A daring but little known escape from the Pawiak concentration camp during the Holocaust, in which a Montreal survivor played a key role, has been brought to the screen in the documentary There Is Many Like Us.
Based on the feat of Warsaw-born Max Fronenberg, now 95, who has lived an ordinary life in Montreal since after the war, the film is made by his grandson, Josh Webber.
It’s both a contribution to awareness of Jewish heroism and a loving portrait of a man who was always a devoted grandfather, but shared little about his past.
There Is Many Like Us will have its Canadian premiere at Montreal’s Cineplex Forum on May 3, sponsored by Canadian Hadassah-WIZO (CHW).
Webber, 29, who lives in Los Angeles, was determined to get this film made despite financial setbacks over the more than three years he has worked on it.
He was only able to complete it through two crowdfunding appeals.
Fronenberg and two other men imprisoned in Pawiak, a looming 19th-century jail on the outskirts of Warsaw, secretly dug a 30-foot tunnel over a period of a year from underneath a workshop to the city’s sewer system.
In total, 17 prisoners made it out through the tunnel in 1944 and eluded capture, unlike others who had tried to flee by more conventional means only a few months earlier. They were all caught and hung before their fellow inmates.
After they liquidated the camp later that year, the Nazis destroyed much of Pawiak’s buildings. The archives, which might have contained a record of the escape, were never found.
There are few Pawiak survivors, but through sheer luck, Webber was able to track down and interview two others: Joseph Atlasowicz of Israel, who was a tunnel escapee, and Barry Newman of Florida. The three nonagenarians were reunited in the making of the film.
Also appearing is William Langfan, a U.S. World War II veteran, who after learning of Webber’s campaign, contributed $10,000 – a significant amount to the modest budget.
There Is Many Like Us is also a love story. Fronenberg risked his life for a young Jewish woman in Pawiak named Rena Rosenbaum to whom he brought clothing and, through connections, saw to it that her file somehow never came to the attention of the Gestapo. She had been interned under a false Christian identity.
The title refers to Fronenberg’s opening gambit to her – he was sure she was Jewish. She didn’t understand – the handsome young man with black hair and thick mustache and eyebrows looked like a Gypsy.
At war’s end, neither knew the fate of the other, but by a chance meeting between Rena and another Pawiak survivor, they learned that each was still alive. Fronenberg rushed to Rosenbaum’s town and the flame still burned between them.
However, Fronenberg, now penniless, did not want to marry until he had some money. In desperation, he got involved in smuggling vodka. One day, while on a run, his long coat became entangled in the wheels of the truck whose running-board he was hanging onto.
He broke his pelvis and suffered other serious injuries. Somehow, under the guise of being a Russian soldier, he was admitted to a military hospital, where he lay for weeks, unable to communicate with Rosenbaum.
Fearful of being caught out, he escaped as soon as he could put one foot in front of the other. He hurried to Rosenbaum’s home, only to find that she had thought he had disappeared, and gave in to her father’s wish that she marry another man.
Fronenberg soon married as well, to Halina, a vivacious girl he grew up with. Their son Louis was born in Poland; their daughter Iris in Israel where they emigrated, before settling in Montreal in late 1955. Those children are Webber’s uncle (who became a doctor) and mother, both still residing here.
Rosenbaum (who became Gudstadt) and her husband moved to Toronto and raised their family. Decades past, both she and Fronenberg were widowed. Somehow, through the close-knit survivor community, the two re-connected.
They have been married and living in Montreal for 27 years.
The 85-minute film uses archival footage, dramatic re-enactments –Tyler Mauro and Kayleigh Gilbert play the leads – and family photos and videos, from Fronenberg’s youth to scenes of the elderly couple’s fond relationship today.
Webber, a 2008 graduate of the New York Film Academy, is narrator and appears as himself at times.
There Is Many Like Us has had two previous private screenings: in Los Angeles in November, organized by the 1933 Holocaust Survivors Club, and, more recently, in Florida, also before a largely survivor audience.
The Fronenbergs are expected to attend the May 3 CHW event. They did see an earlier cut.
“He said, ‘I like it, but parts I didn’t like,’” said Webber. Those were the violent scenes, which portray the casual brutality that was a daily occurrence in Pawiak. “But it blew his mind…He looked at me as if to say, ‘Now you know who I am.’”
Above all, Fronenberg does not want to play the hero. “Not at all, he’s the type of guy who likes to stay in the shadows. He believes he just did what he had to do.”
The film is sort of a primer on the Holocaust in general. Webber is shocked at how little many of his generation know about the subject.
“My greatest goal is to get the film seen by as many people as possible. This is a story that provides fresh perspective on the Holocaust,” said Webber, who now hopes to develop it into a more ambitious feature film.
Susan Bercovitch, chair of the CHW evening, said: “As Josh himself has said, ‘It is important to get the survivors’ stories out there before it is too late’ and we believe that two days prior to Yom Hashoah will be the perfect time to host such a special evening.
“CHW is honoured to have the chance to launch the film as we are all about helping make dreams come true, and for Josh completing the film and being able to host a Montreal premiere while his grandparents are still able to be in the audience, is a dream come true.”
For tickets, call 514-933-8461.