A Holocaust Story That Spanned 70 Years and Two Continents – The Making of SURVIVING SKOKIE – Q and A with Filmmaker Eli Adler

Eli Adler (Filmmaker), Jack Adler (the film’s subject and Eli’s dad), (Filmmaker) Blair Gershkow of SURVIVING SKOKIE

 

Film Courage: What can you tell us about growing up in Skokie, Illinois?

Eli Adler: My memories of growing up in Skokie are all quite pleasant. It was a sleepy little suburb with lots of kids. Of course back then parents didn’t worry as much about their children as they do today, so my buddies and I would ride our bikes all over town, explore vacant lots, play ball, go to double feature matinees on Saturdays, etc. I did notice that most of my parent’s friends had accents and some of them had tattoos on their left forearms, but that didn’t mean much to me until later. It is estimated that when I grew up there approximately 10% of the population were Holocaust survivors (the largest per capita number of survivors in America, if not the world). More than half of the town’s population was Jewish.

 

Eli Adler as a young boy

Film Courage: What were your plans after high school? Did you stay with those plans?

Eli: I had entered college with the intention of becoming a doctor. I suppose that by hearing my parent’s suggestion of that for most of my life I actually believed it. It only took a year and a half in a pre-med program to realize that it wasn’t my dream. My dream was to become a filmmaker, so I transferred to a film school in Montana and ultimately moved to San Francisco to hone my craft.

Film Courage: What did you learn from observing your father and subject of SURVIVING SKOKIE (Jack Adler) while growing up? Not just what he advised for you, but seeing him beginning a new life (in action) yet carrying a traumatic past?

Eli: My father has a very good sense of humor. In fact many of my friends call him “Jokin’ Jack.” He always loved telling jokes and making people laugh. I suppose that helped him deal with the demons inside of him following such a traumatic experience as a young man. Although I knew the reason I had no grandparents, aunts or uncles on his side of the family was due to the Holocaust, I never received much in the way of details about his past while growing up. It wasn’t until he retired and had grandchildren of his own that he began sharing those details with my sister and me and then ultimately to hundreds of thousands of children who he spoke to in numerous schools.

My father always hoped that his children would have a better life than he did. Although he wasn’t a very religious man (survivors responded differently to their experiences in the camps. Many became more religious. Some less. My father lost his faith in the camps) he was quite proud to see me have a Bar Mitzvah in public. His Bar Mitzvah was a covert action that occurred in his ghetto apartment in Pabianice.

Eli and Jack in SURVIVING SKOKIE

Film Courage: What was one thing your father spoke of which you’ve never forgotten?

Eli: My father has always contended that organized religion is one of the worst things that has happened to humanity. He always said that the purpose of organized religion was PPO—pray, pay and obey. More people have been killed throughout history in the name of God than for any other reason. Yet, he constantly reminded me that I should always be proud to be a Jew.

Film Courage: How did you meet your co-collaborator on SURVIVING SKOKIE, Blair Gershkow? How did you divide the workload for the film?

Eli: I met Blair through a mutual friend several years ago. I knew that he was an accomplished documentary editor who had worked on many important films with many talented producer/directors. He is also married to a woman whose parents were Holocaust survivors. I knew that he would be interested in collaborating in the making of Surviving Skokie. When I asked him to partner with me he jumped at the opportunity.

Like most independent documentaries, this film was difficult to get financed. Blair cut a fundraising trailer from the interviews I had shot in Chicago in the fall of 2009. I was in charge of fundraising and coordinating production while Blair continued working on a script and editing. As I knew that I could never raise enough money to pay a salary for both of us, I continued to work as a freelance cameraman so that I could survive. All the money raised would be used to pay him (at a discounted rate), additional crew and travel. After six years we had finally raised enough money to complete the film.

Film Courage: Aside from being extremely connected to the material, why did you and Blair make this movie?

