You find yourself laughing quite unexpectedly and quite a bit during Philly native Jon Kean's documentary After Auschwitz, his revealing look at the lives of six survivors living in California in the decades after the war, playing at AMC Cherry Hill through Thursday.
Part of that reflects the personalities of the women he selected for the narrative – natural storytellers, candid, charming, often quick to joke and quick to laugh.
And part of it is almost by design – Kean had set out to make a different kind of movie, inspired by Billy Crystal's remark that humor exists anywhere you find two Jews in a room. If that's true – and Kean thinks it is – could that instinct for humor have existed in the most extreme circumstances, during the darkest chapters of Jewish history?
"I was looking at the idea of spiritual resistance in the camps, thinking of humor in this case as a form of spiritual resistance. Did they have access to the full range of their emotional lives? Was there laughter in the barracks at Auschwitz? What were the examples?" Kean said. "Ultimately, the film that I wanted to make didn't work. People remember joking, but nobody remembers the punch lines, just the laughter."
Still, he ended up contacting more than 300 people on the phone, interviewing 18 on camera, and meeting the women who form the basis of two subsequent documentaries about Auschwitz.
He didn't set out to use only women. "Their stories just stood out. The women give emotional detail that the men don't. Men remember the physicality of the situation. Women, I found, were much more attuned to emotional nuance, and for me, that made their stories more compelling," said Kean, who was born in Philadelphia and raised in Lower Merion (his film company is called Bala Cynwyd Productions), where he attended Friends Central before heading off to the University of Pennsylvania, then L.A. to make movies.
In Lower Merion, he attended the Main Line Reform Temple, where he met his first Holocaust survivor – his Hebrew school carpool driver.
"I'm looking at a guy with a number on his arm every Tuesday and Thursday when I was 11," said Kean, who remembers listening to the man's stories at school. They left an impression. For his bar mitzvah, he spoke about writer and Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, and as a filmmaker, looked for a way to integrate his life's work with his passion for history.
His first documentary, 2007's Swimming in Auschwitz, was about the experiences of the women in the camps. He then became interested in what happened after liberation.
"One woman thought it was a trick. She stayed in her barracks for eight hours, thinking she'd be shot if she ventured out," Kean said. "There is a split second of euphoria, then you come back to reality. You're half starving, half dead, you have nowhere to go, no one to help you. You don't know who has survived. You don't know that 6 million Jews have been killed. You only know your little area."
Each of "his ladies," as he calls them, made the bold decision — most still teenagers — to leave Europe and head to the strange new world of the United States. They settled in California, one after a short stint in Allentown.
The bulk of Kean's film examines their lives the United States, and becomes imbued with their spirit — full of hope and grit and humor. There are melancholy notes, to be sure – the women live always with what they have lost and feel culturally homeless. Yet in California, they are also free to choose who they will be and how they will live in ways that would have been unthinkable in postwar Europe.
They survive, adapt, and even thrive.
"The fact that they saw more trauma and more tragedy than we will ever see, and that they came out the other side and found meaningful lives, I love that. The fact that they affected the community around them in such a positive way, to me that's the core of the film. We all have trauma and tragedy. It's what we choose to do to come out the other side of it that counts," he said.
Kean has been in Philadelphia recently, visiting a daughter at college. Like other ex-pats, he's reveling in the Eagles' Super Bowl win ("My dad waited 58 years for that"), and enjoying the Sixers' success. He's grappling, though, with the change in the collective psychology of the city where he grew up.