MARBLEHEAD – Latvian-born Eugene Levin says he is not a filmmaker, but long ago his grandfather planted a memory inside of him that began to tremble and come to life the day he met Marblehead filmmaker Jeff Hoffman.
As a child growing up in Latvia, Levin listened to his grandfather, Mozus Berkovich, relate stories about the war. He once videotaped the then 80-year-old sitting in an armchair speaking of the day his favorite teacher led a mob of Latvian citizens into Akniste – where the Berkovich family lived – that systematically shot and tossed into ditches the Jewish residents they killed.
In the video, Berkovich stares straight ahead and with his open palm, he gently pats his heart while relating how his teacher led the killing of 175 Jews, including 19 members of the Berkovich family, in July 1941. Mozus Berkovich managed to live because he was away at dentistry school, and his father – who sensed something horrific was about to occur – told him not to come home.
Mozus Berkovich spent his final years living in Newton. He died in 2013 at the age of 92.
Later in 1941 – at the end of November and into the first of December – 24,000 Latvian Jews and 1,000 German Jews were transported by train to be shot and buried in the Rumbula forest in what has been called the biggest Holocaust atrocity until the operation of the death camps.
When Hoffman and Levin met, the two soon realized they have similar roots with their ancestors coming from Latvia and Lithuania. As they got to know one another, they realized that this piece of the Holocaust – where compliant neighbors, and not the Nazis, did the Third Reich’s work in order to curry favor with them. The Akniste neighbors erected a sign in the town proclaiming it “Judenfrei” (free of Jews) to greet the Nazis when they arrived.
The result of Hoffman and Levin’s collaboration are two documentary films, “Baltic Truth” and “Unsung Heroes.” The first is shot on location in Latvia, Belarus, and Lithuania and relates the story – with first-person interviews – of the 1941 Akniste massacre.
The film’s narrator is internationally known Israeli cantor and stage performer Dudu Fisher who, like the filmmakers, has roots in those Baltic states. All three have an unquenched need to tell the world the truth of what happened. The three men bonded this past October while shooting for several weeks in Riga, near where the Rumbula mass killing occurred.
“We’re working with English, Russian, Latvian, and Hebrew languages,” said Levin. “The scripts had to be translated and subtitles written.” It was complicated, said the multilingual Levin, who lives in Dover.
“That together with COVID, travel restrictions, and getting Dudu Fisher from Israel to Frankfort and then the Baltics was challenging,” added Hoffman.
When they pulled it off successfully, Fisher, an observant Jew, said, “This was an act of God.” Five days after they left Latvia, the government closed the border with Lithuania because of the pandemic.
“We went to the actual killing fields in the cities and the countryside 70 years later. We were in the same places where it happened,” said Levin.
“One of our initiatives was to bring firsthand participants like Elly Gotz, [born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1928,] to speak to thousands of students in Newton, Marblehead, and in New Hampshire where we showed the trailer,” said Levin. “In Newton, Elly got a standing ovation. You know we’re connecting to those high school students. But now COVID has set us back. You can’t promote a film of this kind except through in-person talks.”
Young people are the target audiences for both films. The filmmakers are focused on showing this part of the history of the Holocaust to the upcoming generation so they will be educated, especially when embarking on college careers where there has been an increase in anti-Israel and BDS activity on campuses.
If “Baltic Truth” depicts the dark side of humanity, the second film, “Unsung Heroes,” illustrates the opposite.
“The unlikely heroes are Jewish war veterans who, as 18- and 19-year-old kids from 48 countries, helped create the State of Israel,” said Hoffman.
“Finally a country you could go to where you didn’t have to be put in a ghetto, didn’t have to wear a yellow star. These two films are most effective when seen together. Kids need heroes. That’s what this is about. Nobody has done what Eugene and I are doing here.”
“Unsung Heroes,” includes an original musical score that Fisher sings. It originated from a song a Latvian teen composed during that period. It has never before been recorded.
Levin and Hoffman are disappointed there has been a lack of contributions for the making of the film. They have raised only a fraction of the $350,000 needed to complete both films, with the pair of them covering most of the costs themselves, including three trips to shoot on site in Europe. Complicated and stalled by COVID and finances, nevertheless the filmmakers insist they will complete the work.
With more donations to their nonprofit, they will need several months to finish. They want to begin showing the films to live audiences by the summer of 2021, when they hope the pandemic is under control.
To watch the trailer for “Baltic Truth” or to donate, go to baltictruth.com.
For more information on “Unlikely Heroes,” visit fundmyfilm.org/documentary-films/unlikely-heroes-the-men-women-who-saved-israel/.