‘Holding Hands with Ilsa’: Hampshire College film professor explores his roots in post-WWII Poland

Last modified: Thursday, November 20, 2014

It’s just a tendril of the past: a faded, somewhat blotchy black-and-white photo of a teenage girl, standing in a meadow with her hands on the shoulders of a small boy. Both face the camera, but between the shadows in the foreground and the picture’s age, it’s hard to read their expressions.

For Abraham Ravett, this photo, taken in his native Poland in 1950, is the only reminder of his German baby sitter, Ilsa, who helped take care of him when he was very young. His family immigrated later that year to Israel, and five years after that to the United States; he long ago lost all touch with the German teen and has no memory of her, including posing with her for the picture.

Now Ravett, a longtime professor of film and photography at Hampshire College, is using that grainy photograph as a starting point for a new film project — an examination of his roots and a search for who Ilsa was. It’s possible she’s still alive, Ravett says, and he hopes he might find her; she would likely be in her late 70s.

But he stresses that his film, “Holding Hands with Ilsa,” is really “about the journey.”

“I’m not really interested in the epiphany of reunion,” said Ravett, 67. “It’s more about what this did to me, psychologically and emotionally ... and about loss and abandonment and coming to terms with that. I realized at some point that I’d had a very important, formative relationship with this girl, and that losing all touch with her probably had a great effect on me.”

The story is actually more complicated than that — and it embraces a much broader and greater sense of loss. Ravett’s parents were Polish Jews who both survived the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz — but their previous spouses and children did not. They met and married after World War II; Ravett, their only child, was born in 1947 in the southwestern Polish city of Walbrzych, which before the war had been part of Germany and was called Waldenburg.

In this borderlands region, where most Germans were expelled by the Poles after the war, Ravett notes there were aspects of his parents’ lives that reflected the conflicted nature of the area. Though born in Poland, his mother and father were both German nationals whose first language was German, as was Ravett’s. And given their trauma at the hands of the Nazis, and the anti-Semitism in Poland before the war, his parents ultimately decided to go to Israel — none of which Ravett understood at the time.

In fact, Ravett would only piece together his parents’ stories years later, after his family had settled in Brooklyn, N.Y. Now, he hopes to use his new film to explore not only his early years in Poland but the history of that region since WWII, as well as how his own life’s trajectory has brought him back to the region.

Ravett visited Walbrzych this past summer to do initial research and filming, marking only his second visit to Poland since he left in 1950. He’s starting pretty much from a blank slate: He has no memories of his childhood years in Walbrzych, and so far has not met anyone there who remembers him or his family from the post-WWII years.

Nevertheless, he was encouraged by his visit. During his first trip back to Poland — he was invited to screen some of his films at a festival in the city of Wroclaw in 2009 — he remembers feeling distinctly uncomfortable, recalling all he’d heard from his parents about their experience with Polish anti-Semitism before WWII.

“This time was much better,” he said. “I didn’t feel any kind of stigma [about being Jewish] ... it made me think in a broader context about different cultures and using that as part of the story.”

A family’s history

Ravett, who lives in Northampton, has taught at Hampshire since 1979. He’s also been an independent filmmaker for much of that time, and his work, including many short films, has been screened in festivals and other settings both nationally and internationally.

Over the last decade, he’s made a number of films that examine the history of his family, such as “Lunch with Fela,” a 2005 study of his late mother, who died in 1998; his father, Chaim, died in 1979. Some of these works, Ravett says, have explored a theme similar to that of his new film: an experience of loss and how that’s affected his life as a whole.

The picture of him with his teenage baby sitter, Ilsa, is part of a collection of old family photos he’s had since the 1980s, Ravett notes. But it was only in recent years that he began looking at it within a larger context of family history — and what his parents experienced during the war years.

His father lost his first wife and his two sons at Auschwitz. His mother lost her first husband and her daughter, Toncia, at the concentration camp. Ravett says he has a photo of Toncia, taken before WWII, that he also began looking at in a new light when he considered the one of Ilsa.

After his family left Poland, he said, “Nothing was ever discussed. We had this long journey to Israel, where we lived in a tent [encampment] for two years. ... Then we came to New York, and I didn’t understand any of it. But all of it’s connected to this sense of loss my parents experienced, and that I experienced but didn’t understand.”

About Ilsa, he said, “What happened to her after we left? Did she stay in Walbrzych? What did her parents do that had enabled her family to live there after the war?”

He explains that about 3,000 Germans were allowed to remain in the city after it became part of Poland, such as workers with special skills, or civil servants, police and other municipal employees needed to keep the city running as it made the transition to a new country and government. A small German community still lives in Walbrzych.

“It would help if I knew her last name,” Ravett added, “but since I don’t, I need to look at the larger picture of what happened to the Germans [in the former Waldenburg]. Where did they go? To Berlin? To [the former] East Germany? Or somewhere else?”

This past summer, Ravett began researching some of those questions while also exploring his roots. He visited the neighborhood he’d lived in, which seemed mostly unchanged from his childhood, as far as he could tell.

“I really don’t have memories from that time. But the buildings don’t look like they’ve been renovated since the war, so there was just a hint of what I might have seen when I was being pushed in a stroller or going in and out of our apartment.”

He also made initial contacts with organizations that might help him in his search, although the language barrier — he can understand spoken German reasonably well but does not speak Polish — makes things more challenging.

While he was in Walbrzych, he said, he also noticed “hordes” of tourist buses coming into the city, bringing Germans who once lived there or in the surrounding region, or had relatives who had lived there. Clearly, he said, “I’m not the only one who’s investigating his past — it’s a topic of a lot of importance to different people.”

Ravett plans to return to Walbrzych next summer with support from a grant from the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, a New York organization dedicated to strengthening Jewish cultural life. And as he pursues a story that is inextricably linked to that of his parents, the Holocaust and the huge upheavals of WWII, he’ll keep in mind a goal he set for himself when he began making films about his family’s history.

“I’ve never wanted to do anything that might be harmful to my parents,” he said. “I want my stories to honor them.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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