Eli: We knew that there were dozens of Holocaust documentaries already produced and available for viewing, and had seen many of them. However, we always contended that this film would be different. Not only would it tell the story of the Holocaust through one person’s eyes, but it would be told against the backdrop of the events that occurred in Skokie a mere 30 years later. Added to that would be a tender father-son relationship story. Nothing like this has ever been done. Blair and I knew that we had a unique story to tell.

Photo from Survivingskokiemovie.org – Jack Adler as a young adult in Chicago, IL

Film Courage: [In a prior interview] You touch on a 2008 Chicago Tribune article by Howard Reich entitled ‘Memories Of The Skokie That Was’ which served as a partial catalyst for the film. How prevalent in 1960’s/70’s Skokie, Illinois was his observation of “Who cares about your family’s history when you’re young, anyway?” Do you feel this is still applicable, with post-Baby Boomer generations?

Eli: I do agree with that statement in general terms. Though I wish it was different in my case, the reality is that most youth are self-absorbed. I hope that Surviving Skokie can act as a catalyst for young people to get them to care more about, not only their family’s histories, but about all people who are targeted solely on the basis of their religion, ethnicity or personal beliefs.

Photo from Survivingskokiemovie.org – Jack Adler in Auschwitz – Photo credit: Eli Adler

Film Courage: SURVIVING SOKIE has numerous powerful aspects to it including an important look at activism, mob mentality, etc. Was this always your plan to include this in the film? Or did it unravel as you found out more your father’s story?

Eli: We always intended to include the visuals of activism and mob mentality in the film, especially since such wonderful archival material was offered to us. These were the same issues confronting the average German during Hitler’s rise to power. It’s so easy to shrug off someone like Hitler in the beginning, just like many who shrugged off Frank Collin in Chicago, or for that matter Richard Spencer and Andrew Anglin today. However, we did learn something from Hitler and that is you never know how far someone like him can go. The lessons from our past must be heeded to avoid history repeating itself. The threatened march also served as a wakeup call for the survivors living in Skokie at the time. They saw what happened in Nazi Germany when people failed to speak up and speak out.

Film Courage: How much of the post-Baby Boomer generations mimic or avoid 1960’s activism? Do you feel current generations should be more active toward injustice? Less so?

Eli: I am encouraged by the many protest movements begun by post-Baby Boomers. Whether it is the recent Women’s March or the Occupy Movement, I believe that it is vitally important to show solidarity and voice one’s disapproval. We still have that freedom in this country and I believe it is an almost an obligation to use that freedom. I do not agree when these protests become violent or destructive, but I do believe people do need to become more active toward injustice. The film begins with a quote from Elie Wiesel that states, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

 

“The process involved pouring through hours and hours of interview transcripts that served as the foundation for the film. Connective tissue, in the form of narration, was added when necessary to either propel the film or offer facts and information in a concise way. Sometimes a story, taken from an interview, takes too long to tell. The written narration can condense that story and help the film move forward.”

 

Eli Adler, Filmmaker – SURVIVING SKOKIE

 

 

Film Courage: Where did you obtain protest photos and old footage? How did you secure it? What advice can you share to fellow documentarians on incorporating older media into their films?

Eli: We were quite fortunate to have hired a an excellent researcher. She connected me with a news photographer who had covered Frank Collin at that time. He also covered many of the anti-Collin demonstrations. When I spoke with him he graciously released the rights to use his footage in our film. I also became acquainted with Buzz Alpern, the head of the Chicago JDL. He had documented the JDL’s actions at Collin marches throughout the years and again offered the footage to us. Additional footage was obtained through the Chicago Film Archives, and the CBS and NBC Archives. Much of the WWII footage was obtained through the US Holocaust Museum Archives, the Steven Spielberg Photo Archives, Yad Vashem and the Ghetto Fighter’s House in Israel. There were many more sources as well.

Photo credit: David Kantro – Skokie Protesters 1978 – Photo from Survivingskokiemovie.org

 

Film Courage: How much do you remember of the 1960’s/1970’s activism in the greater Chicago area (Skokie, Wilmette, etc.) at the time? As a young child/teenager, how did you view it? Were you entirely sheltered from it?

