Gil Levanon and Kat Rohrer, both filmmakers, struck up a friendship during their time at college in New York 10 years ago. Gil comes from Israel, Kat from Austria. Their families’ history is strikingly different. Gil is the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, Kat’s grandfather was a Nazi officer. The exodus of many young secular Israelis to Germany and Austria prompt Gil and Kat to embark on a journey: to find other grandchildren of Holocaust survivors who had moved to Germany and Austria and learn how their grandparents reacted to that decision. Could returning to the site of their pain decades ago create reconciliation between generations?
Back to the Fatherland follows the journey of three families in transition; Israeli grandchildren from the “Third Generation” and their respective grandparents. The film deals with both sides of the historic tragedy and the attempt to build their own future without ignoring the past. I so enjoyed talking to Gil and Kat about this riveting documentary.
Danny Miller: Gil, did the whole idea for the film start from your grandfather’s reaction to you wanting to go from Israel to Austria, or had your thoughts on this topic been brewing for a while?
Gil Levanon: It started before that. I’ve known Kat for a long time, we met at the School of Visual Arts in New York and we stayed very good friends. She is Austrian but she ended up staying in New York after school and I went back to Israel. I persuaded her to come visit me there, and I remember one day we were talking on the boardwalk in Tel Aviv and she saw some people with a German Shepherd. She was surprised because she couldn’t understand how an Israeli Jew could own a German shepherd. Even for her these dogs represented Hitler, Nazis, and concentration camps!
Kat Rohrer: And that led to a discussion between Gil and I about the growing number of young Israelis who were moving from Israel back to former Nazi countries, because that was starting to become a big thing. Gil’s sister was already living in Berlin at the time.
Gil: Yes. We decided to go there and ask them about that. What it was like to physically live in a place that their grandparents had to leave in such a horrible, violent way. Then we wanted to hear what the grandparents had to say about it. My own grandfather left when he was 15, he lost his entire family there. At that point we were so interested in this topic that we embarked on a year and a half of research and ended up finding the people that we profiled in the film, in addition to telling our own story.
I love the two guys you feature in the film, Dan and Guy. Their stories are so interesting, and their grandparents such compelling characters.
Kat: We were very lucky that both of them agreed to go on this adventure with us, and that Dan’s grandmother, Lea, and guy’s grandfather, Uri, both Holocaust survivors, were willing to as well.
They were so great. Frankly I would’ve loved a two-hour documentary on Lea alone, she was so compelling
Gil: I know!
Kat: We were very careful about who we picked. We didn’t go looking for grandparents who had the most horrible Holocaust stories, to be honest, it was much more about their relationship with their grandchildren. We fell in love with Uri and Lea right away. Uri had this old-fashioned Viennese charm, he was very charming, very open. And we also fell in love with Lea very quickly, how could we not? But I’ll tell you a funny story. The first time we met with her, she was welcoming, but when I asked her anything about her history, her answers were very short: “yes” and “no” interspersed with very long pauses. Gil and I were looking at each other. I mean, we wanted her to be in the movie but if she was going to be like that in interview situations, that just wasn’t going to fly. We were very worried, but you know what happened? The minute our camera man walked in, Lea never stopped talking! (Laughs.)
You could see how much she loved her grandson, but the tension about his living in Germany and speaking German was so interesting to watch. I love the scene where he’s so excited that they can talk German together now, her native tongue, and she’s like, “Well, we can also talk in Hebrew.” It’s fascinating because you can tell part of her was happy to speak that language again with someone she loves, but that it was still a little painful for her, maybe it reminded her of all that she lost with her family members. I love that part of the film and yet I’m glad you didn’t dwell on their lives before the war. I so appreciate movies about that time period, but that’s just not what this film is.
Gil: Thank you for saying that, because we were very clear from that start that we didn’t want to make another Holocaust movie. That’s why we were focusing on this third generation, which Kat and I are a part of, not the second generation that was affected by their parents’ generation in a much different way. We wanted to examine how the third generation was looking toward the future and figuring out how to move on from this painful period. Well, “move on” isn’t right, I’m not sure how to say it in English—
Maybe to transition to a new kind of awareness?
Exactly, that’s much better, thank you!
It was amazing to see the grandparents go back to their home countries in Europe to visit their grandchildren.
Kat: Yes. With Uri, you kind of get the feeling that he thinks his grandson is fulfilling the life that he wasn’t allowed to have there. And with Lea, we had hoped that she would visit Dan but were convinced that she would never go back, she had said that she was done with that place. But to our great surprise, she agreed to go when he asked her to.
Which was such a moving part of the film. I have a lot of Israeli relatives who have left Israel for other countries — sometimes temporarily for financial reasons and sometimes for good. Do you think other Israelis sometimes feel a sense of betrayal towards the people who move elsewhere, particularly to countries like Germany and Austria?
