COVER STORY: The Canadian Shoah film that almost never got made

Sun In My Eyes, featuring a young Al Waxman, left, aired on CBC in 1960.

Having survived the war disguised as a Christian child in Nazi-occupied Poland, Jack Kuper arrived in Canada in 1947 and soon began writing the story of his dramatic wartime ordeal in Yiddish. But the woman in the Jewish family that was taking care of him seemed disinterested in hearing it, so he stopped writing it.

Eventually Kuper mastered English, worked as a graphic designer at the CBC, made many TV commercials, formed the film company Kuper Productions, and wrote a bestselling biography, Child of the Holocaust (1967). 

Remarkable for appearing at a time when commercial publishing houses were taking on relatively few Holocaust-themed manuscripts and the subject was widely regarded as taboo, Child of the Holocaust received wide distribution across the English-speaking world and was translated into eight languages. A postwar sequel, After the Smoke Cleared, came out in 1994.

Turns out that Kuper had told much the same story in an earlier, all-but-forgotten teleplay, Sun In My Eyes, which the CBC produced in 1959 and aired  – twice, in response to popular demand – in early 1960. Directed by Harvey Hart and featuring a young Al Waxman in one of his earliest starring roles, Sun In My Eyes is being given a free public screening at this year’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival. (Innis Town Hall, May 9, 1:30 p.m.)

Related Story: Al Waxman will forever be the King of Kensington

During a recent interview in his Forest Hill home, Kuper explained that he wrote Sun In My Eyes after he had commented at a CBC meeting that so many productions were “just frivolous plays about nothing,” and someone dared him to write a better play. “I said, ‘I will,’ and I went home and began writing,” he recalled.

The initial response to his script was anything but warm. The first CBC producer he told about it dismissed him and the script without even looking at it. He had a breakfast meeting with CBC drama critic Nathan Cohen, who was equally dismissive. Others were more sympathetic, “but nobody wanted to do it,” Kuper said. “This would have been about 1955. Everywhere I went, people said, ‘We’ve already done The Diary of Anne Frank and the war is over, so get on with it.”

Kuper had no trouble getting other teleplays produced at the CBC. For his play Lost in the Crowd, he changed the Jewish characters to non-Jewish characters – Polish Christians living on Toronto’s Queen Street – and it sold without a problem and was well received. “Paddy Chayefsky was doing exactly the same thing at the time. You simply changed the Jews to non-Jews, because you could sell only so many Jewish stories.”

But another script that featured Jewish characters, It Happened in Kensington Market, was also summarily rejected. “They got back to me, and they said, ‘We already have a play for Passover,’” Kuper said. As for Sun In My Eyes, one producer seriously urged him to change the locale so that it takes place among the Eskimos in the Arctic, thereby making it a Canadian subject. Kuper even adapted the script for radio, only to be told, “The war is over, it’s time to forget and move on.

“People didn’t want to talk about the Holocaust – it was like talking about cancer. It made people very uncomfortable, and all I wanted to do was talk about it.”

Fortunately, a producer who was impressed with Kuper’s other works asked to see a copy of the script, loved it, and bought it the next day. Production ensued within a few months. Because of restrictions in videotape editing capabilities, the play was shot in a studio with several cameras, interiors as well as exteriors, one scene after another as though it was a live production.

“You couldn’t go on location somewhere. Everything was done in the studio,” Kuper said. “You’d have to write it like that, too, so it would work. You couldn’t have a character dressed in a certain way, and in the next shot, he’s dressed differently. There wasn’t enough time. You’d have to write another scene in between to give him time to change costumes.” 

Kuper admits he altered the story to suit the medium. 

“Although it says at the beginning that the story you are about to see is true, I took liberties,” he said. 

“The true story is in my book; that’s how it happened and I didn’t have to play with it. But in a play, you need the dramatic curve, the dramatic angle to it.”

How does he feel now that TJFF is presenting a public screening? “It feels wonderful, especially when I think back on the struggle that I had producing this,” said the veteran producer-director, who has agreed to provide an introduction to the screening.

Presented as part of a series of Waxman films, Sun In My Eyes also ties into the TJFF’s “archival film” track. Other titles include director David Troster’s 1984 documentary Spadina, about Toronto’s famous downtown Jewish district in its last throes; the Rod Serling series, which features The Twilight Zone’s creator’s rarely screened works, including In the Presence of my Enemies and Requiem for a Heavyweight; Laura Adler’s Last Love Affair, which is being screened in memory of the late Israeli director Avraham Heffner, and several others. 

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