Eli: I was on a school trip to Washington, D.C when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I remember coming home to massive riots in Chicago. Of course, I didn’t live near the “hot spots,” but recall seeing news footage. I also recall the Grant Park protests during the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. This all had an effect on me but didn’t move me into action. I was a bit too young and geographically isolated. When news of the threatened neo-Nazi march in Skokie became national news I was a film student in Montana. I felt personally assaulted, as a child of a Holocaust survivor who grew up there. I did follow that story very closely.

Film Courage: Having been a cinematographer most of your career and working with so many talented filmmakers, you’ve undoubtedly been exposed to many versions of storytelling. When you and Blair set out to make SURVIVING SKOKIE, what did you know you wanted the film to be? What did you know that you did not want the film to be?

Eli: I wanted the film to be a personal account of a story that has become so distant and abstract that it could serve the educational community well. It was always important to me to see the film used that way, and as such neither Blair nor I wanted to use any of the horribly graphic images of death and suffering that are so often used in other Holocaust documentaries. It was also very important to me that the film be artistically and technically proficient. It needed to look good and be well paced and edited. This was a complicated story to tell. It spanned 70 years and two continents as well as told three stand alone stories that needed to be seamlessly connected in a riveting, emotional and coherent manner.

Film Courage: Did you write a script for the film’s narration or a 3-act structure? What was your process?

Eli: Blair wrote the script for the film’s narration which happened to follow a 3 act structure. Act 1 was to set up my father’s past in such a way that the viewer would understand his and the other survivor’s psyches who found their way to Skokie. Act 2 was to set up the climate in Skokie that ultimately led to Frank Collin’s decision to march in Skokie and how that decision affected not only the survivors who lived their but many others who disagreed with that decision. Act 3 was to show the positive outcome from this event—the creation of the Illinois Holocaust Museum as well as my father’s second career as a Holocaust educator.

The process involved pouring through hours and hours of interview transcripts that served as the foundation for the film. Connective tissue, in the form of narration, was added when necessary to either propel the film or offer facts and information in a concise way. Sometimes a story, taken from an interview, takes too long to tell. The written narration can condense that story and help the film move forward.

Film Courage: What was the budget for SURVIVING SKOKIE? How did you fund it?

Eli: The out of pocket budget for Surviving Skokie was $225,000. It’s partly that small because I paid myself nothing. All the money raised was used to pay Blair to co-produce, write and edit, to pay additional crew and travel expenses, archival licensing, music composition, audio sweetening and color grading and finishing. We received a small grant ($20,000) from the Claim Conference to get us started. We held several fundraising events where we showed the trailer or edited scenes from the film. We also had a Razoo campaign, which is similar to Kickstarter but used exclusively for non-profit projects (we had a fiscal sponsor who was a tax exempt organization). We were also quite blessed to find an individual with a family foundation used to help nonprofits. This particular individual was someone who had known me for several years, knew the caliber of my work and believed in the project. The lion’s share of the budget came from that person.

Film Courage: What did you use to shoot this film? Sound? Lighting kit?

Eli: We used three different cameras during the production of Surviving Skokie. Camera technology changes so rapidly and in the course of six years in production we kept upgrading our camera equipment. As a cameraman with an equipment rental company, I had access to the latest technology as it became available. We started by using the Sony EX-3. We then moved on to the Canon C300 and ultimately the Sony FS7 for the final interviews. Sound Devices mixers, Lectrosonic lavaliers and Shoeps boom mics captured all the audio. Our lighting consisted of two Kino Diva 400s, 1×1 Lite Panels and a variety of diffusion and bounce.

Film Courage: You had the delicate, yet incredible opportunity of interviewing fellow holocaust survivors. What was your approach before, during and after the interviews? Was there footage you omitted? If so, why? Especially in light of prior generations being more reserved in expressing emotions publicly versus the current age of social media commentary that documents most personal details?

