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aidas secretsBy MYRON LOVE
It was a sold-out audience for the Winnipeg International Jewish Film Festival’s final screening for 2017 – on Sunday, June 11.  In fact, both showings of the award-winning “Aida’s Secrets” - at 4:00 P.M. and 7:00 P.M., were sold out.


No doubt, many readers were already familiar with the story of lifelong Winnipegger Shep Shell, a son of Holocaust survivors, who discovered just four years ago that he had an older brother, Izak Sagi, living in Israel, and that their birth mother was living in a nursing home in Montreal. “Aida’s Secrets”, produced and directed by brothers Alon and Saul Schwarz - is the story of Shell’s reunion with his long-lost brother and mother and a study into the meaning of family.
But the documentary - using archives and including interviews with people who knew Aida – the brother’s mother – in the immediate postwar period and more recently – as well as Sagi’s family – and archival material - also tells a much more complex and complicated story.
Aida (also known as Jadwiga) Zasadsinska, was a Polish Catholic young woman who had been grabbed by the Nazis when they first invaded Poland and transferred to Germany to work as a domestic servant. At war’s end, the 20-year-old finds her way to a displaced person’s camp that the Allies established on the site of the infamous former Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. As the documentary’s narrator points out, the displaced persons camp at Bergen Belsen was the largest in post-war Germany and the survivors quickly developed an active social life with dances, concerts and sporting activities as they began to start living again.
Also very quickly, Aida gives birth to two baby boys within ten months of each other. Viewers are shown two photos from that era, one of which shows Aida and a man identified as Shep Shell’s father, Grisha Szewelewicz, holding the two little boys and Aida sitting on the same blanket with another unidentified man.
Half way into the documentary viewers learn that at some point in recent years, an older Jewish South African dropped off an album containing over 1,000 photos form the Bergen Belsen displaced persons camp at a Holocaust Archive in Amsterdam. The album was assembled and organized by a teacher from South Africa who had been volunteering in the DP camp. Among the photos were quite a few featuring Shep Shell’s father. As both the narrator and interviewees point out, Grisha Szewelewicz had a talent for construction and mechanical work – which made him invaluable in the camp – and he was probably involved in black market activity.
As well, although married to Aida at the time, the photos suggest that he was at various times keeping company with the South African teacher and a secretary. There is also a photo of Grisha with a German nurse who he subsequently married. She converted to Judaism and became Shep’s stepmother.
There are several unanswered questions that arise from the documentary. Why did Aida and Grisha divorce? Was it because he was cheating on her with other women?
Also, why did she send her elder son – who was not Halachically Jewish – to Israel? Perhaps because she was living among largely Jewish Holocaust survivors and Israel was willing to accept them without pre-condition, Israel would have seemed to her to be the best option for her son’s future.
When she herself applied to immigrate to Israel in 1950, she was turned down because she wasn’t Jewish. She subsequently immigrated to Montreal.
Sagi was adopted by an Israeli family and raised as one of their own. He was told that he was adopted when he was 11. To this writer’s surprise, he did have an ongoing relationship with Aida over the years. She came to Israel for his bar mitzvah and after his daughter was born. He spent two months with her in Montreal when he was 16 and he and his family did visit her from time to time. They also regularly wrote to each other.
Another mystery: Sagi’s adoptive family and even his children knew that he had a younger brother – but the information was kept secret from him.
As for Shep Shell, he was born with severe visual problems. His father and step-mother placed him in an institution for blind children at a young age and pretty much abandoned him. In the documentary, he speculates that his father’s Holocaust experience destroyed his soul.
Despite his upbringing and blindness, he was able to forge a career, marry, have a family, and become a world-class athlete competing internationally in para-Olympic events in skiing and marathon running.
It was in 2002 that he first tried to find out if he had any other family. He did learn that he had a brother, but the trail quickly went cold. Then, in 2013, Melanie, now married with a family of her own, led another search for family and, this time, was able to connect with Izak Sagi.
The documentary captures their emotional reunion at Winnipeg International Airport and Shep’s return visit to Israel. We also see them visiting their aged mother in a nursing home in Montreal where she seems to recognize Shepsele and welcomes him with a lot of hugs and kisses.
Shep returns a couple of times on his own to see his mother and tries to get some answers from her. While happy to see him she prefers not to answer his questions,  claiming either not to remember or changing the subject – leaving Shep frustrated.
The documentary leaves viewers with two other mysteries: A DNA test indicates that Shep’s father was not Izak’s father. And - the brothers discover that their mother had a third son out of wedlock in Canada whom she put up for adoption through a Jewish agency. The third-half brother doesn’t want to connect with Sagi or Shell.
Following the film, Shep and Nancy, his wife of nine months, and Sagi and his wife, Rachel, took the stage to answer a few questions.
One interesting question that was directed at Shell was how he felt to know that his mother wasn’t Jewish. He replied that it doesn’t change anything in that he has always considered himself a member of the Jewish community.
“A friend though asked me where I would be buried,” he recounted. He at first answered – “in a grave” – but realized that he would need to undergo a proper conversion to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

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