Director Steven Grossman’s 1995 documentary “Browsing Through Birke’s” is now available on demand for rent or purchase through Vimeo. The hour-long film had a resurgence when I, the daughter of Nathan and Sally Birke, the film’s subjects, was asked to host a special screening in Lowell in 2010 to share my parents’ story of resilience and survival in the face of World War II and the Holocaust. As the subject of immigration looms in today’s headlines, “Browsing Through Birke’s” remains relevant over 20 years after its completion. Viewers can stream the film as a rental for 24 hours or purchase it digitally here.

Though Grossman’s film recounts my parents’ compelling journey from Poland on the brink of World War II to settling in America in 1945, much of the focus of “Browsing Through Birke’s” is on Birke’s Department Store, the quirky clothing store founded by my parents soon after their arrival in Lowell. From its first tiny home as half of their apartment in 1948 to its final factory-size spot downtown on Market Street in 1960, Birke’s was renowned for its great prices and high-fashion styles. But it was its “no browsing” policy, haughtily enforced by its larger-than-life co-owner, my father, Nathan, that made Birke’s the talk of the town.

For many Lowell-area families from the ’50s through the ’80s, shopping at Birke’s was as surreal as Nathan Birke himself; each entrance into this clothing store carried with it the threat of being thrown out rudely. This is where the humor in Grossman’s film shines, as he entwines my dad’s incredulous and often volatile personality, my mom’s loving and welcoming spirit, and their inspiring personal history and courage. I serve as a storyteller throughout the film, taking you deeper into the lives of my parents and introducing you to a slew of Birke’s shoppers who share their memories of my parents during the store’s legendary heyday.

Birke’s customers ranged from mill workers to Paul and Niki Tsongas, from well-known doctors, lawyers and business owners to the janitors who worked for them. My parents, Nathan and Sally, related equally to each. For the fashion-curious, viewers also see racks of retro/vintage clothing and go inside a clothing factory with Sally, all while getting an intimate portrait of my compelling family.

Germany 1945
Germany, 1945 (Courtesy photo)

I hope viewers come away with messages of hope and understanding, alongside the importance of standing up vs. standing by. Even a seemingly small gesture, like looking someone in the eye or smiling, engaging as equals—not assuming you know who they are because of their appearance or English grammar—can make a profound difference.

People saw my father as bigoted, mean and uncouth. Few knew that he’d survived one of the worst genocides in human history, was generous to many fellow Lowellians in need, laughed often and was highly educated.

Sometimes we feel powerless against indifference or intolerance, but I’ve learned from people who’ve watched my parents’ story that the hour of being with our immigrant family—seeing, feeling, learning—can make a difference. I’ve been told by teenagers that they had no idea about the Jewish Holocaust; people of all ages have said they felt more ready to stand up against injustices small and large. Some Birke’s customers told me they never knew what my parents had gone through. I’ve been told that the journey from belly laughter to acute sadness during the film was profound. I hope viewers are moved to join me in working to make our world a safer place for everyone.

In April 2017, UMass Lowell students Autumn Sacramone and Suzanne St. Peters created an official “Browsing Through Birke’s” Discussion Guide, in partnership with the Tsongas Industrial History Center and Lowell National Historical Park. Included in this comprehensive guide is an insightful forward by Grossman, biographical information on Nathan, Sally and me, guidelines for viewing the film in an educational setting and suggestions for discussion questions for classroom use, as well as for public performances. I hope you’ll check it out and watch this moving and funny film.

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