Eli: Aaron and Fritzi, the two fellow survivors I interviewed for the film were recommended to me by Howard Reich (the author of the Chicago Tribune story that originally served as the blueprint for Surviving Skokie). They both had done quite a bit of speaking about their personal stories so were more comfortable in that position than most. I did spend some time getting to know them before we actually turned the camera on so they would feel comfortable sharing their stories with me. We omitted much of their personal Holocaust stories, primarily because of our time constraints but also because it became clear in editing that being a personal film, my father’s story was the one we would focus on. Although their stories were amazing as well we weren’t able to use them.

Film Courage: The therapist in SURVIVING SKOKIE was not only a fantastic interview but a helpful addition to the film, touching on the psychological ramifications for survivors. How did you meet him?

Eli: We knew that it was important to convey the psyche of a survivor for the viewer to better understand how painful the thought of neo-Nazis marching in their town would be to them. The First Amendment rights issues tackled in the film are not just black and white. We wanted to show the gray area between the two extremes, that being the impact on the Skokie survivor community. Dr. Rosenberg had treated many survivors during his career and had amazing insight into their psychological state. Dr. Rosenberg was suggested to us by Howard Reich.

Film Courage: How shocked and confused were you to find that Collin’s father had been in holocaust survivor? How pivotal is this reveal in the film? The saying ‘Nothing Unites Like a Common Enemy’ does not seem to apply here?

Eli: I could only imagine the shame that Max Collin felt knowing that his son was the leader of neo-Nazi organization. Blair and I had thought about a sequence in the film where we compared Collin’s life to mine—two children of survivors who followed a completely different path. Because of time constraints we chose to omit it. While fundraising, there were several Jewish organizations who had advised us to not even mention the fact that Collin was the son of a German Jewish survivor. They believed that this could taint the gentile’s perception of all Jews. Lord knows many of them don’t need that kind of ammunition. However, we believed that it was a crucial fact and one that needed to stay in the film, albeit as a shorter scene as opposed to the longer sequence Blair had originally intended.

Film Courage: In the film, your father states “I am not afraid to be a realist?” What does this mean to him and for yourself?

Eli: I can’t be certain what my father meant by that comment but can surmise that he’s a realist in the sense that he knows that Jews continue to be prejudged and/or targeted throughout the world.

His message of mutual respect and tolerance is one that he hopes may change that some day. I echo that sentiment.

Film Courage: After making this film, how did your relationship with your father evolve?

Eli: Though my father and I were fairly close before making the film, the experience of making the film with him has further solidified that bond. As an adult I have heard my father tell his story many times, but the experience I had with him in Auschwitz with the March of the Living teens was one where I got a very close up view of the power of his message and his impact on young people. It truly gave me hope for the future. Sadly, it won’t be too long before there are no survivors left. Who will speak for them when more and more deniers come out of the woodwork? I believe it will become the mission of the next generations to carry the torch for people like my father.

Film Courage: Advice to other filmmakers making a film about family history?

Eli: Firstly, collect as many photos and videos you can. I had some great super-8 footage of my dad when I was much younger that was sadly destroyed in a flood. Conversely, any photos of my father’s family in Pabianice were destroyed during the Holocaust, so I sadly had very little material to work with.

We interviewed my father on four separate occasions for the film. More stories surfaced to his memory with each interview. Some of the most emotional stories came out much later in the process. I would advice other filmmakers to conduct multiple interviews, especially with older family members. Memories have a way of being elusive, especially painful ones. Be patient. Don’t try to get everything out in one sitting.

Jack and Eli at the infamous Auschwitz Gate – photos from Survivingskokiemovie.org – Photo credit: Monise Neuman

Film Courage: What is your favorite scene from SURVIVING SKOKIE?

Eli: One of my most favorite scenes in the film was the short sequence in the Pabianice cemetery. It was difficult to secure in the sense that the only person with the key to the gate was the rabbi in Lodz (30 miles away). Fortunately, our Polish guide was able to secure that key. There was something quite poignant for me. I never saw any photographs of my father’s family and in some bizarre way, seeing a grave marker might have given me some satisfaction of being reconnected with the family I never knew. Of course that didn’t happen, but you could almost sense my father’s disappointment as well. The decadent condition of that cemetery was also symbolic of my link to my father’s past.