Gil: Oh, it’s definitely frowned upon. You know the term “making Aliyah” for Jews that move to Israel, which means “to go up,” right? The opposite of that, when people leave Israel, is called “yerida,” which means “to go down.”
Which is used in a pejorative way, as an insult?
Yes, it has always been like that. I mean, Jews are such a small group of people, in general, and it’s considered that anyone who leaves the home base makes the group weaker. But I think it’s changing with this generation because we are fortunate to live in such a globalized world. The fact that we can physically move around so freely is amazing. So people leave for all sorts of reasons. When Kat left Austria, it was no big deal, she may end up back there, who knows, no one really cares. But when you leave Israel, it can be very uncomfortable, almost like you’re some kind of traitor.
I thought it was very moving when Guy’s grandfather said, “Well, at least you have somewhere to come back to if it becomes necessary.”
Which is absolutely true, and which is a testament to what has been accomplished with Israel in creating a safe space for Jews. I mean, look, I’m going to open a parentheses here and say yes, we know that Israel has lots of problems that we need to solve. But at the end of the day, we have something today that our grandparents didn’t have when they needed it so desperately.
Yes. And I wish people in the rest of the world would stop painting all Israelis with the broad brush based on what its government is doing, just like I would never want anyone to assume that I support what our current administration here is doing.
Of course, those assumptions go both ways. Kat, I admit that when I was growing up, whenever I heard that someone was from Germany or Austria, I would immediately start doing the mental calculations: hmmm, how old were their parents during World War II, what were they doing? What about their grandparents? I probably still do it on some level. Is that something you felt when you left Austria and started meeting Jewish people? Did you tend to share anything about your grandfather’s story, or would you keep that to yourself?
Kat: For me, making this movie was the culmination of an 18-year process, it was like a catharsis. During my first week in New York, we were having all of these getting-to-know you experiences at school. I remember I was standing outside one day, and this guy came up to me and said, “You’re Austrian?” I said yeah and he said, “I’m Israeli, so I guess your grandparents killed my grandparents.”
Whoa, that’s getting right into it!
Yeah! That gave me such a stab in the heart. I wasn’t prepared for this kind of encounter. Because my accent didn’t sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger, I used to try to get away with avoiding saying that I was from Austria. But Gil and other Jewish friends eventually taught me that it was okay to say where I was from. And to be honest about it. Lots of Germans and Austrians always say that their grandfathers were in the Resistance or something, but I don’t do that even though the reactions I get are not always pleasant.
That kind of honesty is refreshing to hear. Of course, I must say that seeing you take your grandfather’s Nazi uniform come out of that trunk, it is still kind of shocking. We’re used to seeing those things in pictures or museums, but it really brings it home. Do you think making this film brought you to a new place with accepting your family history?
Oh yes, this was definitely a very expensive therapy session for all of us! (Laughs.) It definitely helped me deal with my sense of guilt, even though this guy died long before I was born.
Gil: And things are different now than they were for our parents who never wanted to ask their parents any questions. We finally have to emotional space to do so. My mom never wanted to ask her mother about the war because she didn’t want to hurt her, and my grandma didn’t want to burden anyone with her painful story, but then comes the third generation and they start asking questions. There’s also this amazing bond you often see between grandparents and grandchildren that helps a lot.
Kat: I remember Dan talking about how no matter how close he was to his grandmother, he felt that he only knew her about 80% until they started speaking German together and she came to Vienna. It was like he finally was able to see this puzzle piece that was missing. He felt much closer to her afterwards.
What have the discussions after the screening been like? Did you get a different reaction in Israel and Europe versus here?
Kat: We’ve been so lucky to have a theatrical release in Austria and Germany, and the film has screened all over Israel and many other cities in Europe. It’s been very interesting. I’ve had a lot of third generation Austrians and Germans come up to me afterwards and quietly tell me that they’ve found a uniform, too, and they don’t know how to deal with it. A lot of them want to research what their grandfathers did and they know that their families still have to deal with this history.
Gil: It’s also been amazing to hear the reaction of people who are not connected to this history at all but still relate to the dynamic presented in the film between the generations: people from Armenia, Turkey, Palestine, and so on, who are bringing their grandparents to see it as a way to start discussing their own family traumas. That was always our goal, too, to reach beyond our core audience. That’s been very rewarding.
And here in the States?
It’s been interesting. We screened the film in Washington, at the Jewish Film Festival, and there was this Jewish woman who stood up afterwards and asked a question. Kat answered her and she said thank you and sat down. Later on, Kat went out into the audience to see some friends who were at the screening, and she saw that woman standing there. She thanked her for her question and held out her hand. The woman just looked at her and said, “Shake the hand of an Austrian? No thank you.”
Kat: She had such a look of disgust on her face.
We really have a lot more work to do, especially in this country! I hope your film will help with that work.
Gil and Kat: Thank you.