This year’s Boston Jewish Film Festival, which runs Nov. 8-20, presents an eclectic mix of American, European and Israeli films. The selections highlighted in this first of two roundups include depictions of the under-portrayed post-Holocaust era, an Israeli-Palestinian comedy with a political twist and a documentary about a dedicated American social activist.

Bye Bye Germany
“Bye Bye Germany”

“Bye Bye Germany”

Bye Bye Germany” is a witty, often poignant film about a band of Jews turned linen salesmen in a displaced persons camp in Frankfurt. At the end of the movie, the audience learns that over 4,000 Jews chose to stay in Germany after the war with the odd caveat: “None of them could ever tell their children why they did it.” The opening film for the Boston Jewish Film Festival, “Bye Bye Germany” is based on an autobiographical novel, “The Traveling Salesman,” by screenwriter Michel Bergmann.

David Bermann is a Jewish concentration camp survivor whose brothers and parents were murdered in Auschwitz. Haunted by his memories, Bermann is determined to do more than survive in a displaced persons camp, so he resurrects the family trade. The Bermann family owned the finest linen store in Frankfurt until Jewish businesses were appropriated and its owners deported to the camps. Bermann’s post-war plan to sell linens door-to-door is hampered by the Americans, who are now in charge and refuse to grant him a license until he comes clean about his wartime record.

Bermann’s complicated backstory includes being forced to tell jokes to entertain a German commandant. He is soon plucked from the camp to perform for Hitler with the understanding that his brothers will be saved. Neither circumstance materializes, and the Americans believe Bermann to be a Nazi collaborator.

The film’s humor, particularly evident in the camaraderie among the goofy Jewish linen salesmen, is pitch perfect. The ongoing devastation of the Holocaust is brilliantly deployed throughout the story. In the end, the film is also a tribute to those Jews who chose to stay in Europe and build their lives after a cataclysmic war.



Shot in melancholy black and white, “1945” heralds the mysterious arrival of two Orthodox Jews in a small Hungarian town. It is a hot August day just after the war, and the men bring two wooden crates they load onto a cart. In what can only be described as a funeral cortege, the Jews follow the cart on foot for the hour-long walk into town. Their appearance upsets many of the village’s inhabitants. Do they represent the Jews who once lived there? Are they there to reclaim stolen Jewish property?

It’s also the wedding day of the town’s de facto mayor Istvan’s only son. But like the day itself, the wedding preparations are off-kilter. The bride, in love with another man, is only interested in inheriting the pharmacy that Istvan took from the Pollak family. Although the film has little dialogue, it speaks volumes about this post-war period in Hungary. The dignity of the Jews who insist on walking behind the cart is contrasted with the greed and fear of the villagers who pilfered their friends and neighbors’ homes.

The film is ultimately a group portrait, and one of the standouts is the stark black-and-white landscape. It is also a study in mob hysteria—only the town drunk is wracked by the guilt of informing on his Jewish friends. As for the Jews, they have not come for retribution; they have come to bury what is left of their dead. That gesture, though, is suspect and the villagers—armed with pitchforks—hover outside the gate of the town’s abandoned Jewish cemetery. Istvan calms the crowd and asks the Jews what they are burying. “What’s left of our dead,” says the elder Jew who takes out tefillin, a child’s shoes and prayer books to wrap them in a prayer shawl turned shroud. It’s a quiet, revelatory moment—a moment that makes “1945” unforgettable.


Holy Air
“Holy Air”

“Holy Air”

A cross between a screwball comedy and a political statement, “Holy Air” is the second feature made by filmmaker Shady Srour. Srour, who describes himself as a “Palestinian citizen of Israel,” also plays the main character, Adam, a Nazareth native who is a Christian Israeli Arab. In the opening scene, Adam and his sexy, spirited wife, Lamia, are stuck in a traffic jam when Lamia decides to take a pregnancy test in the front seat. The positive result thrills her but terrifies Adam.

Adam is not ready for fatherhood, nor has he come to terms with his father’s terminal cancer. He quits the entrepreneurial company he founded with a childhood friend and yearns for his student activist days. He decides that selling inspirational toilet paper will make him a rich man. When that doesn’t pan out, he has an idea after he overhears a priest-turned-tour-guide’s spiel about the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary. He takes the glass bottles his father handcrafted in his now-closed workshop and climbs Mount Precipice just outside of Nazareth to fill them with “holy air.”