Another very emotional scene for me was the one that took place in a boxcar similar to the one that took my father, his father and two sisters to Auschwitz. Though I heard the story many times through the years, actually hearing him tell it again in an actual boxcar, one that might have been the same boxcar he traveled in 68 years prior, really shook me up.

 

“Working in a vacuum can be difficult. The story was so close to both Blair and I that we had lost a certain perspective that only our colleagues could get fresh eyes on. At one point in the process we considered hiring a celebrity voice over talent to fill in the narrative that I didn’t have a personal connection to. We were overwhelmingly overridden and advised to only use my father’s and my voice in the narration. In retrospect, I am very happy with that decision.”

 

Eli Adler, Filmmaker – SURVIVING SKOKIE

 

Film Courage: What was the editing process like? Were you with Blair at his studio? At what point did you show SURVIVING SKOKIE to your father?

Eli: As I mentioned earlier, I had to continue making a living while fundraising for the film. In the beginning, while the script was being honed and the first rough assembly was created, Blair pretty much worked in a vacuum. I would weigh in on the script and come by his studio a few times each month to see the progress and give my feedback, but really it wasn’t until the final few months of post that I came in more frequently and worked more closely with Blair. Blair is an excellent editor and visual storyteller so I had enormous faith in him to do an excellent job.

When we were very near to a fine cut, we held an informal screening for some of our peers, where we received some excellent feedback. Working in a vacuum can be difficult. The story was so close to both Blair and I that we had lost a certain perspective that only our colleagues could get fresh eyes on. At one point in the process we considered hiring a celebrity voice over talent to fill in the narrative that I didn’t have a personal connection to. We were overwhelmingly overridden and advised to only use my father’s and my voice in the narration. In retrospect, I am very happy with that decision.

It wasn’t until we had a fine cut (prior to music and audio sweetening) did we screen the film for my father. He was extremely happy and of course proud of the work. It wasn’t until the film’s debut screening at the Mill Valley Film Festival did he see the polished piece. I was sitting next to him in the theater. He was tremendously moved. I think he recognized that the six years of production were worthwhile and that the film would always stand as a testament, not only to his family and his personal story, but to the millions lost during that terrible time as well as to all survivors. I know that I am fortunate that my father is still with us and had the opportunity to see an audience’s reaction to our story. It was incredibly important to me that he liked the film.

Film Courage: You’ve mentioned that making SURVIVING SKOKIE was cathartic for you. You’ve also worked on countless projects as a cinematographer. Was there ever a point before where you felt uneasy or unsure of sharing this personal story? Any sleepless nights?

Eli: The sleepless nights really occurred prior to making the film. When the idea germinated, shortly after reading the Howard Reich story, my mind was working 24/7 trying to figure out how to tell this story and meld it with my family’s history. It really was something of an obsession for me, hard to explain. I suspect it is a common experience for anyone who is passionate about a getting a project made. A few other sleepless nights occurred as we became closer to the finish line but still short on needed capital to keep the momentum up. Fortunately, this was short lived.

I’m not a very “public” person, so sharing some of my more intimate moments with my father do make me a little uncomfortable. However, i know that those moments also make the film more powerful, so even though I find myself cringing during some scenes at screenings, I know that it is worth it for the greater good.

Film Courage: Where is SURVIVING SKOKIE available to watch?

Eli: As of January 30th, 2017 Surviving Skokie will be for streaming on iTunes, Amazon, DirectTV, Vudu and Viewbiquity. We have two separate distributors. 108 Media holds the worldwide broadcast and streaming rights and Ergo Media holds the nontheatrical and educational rights. 108 Media is currently in discussion with several potential broadcast outlets. Though the streaming and broadcast opportunities for the film are very exciting and encouraging for me, I really want see Surviving Skokie used for Holocaust education in the schools.

Film Courage: Have other adult children of holocaust survivors approached you after screenings or written to you? How is their experience, life views, etc. similar to your own story?

