends are no longer allies and the stakes have gotten frighteningly high.

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.