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Hamptons Life

Oct 10, 2008 11:10 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

After surviving Holocaust, what then?

Oct 10, 2008 11:10 AM

“Survival was just the beginning” is the tag line for a new documentary that will be shown during the Hamptons International Film Festival this week. And while this might seem at first glance a bit too much PR, it turns out to be right on target for a heartwarming, poignant, and surprisingly funny film about Holocaust survivors titled “Four Seasons Lodge.”

This is not a film about the Holocaust per se, though its horror is a powerful presence in almost every frame. The Four Seasons Lodge is a bungalow colony in the Catskills that was inhabited every summer for decades by men and women—now in their 70s through 80s and into their 90s—who escaped the fate of the six million Jews who were killed before and during World War II. Watching it, the humor and joy of living are somewhat startling.

“They’re kind of a fun-loving bunch,” said first-time director Andrew Jacobs. “You would think that Holocaust survivors are dour and dark and bitter, but they enjoy life and sharing the laughter.”

Most of the survivors at the Lodge are Polish Jews, and they began their summer sojourns 25 years ago. They enjoy good food, flirting, poker games, and dancing until dawn. Inevitably, over the years the residents of the summer camp for seniors have engaged in strong friendships, rivalries, love affairs, and even lawsuits.

For Mr. Jacobs, a staff reporter for The New York Times, the filmmaking odyssey began three years ago when he was assigned by the Times to explore summer life in the Catskills, which resulted in a six-part series published in the news section. In previous years with the Times, Mr. Jacobs would have simply moved on. But he couldn’t shake loose from the part of his series that portrayed the Four Seasons Lodge community.

“This story went beyond being compelling, it was very pressing,” he said. “In addition to what seemed at the time to be the last summer these people would gather there because the property was up for sale, it was the obvious urgency that some would not get together again no matter what because of age and death. And the fact was, I had never met people like this.”

One of those he met and focused on in the documentary is Regina Peterseil, who lives in North Woodmere on Long Island. She and her husband have been part of the summer colony for 12 years. She was born in eastern Poland in 1930. When Germany invaded Poland from the west nine years later, the Russians invaded from the east and occupied her section of the country for two years, until the Nazis took over.

“No question about it, it was much worse with the Nazis,” said Mrs. Peterseil, interviewed last week the day before she was to visit extended family in Israel. “We had an opportunity to relocate into Russia but we couldn’t conceive of the Nazis conquering the Russians and how bad it would be. If we had gone, maybe my sister would still be alive. She was seven when she died under the Nazis.”

She continued: “As a teenager during the war, I never thought that my parents and my sister and myself would ever survive the occupation, and it was beyond imagination that I would live long enough to visit a state of Israel. Yet I don’t wish on anybody, not a worst enemy, to experience what we did. And we were the lucky ones, you could say, because we were hidden by a lovely Polish gentleman whose granddaughter I still correspond with to this day.”

For her, and, as the documentary suggests, others, the Four Seasons Lodge doesn’t provide an opportunity for mourning and regretting but a place to savor special relationships because of a bond only they share. “A highlight of the year for me is to be with people of my age and older who know what I went through,” Mrs. Peterseil said. “We don’t have to explain anything to each other. We stay in touch all the year. I just spoke to one of them last week.”

“Me? Direct?” wasn’t quite the thought that flashed through Mr. Jacobs’s mind when he decided to go beyond the Times article into documentary territory, but it was close. “I don’t think the word director ever came up, it was more like, ‘I’ll just make the film,’ even not knowing exactly what that meant,” he said. “I just dove into it and figured out what I was doing as I went along.”

He raised enough money for a crew and equipment to go to the Catskills colony in the summer of 2006. It was expected that this would be the last time the community of survivors would be together because plans were in place for the owner to sell the Four Seasons property to a developer. Mr. Jacobs was not sure what the reception would be for a novice director and a not-too-experienced crew.

“They embraced us pretty quickly, I’m glad to say,” the director recalled. “It’s a commentary on American society in that most older people don’t get attention from young people at all, so they were really tickled to have all these younger people around wanting to know about their lives and their families. I’m 43, and to the ones in their 80s and 90s, I was like a 20-year-old. They also recognized that if they don’t use this opportunity to tell their stories, no one else is going to hear them.”

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