Eli: I have been approached by many children of Holocaust survivors following screenings, who have thanked me for making the film. Either many of their survivor parents are now deceased or their survivor parents never shared their stories with them. I realize how great a gift this film is to those who have a personal connection to the Holocaust. I also realize how fortunate I am to have a father who was willing to take this ride with me.

Film Courage: What is next for you creatively?

Eli: I continue to be a director of photography for corporate and marketing videos, some commercials as well as other documentaries. I am currently working on two different documentaries with other directors. After making Surviving Skokie, the subject of anti-semitism and/or other forms of religious intolerance are very dear to my heart. Although I currently have no immediate plans to produce another film, it wouldn’t surprise me if another subject stimulated my passions in the not too distant future.

 

A Film by Eli Adler and Blair Gershkow

 

Surviving Skokie from 108 Media on Vimeo.

 

BIO:

Eli Adler is a professional cinematographer/director with more than thirty years experience. He has won numerous awards, including the CINE Golden Eagle and two National Emmys, for his work. As a child of a Holocaust survivor, he has filmed several Holocaust-related films, including Hope Out of the Ashes (1985), a short narrated by Liv Ulmann about the San Francisco Holocaust Memorial sculpted by George Segal, Loosening The Grip (1999), filmed in Berlin and Auschwitz and One Day In Auschwitz (2015), produced by The Shoah Foundation to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. He was also a prolific contributor to the Shoah Foundation Interview Program (in the San Francisco Bay Area.)

Eli spent his formative years in Skokie from 1959 until his family moved to nearby Wilmette in 1967. Although he didn’t live there during the “Nazi years”, he still maintained a close association with the World’s Largest Village. The 2009 dedication of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, IL and Chicago Tribune journalist Howard Reich’s article Memories of the Skokie That Was inspired the original blueprint for the film. Surviving Skokie won the 2015 Mill Valley Film Festival Audience Favorite Gold Award in the Valley of the Docs category.

 

 

This film brought to you via 108 Media Corp

 

CONNECT WITH SURVIVING SKOKIE:

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Surviving Skokie is an intensely personal documentary by former Skokie resident Eli Adler about the provocative events of the 1970s, their aftermath, his family’s horrific experience of the Shoah, and a journey with his father to confront long-suppressed memories.

Curiously, the neo-Nazi villain of the story, Frank Collin, is—like Adler—the son of a Holocaust survivor. Rejecting his father, Collin became a virulent anti-Semite, but his right to demonstrate in Skokie is nevertheless defended by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ever-venomous Collin tells his lead counsel, a Jewish lawyer, “Don’t think just because you are representing me free of charge that when we take over this country you won’t be the first one to go to a gas chamber.”

As community leader and survivor Aaron Elster says in an interview: “The neo-Nazis accomplished something… they were the stimulus of the survivors getting together and saying hey, we’ve got to do something.”

And what they did was to end their years of silence, become truth tellers, and speak out so that their painful stories would not be forgotten.

In Surviving Skokie, the filmmaker’s father, Jack Adler—a Polish Holocaust survivor—confronts his own past, returning to Poland with his son to tell the stories of family members who perished in the ghetto and death camps. They visit Pabianice, Poland, Jack’s ancestral home and Auschwitz—retracing the steps of Jack’s horrifying journey.

Surviving Skokie is the story of a community’s battle against the voices and gestures of hate, of a quiet village and its once-turbulent history. It is a universal story about the importance of speaking up and out. And it is the personal story of a quest through which a man and his father rediscover their pasts.

 

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Watch Surviving Skokie on Vimeo here

SURVIVING SKOKIE: They survived the horrors of the Holocaust and came to America to put the past behind. For decades they kept their awful memories secret, even from their children. But their silence ended when a band of neo-Nazi thugs threatened to march in their quiet village of Skokie, Illinois “because that is where the Jews are.”

Surviving Skokie is an intensely personal documentary by former Skokie resident Eli Adler about the provocative events of the 1970s, their aftermath, his family’s horrific experience of the Shoah, and a journey with his father to confront long-suppressed memories.

 

 

 

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