Imagine that you are happy with your parents and family relatives. Later you discover you were born in a displaced person’s camp in Bergen Belsen then sent to Israel where your current parents adopted you. Would you want to locate your birth mother, your father and any other siblings you have?
In Aida’s Secrets Izak Sagi is obsessed with discovering his family’s roots which are a complicated mystery that his relatives have known pieces of but have refused to tell him because of some unknown shadowy secret. In the documentary written by Halil Efrat and Alon Schwarz, directed by Alon Schwarz and Saul Schwarz, filmmakers chronicle their uncle Izak’s tenuous and trying investigation into his family’s secrets: how his mother ended up in Bergen Belsen, who were the men in the photograph with his mother and why he was sent to Israel instead of residing with his mother in Canada.
As the documentary begins we are introduced to Izak, a man in his sixties who enjoys his life and loves his family. He states that though he is very happy, there is something missing which plagues him, an understanding of his true identity. Filmmakers disclose the mystery slowly; they follow Izak from Israel to Canada as he unravels the circumstances surrounding his clouded identity. They film interviews of Izak and his mother’s friends, family, Jewish Holocaust archivalists, experts in genealogy and more.
Izak initially discusses what has stirred his interest in a further investigation into his past. It occurred when he heard from a cousin who blurted out a piece of information by mistake: he had a blind brother. Everyone from the family and the close-knit Jewish community seemed to know about his brother except for Izak. That detail was “hush-hush,” and there was no hesitation to tell a white lie of omission about Izak’s lost sibling. Why?
The truth which had been kept from him was laden with the aspect of forbidden secrets. His mother Aida Zasadsdsinska with whom he had been corresponding in Quebec for a number of years was not forthcoming about the past which she preferred to keep in the shadows. She refused to discuss anything factual about Izak’s father and brother. Thus, his progress had been stifled in his discoveries until Alon takes on the project to film his journey into Izak’s family history. As Izak and the filmmakers elicit the help of experts in Jewish heritage and family heritage, they are able to pick up clues from archives, photographs, libraries, foundations, heritage organizations, DNA searches and more.
With painstaking, fascinating detail looking into the aftermath of WWII’s Bergen Belsen as a displaced persons camp and the chaos of repatriation of Jews and European citizens after the war, the filmmakers chronicle fascinating discoveries about Aida’s history during that time from those who knew her. Aida had been a maid in the large home of a German military man; we infer most probably he was a Nazi and she had to bow to his whims to survive.
After the British liberated the camp at Bergen Belsen in Germany, and it became the most sought after displaced person camp because of the programs, the food and the community of young people, Aida manages to get into the camp though she was not Jewish. It was there that Aida married a Jewish man (Izak’s father?), one of many marriages that happened in this former place of death that had been transformed to one of life and rebirth. It was around this time that Izak was photographed with his mother and a man, most presumably his father, and with another man.
The documentary is a labyrinth of intriguing convolution into how Izak locates his brother Shep Shell and the identity of the man whom he initially believes to be his father. Filmmakers video Izak connecting with Shep and one of the highpoints they capture is the emotional, poignant reunion of the two brothers at the airport and at Shep’s home.
The conversations between Izak and Shep are fascinating, heartfelt and humorous. They travel back through their own lives and histories and delve into the emotional substance of their interactions with the parent that they knew best.
Izak discovers that his father and mother divorced and that Shep was parented by the father’s second wife and that he not seen his father with whom he had been estranged. Shep discovers that his mother is in Quebec, Canada and he is able to add a few pieces to the puzzle, but not conclusive enough for Izak. When they discuss DNA connections Izak is convinced that his DNA will show a complete match with Shep proving that they have the same fathers. Shep believes differently. Filmmakers include intimate details: Shep’s honest and sad feelings that Aida gave him up as a child and never looked for him.
As Izak visits with Shep and they spend time together caught on film, the relationship and the bond they form is a focal point of intimacy that the filmmakers could have left out, but rightly include. Every word of their conversation is vital; they cannot take each other for granted having lived without the other almost all of their lives. These are memorable segments which hook the audience’s empathy. Filmmakers then travel with the brothers to Quebec where Shep meets his mother for the first time.
When both brothers visit Aida (by now in her 80s), in a nursing home, the filmmakers’ edits are incredibly real and insightful. We note Aida’s reticence as her two sons ask about the past and attempt to probe into some of the mystery of why Aida gave them up, of why one was sent to Israel and the other to Canada. Again, there is the poignance of the reunion when Izak gently introduces Shep and she recognizes he is her child and addresses him affectionately.
But the visit is a short one, and the brothers learn little more about why Aida made the decisions she did. The Schwarz brothers break our hearts when they conclude this segment with a close-up of Aida saying, “I did the best I could.” We are able to intuit her guilt at not being able to keep both of her sons with her. Though she did all she could to place them in situations where they would thrive, there is the painful self-realization that perhaps she could have done more.
Toward the conclusion of the film, the DNA results come back and more inferences are made. Filmmakers and the sons surmise that because Aida was not Jewish and had dark associations with “the enemy”, she wanted to protect her baby so she married a Jewish man and they sent Izak to Israel where he would be protected and raised as an Israeli. However, the jury is still out as to the facts. And at the very end Aida’s sons discover that there is another sibling whom they contact and who does not want to meet them.
In the Q and A after the film Saul Schwarz stated that he thought the secrets would be better if they were not unearthed, echoing others family members’ views. However, what Izak and the Schwarzs do uncover reveals the extraordinary times that Aida lived in, her resourcefulness, her survival instinct and her attempt to overcome the horrors she most probably experienced. In its themes Aida’s Secrets reminds us that our parents are individuals apart from us and the family they tried to create for us. Their identities are a bottomless well governed by the circumstances of the time. This is doubly true during a period of crisis and catastrophe like that of the Holocaust.