An unlikely meeting: Hampshire College professor explores his European roots for new film

When he set out over a year ago to begin making a film about his roots in Poland, Abraham Ravett hoped he might somehow reconnect with a then-teenage girl who had been his regular babysitter when he was a toddler. But the Hampshire College film professor said at the time that he wasn’t necessarily interested “in the epiphany of reunion.” His film, he noted, was really “about the journey.”

All he had to go on, after all, was a grainy black-and-white photograph of the two of them, holding hands, in a meadow outside Walbrzych, Poland, in 1950; at the time, he was 3 and Ilse, his caregiver, was 17. He had no actual memory of her.

But this summer, Ravett had an unexpected meeting with Ilse Gerda Kaiser, now 82 and living in Germany — and that meeting, he says, was more profound than he expected.

“I never really imagined that she would be there, or that I’d find her,” Ravett said in a recent interview in Northampton, where he lives. “It was really quite moving, and I learned a lot about my life, and about my parents’ life, from that time. I’m really grateful for that.”

The meeting itself took place only after an unlikely string of events, including an article in a Polish newspaper about his search for his roots, followed by a chain of emails from Poland to Germany to the United States that finally forged a link between him and his former caregiver.

In fact, he learned that Kaiser, a German national, looked after him as much as six days a week, 12 hours a day for two years while his parents ran a grocery store in Walbrzych, which until the end of World War II had been part of Germany and was called Waldenburg.

“Clearly she was a very important part of my life, and then suddenly she was no longer there,” Ravett said.

In 1950, his parents, Polish-German Jews who had lost most of their family members in the Holocaust, immigrated to Israel with their son, then came to the United States in 1955. For years, Ravett knew little about their life in Europe or his own brief time there, which prompted his interest in examining his roots. Using the old photograph of him at age 3 with his babysitter as inspiration, he calls his movie “Holding Hands with Ilse.”

But after three trips to Europe to do research and to meet the elderly Kaiser, Ravett, 68, says he’ll have to recalibrate his film. He has hours of footage from Walbrzych and other parts of western Poland, film of Kaiser and her family from Germany, images from old photographs — but the unexpected reunion with Kaiser, and the emotions that’s generated, have to be worked into the mix.

“I’m still processing it all,” he said. “I haven’t figured out what to do yet ... the film’s definitely going to have a different ending now.”

Fleeing anti-Semitism

Ravett, who has taught film and photography at Hampshire since 1979, has made many independent films over the years; his work, including short movies, has been screened in festivals and other settings both nationally and internationally. He explored the lives of his late parents, Chaim and Fela, in two of his films, using those works to examine a theme related to that of “Holding Hands with Ilse”: an experience of loss and how that’s affected his life.

It’s a story that’s inextricably bound up with WWII, the Holocaust, and the post-war redrawing of European boundaries. Both of Ravett’s parents were Polish Jews whose first language was German. They survived Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp — but their previous spouses and children did not. They met and married in Walbrzych after the war; Ravett, their only child, was born in 1947.

Ultimately, though, neither of his parents could bear the legacy of anti-Semitism that lingered in Poland and Germany, Ravett says, and the family moved to Israel in 1950.

Ravett only learned some of these details years later from his parents. But many gaps, such as what might have happened to Kaiser, remained. The borderland areas of Germany and Poland that changed hands after WWII had their own tangled history. Most Germans had been forced to leave these newly incorporated areas of Poland, such as Walbrzych, while others, perhaps with specific skills like engineering, were allowed to stay, Ravett believed. But he didn’t know which group his caregiver’s family might have been part of.

He went to Poland in summer 2014 to do initial research, tracking down the apartment building he’d lived in in Walbrzych and visiting another western Polish city, Wroclaw, that had been known as Breslau and was part of Germany until 1945. He made inquiries at German-Polish organizations about Kaiser, but nothing came of it.

Last fall, Ravett took part in a seminar with the Kahn Liberal Arts Institute, a Smith College program that brings Five College faculty and Smith students together on various research projects. With the help of a Polish student, Joanna Bagienska, Ravett contacted numerous other places in Poland, including newspapers, to seek help. One paper reprinted a translated Gazette article from October 2014 about his project, but it failed to generate any leads.

At last, a break

This past June, Ravett went back to western Poland with his partner, Barbara Bolibok, a native of Poland, to help with his search. They visited several places in Walbrzych and Wroclaw, and with Bolibok’s help — she wrote letters in Polish and did extensive translation of Polish to English — Ravett again contacted newspapers and media sites to see if he could generate interest in a story about his film project.

“I figured that was the best way to get the word out, but I didn’t have a single response,” he said.

But toward the end of June, there was a bit of movement. He and Bolibok met a mother and son, Doris Stempowska and Leopold Stempowski, who ran a German-Polish cultural organization and were “just very welcoming,” Ravett said, making inquiries on his behalf. Then Magdalena Piekarska, a reporter with Poland’s largest newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, came to Walbrzych with a photographer to do a story on him.

Her feature, with several photos and a link to a video, did not run until July 3, by which point Ravett was back in the Valley. But a week or so later, he got an email from Andrzej Szczensy, a Polish doctor who had read the story online and told Ravett he had forwarded it to a friend of his in Germany. The friend produced a monthly newsletter for German nationals who had once lived in Poland, and he included an abbreviated version of the Gazeta Wyborcza story in his next issue.

On the newsletter’s mailing list, it turned out, was Ilse Gerda Kaiser — now living in a town in the western part of Germany, close by the Dutch border. Szczensy was able to forward to Ravett the email of Kaiser’s granddaughter, Kathrin Kaiser, who spoke and wrote English, and Ravett got in touch with her.

It took a number of back-and-forth emails to establish if Ravett and Isle Gerda Kaiser were in fact the same two people in the grainy 1950 photo — but eventually, Ravett said, “I knew it was her, and I knew I had to go see her.”

In late August, he spent five days in Ibbenburen, Germany, with Isle and Kathrin, exchanging photos and stories (with Kathrin Kaiser translating). Ravett learned how important Isle had been to him as a boy, and how much she remembered of him. He learned something of her past, too: how her father, a coal miner, had been forced, not asked, to stay in Walbrzych after WWII because war-ravaged Poland desperately needed coal.

Kaiser eventually moved to the former East Germany, married a coal miner herself, and had six children; she likely came to the western part of Germany after the country was reunited in 1990, Ravett said.

It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind for him, but he’s been touched by the generosity of the people who helped him, and he hopes it will ultimately make for a stronger film.

“To have an opportunity to see what I was like, what my life was like, from so long ago — that’s really a gift,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.