For many Jewish families in Columbus, the documentary tale of a man in search of connection to a past he’s only heard about in his grandmother’s stories will be a familiar one. The film, Lost Town, centers around the small, east European town of Trochenbrod. Founded in 1835 as a farming colony, by 1938 the town’s exclusively Jewish population had grown to over 5,000.
Then, in 1942, Trochenbrod was destroyed and nearly all its citizens murdered by the Nazis, except for 33 people who escaped the massacre by hiding in the forest outside the city for two years, including central Ohio families like Sandy Szames Hackman’s family and the family of Betty Potash Gold, who is featured in the movie and now lives in Cleveland.
As fate would have it, descendant families like the Katzes, the Schwartzes, and the Szameses all settled in Columbus after leaving Trochenbrod. Some were fortunate to have left before the war, like the Katz and Schwartz families. But the story of the once and only all-Jewish town outside of Israel is a story they can all call their own.
Lost Town will be featured in the JCC’s Columbus Jewish Film Festival on Doc Sunday, November 10, at 1 pm, at the Drexel Theater. Sandy Hackman, the first in her family to be born in America, is excited to see the documentary and reunite with other “Trochenbroders” from near and far.
Much of Hackman’s family, including her grandfather, Pinchas Katz, her mother, Toiba Szames, her brothers, Irv and Gerald Szames, and her sister, Fay Szames, all survived the Holocaust and eventually settled in Columbus. Her brother, Gerald, was just two years old when the family went into hiding, first in false walls and floors, even an oven at one point, in homes throughout Trochenbrod, and later in the woods outside the city. Hackman can still remember the stories her mother told of growing up in Trochenbrod.
“When I listened to my mother talk, it was just like in that movie, Everything is Illuminated. When the forest suddenly appeared [in the movie], I started crying, because I knew that was Trochenbrod. And then you saw the sunflowers. My mother said there were sunflowers everywhere. It just made me think, ‘It’s really true; this is exactly what my mother told me!’ It’s the same for Lost Town: I just can’t believe it,” said Hackman. Trochenbrod was first made famous by Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated.
Hackman, who will introduce the film at the November 10 screening, has joined another Trochenbrod descendant, Steve Friedman, in planning a reunion of Trochenbrod families that will take place following the screening. Friedman and Hackman encourage families coming to the reunion to bring photographs, documents, or artifacts they may have from Trochenbrod. Treasured items may include naturalization papers, Shabbos candlesticks, menorahs, and any family heirlooms.
Steve Friedman and Sheila Dachner-Thrush’s family descends from David Schwartz. Schwartz wrote and published an account of his life in Trochenbrod, called My Townlet – Trachenbrod (A Chain of Memories), which details his experiences before moving to America in 1907 and eventually settling in Columbus in 1914, where his cousins, the Katzes, had already established themselves.
Schwartz’s book, which is featured in Lost Town, details his memories of a land that was wild and free. Of the move from the non-Jewish cities to Trochenbrod, he wrote: “They left behind them in the towns well-to-do homes, a comfortable and easy life and went out into the wilds. They saw the town in another light. They…took upon themselves to build for their children and children’s children a surer future, a free and healthy life in the lap of nature.” Now, Columbus families like the Hackmans and the Friedmans are their legacy.
Friedman, David’s great-grandson, and his cousin, Sheila, who is David’s granddaughter, both explained how valuable having the journal of their forebear’s life was to them. “If we didn’t have this book about my great-grandfather’s love for his town, the movie would not have as much meaning to us,” said Friedman. The book, published in Israel in 1956, was written in 1939, just before the town was eradicated by the Nazis.
But the town lived on in memory and spirit, Friedman said. “The community spirit of Trochenbrod carried forward into life here in America. That’s important. Uncle Harry and David Schwartz were involved in the synagogue, the Hebrew School…. They even held services in David’s home when Agudas Achim was moving from one building to another.
Friedman has been collecting documents, photos, and mementoes in pursuit of his family’s genealogy for years. “I’m doing this because it’s in my blood. There’s a term, Yichus, in Yiddish, for tracing one’s heritage. I’m in touch with family all over the world. Family’s my priority, just like it was for the families in Trochenbrod,” said Friedman.
“Family was all they had,” added Dachman-Thrush, who remembered her family, especially her grandparents, growing up. “I remember my mother would go to my grandparent’s house every Friday afternoon to prepare the house for Shabbos. She would tear sheets of toilet paper and put them on the edge of the bathtub; turn on the gas stove so everything was heated. I remember the kichel, and the cholent on the burner, and the tea in jelly glasses with sugar cubes, which I would sneak because I wasn’t allowed sugar. In my mind, I can walk into the house and tell you exactly where everything was.”
Lost Town Producer/Director Jeremy Goldscheider can relate to Friedman and Dachner-Thrush’s desire to preserve family history. Goldscheider traveled the world, from the U.S. to the Ukraine, and Israel to Poland, tracing the history of Trochenbrod to uncover the past and preserve it for the future. Now an empty field surrounded by forests and farmland in western Ukraine, although the town was razed by the Nazis, its memory can never be erased.
Goldsheider explained his passion for making the film. “A film that helps to document this history for the next generation is very important to me. I’m a fourth generation Trochenbroder, and my kids and future grandkids are going to be even further disconnected from the original history. The pay-off I may never see, but I know that the film and the book will always be available and will outlive me.”
“One thing that surprised me in making this movie was the thirst that people have for little bits of information about their families. People are craving anything they can about their own history. I never realized how important that was to people. This film, I think, represents that idea of the importance of that journey for everybody to at some point learn more about their family history,” Goldscheider said.
Lost Town utilizes contemporary documentary footage, original animation, and survivor testimonials to tell the story. One reason for the use of animation, besides that the town itself was dismantled and burned to the ground during World War II, was that Goldscheider wanted to make a film that would appeal to young people as much as the older generation that still remembers.
“I felt like many of the Holocaust films that have come out over the years are hard films to watch. I really wanted to make something that was going to connect with the younger generation, specifically in Europe because there were so many young kids in the Ukraine that I met while filming that don’t know anything about the Holocaust,” said Goldscheider.
The film tells the story of the city through the eyes of Avrom Bendavid-Val, who wrote the book, The Heavens are Empty: Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod. Bendavid-Val’s father grew up in Trochenbrod, and the film explores his dedicated search to piece together the town’s history.
“The film focuses on the life of Trochenbrod and not so much the Holocaust or the Nazis. This film is more about the joy of life before the war. Everybody observed the holidays and attended shul together. The religious life was a central part of living,” said Goldscheider.
Hackman remembered just how religious the town was from her mother’s stories. “My mother made about 20 challahs every Thursday to deliver to her family and to the poor people around the town. She would have my brother, Irv, and sister, Fay, deliver it around to all the houses where people didn’t have food. It sounded like a very happy place. If you had a party, or were getting married, the whole town put on the party for the bride and groom. It was a big community event. To me, when I think of how my mother talked about Trochenbrod, it was a beautiful place,” said Hackman.
A Q&A session with director Jeremy Goldscheider will follow the 1 pm screening on Sunday, November 10 at the Drexel Theater. At 3:30 pm, a family reunion of Trochenbrod descendants will be held at Beth Jacob Congregation, 1223 College Ave. Those interested in attending the reunion may RSVP by calling (614) 460-7433. For tickets and more information on the Columbus Jewish Film Festival, visit https://columbusjcc.org///programs/cultural-arts/film-festival/ or call (614) 231-2731.