The Northampton filmmaker’s acclaimed documentary tells the story of Jewish partisans in World War II

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The Northampton filmmaker’s acclaimed documentary tells the story of Jewish partisans in World War II

“A labor of love” may be a cliché. But when it comes to her new film, Four Winters: A Story of Jewish Guerrilla Resistance and Courage During World War II, Julia Mintz says the phrase is very apt.

Mintz, a documentary filmmaker who splits her time between Northampton and New York, began work on Four Winters more than a decade ago after reading about armed gangs of Jews fighting Nazis in the forests of Eastern Europe. It was a chapter of the war and the Holocaust that she didn’t know much about before, she says.

Now, after working on the documentary for years between other projects, Mintz and her production team, including a number of Valley filmmakers, debuted “Four Winters” over the past few months to significant acclaim in Berkshire, New York, Canada, and a number of other locales.

And on April 19, they’ll bring the film to the Northampton Academy of Music — a fitting venue, says Mintz, the film’s director and writer, since much of the documentary was finalized here in town at her home studio.

“This was really a passion project for me,” Mintz said during a recent road call while heading back to the Northeast after a screening of “Four Winters” in Toronto. “So to be able to show the finished work that we’ve done here in the Valley is really exciting.”

The documentary is built around interviews with eight former Jewish partisans, all aged 90 or approaching, and extensive use of old photos and film footage, which Mintz says came from a number of historical archives as well as personal collections of surviving partisans and their families .

It is a story told almost entirely through the voices of the eight interviewees, and as such packs an emotional punch as these elderly combatants recount how the Germans killed many of their family members – children, husbands, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers – while themselves they barely cheated death.

Yet the interviewees, then in their late teens or early 20s, managed to escape the Jewish ghettos in Lithuania, Belarus and what was then Eastern Poland to set up camps in the forests and live rough lives, scavenging for food and basic survival.

Eventually they acquired weapons, learned how to use them, and began ambushing German supply columns, blowing up trains, and destroying railroads and bridges, forcing the Nazis to devote significant resources to fighting them; sometimes they fought fierce battles against the German troops.

Mintz says the “vivid juxtaposition” of the partisans going from apparent victims to hardened, disciplined fighters who take on the “Nazi war machine” is at the heart of the story.

“They did something that was so far outside of their own lives and experience, and they did it in the most horrific and brutal circumstances,” she said. “But they could also see a better future. They continued to believe in humanity – they showed a true Jewish spirit.

Creating a “reverse” movie

Mintz has worked in various capacities on numerous other films, including Get Me Roger Stone, a landmark 2017 documentary about the Republican and adviser to Donald Trump. But for Four Winters, she says she had to throw out the typical documentary-making playbook.

“This film was actually built upside down,” she said, describing how she began arranging interviews with surviving Jewish partisans before she really had any idea how a film about them might be structured.

Given the advanced age of the survivors, Mintz noted, “It was a race against time.”

Unfortunately, only one of the eight interviewees in “Four Winters” is actually still alive, she says: Michael Stoll, a native of Poland who now lives in Berkshire County and is in his late 90s.

Mintz and her team interviewed “dozens of people” in many locations, including the United States, Canada, Europe and Israel. They settled on the eight interviewees, Mintz said, in part because, in addition to the richness of their personal stories, their experiences well represented the collective dynamic of the roughly 25,000 Jewish partisans who fought the Nazis in Eastern Europe.

These personal stories also reflect the larger horror of the Holocaust, which accelerated in the summer of 1941 after the Germans invaded the former Soviet Union, conquering places like eastern Poland and the Baltic states previously occupied by the Soviets. In these territories, the Nazis almost immediately began mass shootings of Jews.

Fay Shulman, who grew up in Poland, describes how her entire family was rounded up one day and shot, along with hundreds of other Jews. Through the action of a German officer, which she did not understand, she was spared, but she witnessed some of the executions – from the roof of a synagogue, she said.

“I heard the shooting, I heard the crying, I heard everything,” she says, her voice breaking. “And I didn’t want to live alone… I wanted to die with my family.”

Her testimony is interspersed with gruesome photographs the Nazis took of rows of shot people and mounds of corpses in mass graves, to a soundtrack of eerie ambient music.

Later in the film, Shulman describes how she escaped into the woods with other Jewish survivors and learned how to shoot a rifle and shoot back.

“The pillow was the rifle, the walls were the trees, and the sky was the roof,” she says of this forest existence. One of her few possessions is a camera with which she records some of the actions of the partisans. (Many of her photos appear in the film, and there are also some of her as a young woman.)

Stoll says his decision to resist began with jumping off a train on which he and many other Jews were being taken to a “labor camp,” according to the Nazis. Stoll was in disbelief and urged others to join him.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he remembers saying. “Do you think you’re going on a picnic or something? We know they will kill us. The longer we wait, the shorter our lives.”

The strength of the film comes from seeing how Stoll and the other partisans, despite their youth and devastating personal losses, become determined fighters who can be as merciless to the Germans as the Germans are to the Jews: “Revenge is the meaning of life us now,” says one.

Frank Bleichmann, a native of Poland, also notes that he and his fellow partisans did not hesitate to take on civilians who worked with the Nazis: He describes, in a plain voice, how in an early mission, “We cleared the area of ​​collaborators .”

Mintz says that “Four Winters” on one level helps to dispel the myth of Jewish passivity in the face of Nazi violence. She also believes the film “gives us a much wider understanding of what happened during the war”.

Perhaps even more important, she says, is the way the film speaks to current issues, when anti-Semitism is reported to be on the rise worldwide and authoritarianism is becoming more common in certain countries.

“I think that [partisans’] the story of resistance is very relevant today, whether it’s Ukraine fighting against invasion or people fighting against authoritarian regimes,” she said. “There is a common theme here – ordinary people finding the courage and determination to stand up to injustice and brutality.”

Four Winters will be screened at the Academy of Music on April 19 at 6:30 p.m. A reception with the filmmakers will follow with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres for those who make an additional donation to help develop educational initiatives with the film.

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



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