Srour’s irony works on many levels. Among them is the notion of “selling air”—a bitter inside joke among Israeli Arabs who see few economic opportunities for themselves. Srour’s take also encompasses feminism, sexuality and identity. It took him 11 years to make “Holy Air,” and the effort has been well worth the wait—he has made a film that comically and ironically conveys a slice of Israeli Arab life in Israel.

Etched in Glass
“Etched in Glass: The Legacy of Steve Ross”

“Etched in Glass: The Legacy of Steve Ross”

By the time Stephan “Steve” Ross was 14 years old, he had survived 10 concentration camps and weighed 50 pounds. Born in Lodz, Poland, he lost most of his large Jewish family in Auschwitz. Ross, who immigrated to Boston after the war, is as extraordinary as his story of survival. After he was liberated from Dachau, he had a brief but life-changing encounter with an American soldier: the soldier shared his food with Ross and gave him a small American flag. Ross didn’t learn the man’s name at the time, but never forgot the soldier’s kindness; it was the first time he had felt human in five years. That small compassionate gesture became Ross’ North Star, guiding him to a life of good deeds.

Ross became a social worker, reaching out to troubled youth in Boston’s projects. He took to heart the Talmudic dictum that saving a life is akin to saving the entire world. Among the teens Ross inspired was Steve Buckley. Buckley remembers that even when he was in constant trouble, Ross never gave up on him; he says that, without Ross, he would not have gone to college or law school.

While this moving documentary mostly trains its lens on interviews, particularly with Ross and his son, Mike, a former Boston city councilor and mayoral candidate, it also intersperses scenes of Ross doing what he does brilliantly—inspiring young people. At the inner-city schools he visits, he often dresses in the striped hat, shirt and pants of concentration camp inmates. His talks to these teenagers are equal parts autobiography and heart-felt outreach.

Ross also came to found the New England Holocaust Memorial with the help of then-mayor Ray Flynn. The memorial’s six glass towers etched with 6 million names were dedicated in 1995. It is not a coincidence the memorial is across from Faneuil Hall; the sharply contrasting histories remind visitors what Steve Ross has known all along—anything is possible in America.

Heather Booth
“Heather Booth: Changing the World”

“Heather Booth: Changing the World”

Heather Booth: Changing the World” is the final film of director Lilly Rivlin’s trilogy of activist Jewish women. Heather Booth, a social activist and organizer, is in good company with writer Grace Paley and feminist Esther Broner. A Zelig-like character, Booth has been at the forefront of almost every social justice movement of the past half-century. And, as Rivlin describes her, she is “the most influential person you never heard of.”

Booth, who is now 72, spent the summer between high school and her freshman year at the University of Chicago working on a kibbutz. While in Israel, her visit to Yad Vashem inspired her to see social justice as an inherent Jewish value. In college, Booth was active in the civil rights movement, traveling to Mississippi with the Freedom Riders to register black citizens to vote. It was difficult, dangerous work, but Booth was undaunted. She moved on to play key roles in the anti-Vietnam War movement and the women’s movement. While still in college, she helped women obtain abortions through Jane Collective, an underground network that helped more than 10,000 women get safe abortions in the days before Roe v. Wade.

In the 1970s and 80s, Booth shepherded pivotal moments in other progressive movements that included child care, workers’ rights, immigrants’ rights and mainstream political campaigns. She helped Harold Washington get elected as Chicago’s first African-American mayor. In 2007, she got a call from a then-Harvard law professor who wanted to create a federal agency to protect consumers from credit fraud and other big bank abuses. When Elizabeth Warren confided to a colleague she had no idea how to start that kind of project, the colleague said, “I have two words for you—call Heather.”

The people Booth has trained and inspired make up a who’s who list of the most influential liberal and progressive activists in the country. Many of them have attended Midwest Academy, a program she founded in the mid-1970s. Its message is straightforward:

“The Midwest Academy’s organizational mission is to support the building of infrastructure in the progressive movement for social justice. For us, this means fostering the creation of democratically governed organizations which win real improvements in people’s lives, give people a sense of their own power to improve society, and alter the unequal relations of power to build more democracy and participation for freedom and justice for all.” 

More than 25,000 activists have participated in the Midwest Academy’s training program and, like their mentor Heather Booth, have touched millions more through their work.

Find more information about this year’s Boston Jewish Film Festival here.