Interview | Aviva Kempner’s ‘A Pocketful of Miracles’

By | May 09, 2024
Arts & Culture, Film, Latest
Aviva Kempner as baby

Aviva Kempner’s recent film, A Pocketful of Miracles: A Tale of Two Siblings, is her most personal documentary yet. Kempner has dedicated her professional career to highlighting the lives of Jewish heroes whose inspiring lives are not widely known. Her past films include Partisans of Vilna, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, Rosenwald and The Spy Behind Home Plate. This time, she turns the lens on her own family, detailing how her mother, Helen (Hanka) Ciesla Covensy, and uncle, David (Dudek) Chase, survived the Holocaust and ultimately found success in America after the war. Helen became an acclaimed artist, with paintings that now hang in the Jimmy Carter Library. David became a wealthy businessman and philanthropist. The film also opens a window on Kempner’s early years as a child born in Germany in 1946 to a Polish mother and U.S. Army journalist Harold Kempner. 

In the film, Kempner weaves together interviews that her mother and uncle gave to the Shoah Foundation in 1997 with postwar footage and family home movies. Her mother and uncle were gregarious, larger-than-life individuals whose strength, pragmatism and zest for life shine through in the film. Kempner hopes this cinematic exploration will inspire others, particularly second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors, to seek out and document their own families’ stories.

Why did you decide to make A Pocketful of Miracles

I was concerned about Holocaust denial and rising antisemitism. Little did I know two years ago what would happen on October 7. The way the film footage was edited, you cannot say the Holocaust didn’t happen. I was also motivated to make the film to learn more about where my family came from, literally, because of my mother and uncle’s close connection to Poland. 

How did your mother and uncle feel about Poland after the war?

Whenever I overheard my mom on the phone speaking Polish, I knew she was talking to my uncle. They didn’t speak Yiddish. There was a warmth about Polish culture and customs in my home when I was growing up. It was prominent, along with a real pride in being Jewish. 

My uncle found great joy in being able to go back to Poland, which he had such fond memories of, unlike many who never wanted to return. He invested in Poland and actually brought cable TV to Poland. He knew the Polish pope. 

My mother also had good memories of growing up in Poland, and the colors, flowers and jewelry from her childhood are reflected in her art. Poland had a great impact on her in terms of the color palette of her paintings. I continue to have a lot of Polish folk art in my home. 

In Detroit, where I grew up, we would eat Polish food, such as kielbasa and pierogi. My mother was a great cook and we often had people at our home for meals. If they were Jewish, we had blintzes and chopped liver. If they weren’t, we called it crepes and pate. 

(Left) Hanka (Helen) Ciesla and (right) Dudek (David) Ciesla after liberation.

Have you considered showing your film in Poland? 

It’s interesting you ask that because I keep writing to the embassy there in the hope that I can. I’d love to take the film to Krakow and Warsaw. 

I showed it at the Berlin Jewish Film Festival, and I’m planning to return in September to take it to Munich, Frankfurt and back to Berlin. I’m in discussions with our ambassador to Germany, Amy Gutmann. 

How did you decide which family movie clips to include in the film?

When my father died in 1976, there was a can of film with his belongings in Israel marked “Baby Aviva.” I brought it back with me and that footage was sitting around for years, until about a year into making A Pocketful of Miracles when I remembered it. My associate producer searched boxes in my home for days and eventually found it!

Those early home movies show a couple of things. First, it’s a movie about us in Germany, which is part of the story after the war. Second, it depicts a very different life after the war than many experienced. I was born in Berlin. Most postwar stories you hear about occurred in displaced persons camps. I have a lot of my father’s stories about displaced persons camps as well, because he was a U.S. Army journalist. 

I only learned when I visited Munich and showed Pocketful to a friend there that the footage was actually shot in Munich. I thought it was Berlin, where I was born, so we had to take a line out of the movie. My friend noticed that the Munich Zoo was in the film. She also noticed the number of the house where I lived. I visited the actual house and it brought back incredible memories. There was an apple tree in the backyard, which must have meant a lot to my mother. As you may recall in Pocketful, when my mother was in the slave labor camp in Germany during the war, she threw apples to prisoners. 

How have people responded to A Pocketful of Miracles

Some say Pocketful really shows the resilience of survivors. I think a lot of immigrants and survivors, not just Jewish ones, get something out of this film. It shows the resilience of the human soul.

Certainly both my mother and my uncle were resourceful, either to escape like my mother or to survive forced labor, incarceration and the loss of their parents and siblings. Finding each other after the war, however, gave them both hope. And they made incredible lives for themselves. When you’ve had a lot of love and comfort in those formative years growing up, as my mother did, seeing how romantic my grandparents were, she got that later in life with my stepfather, even more than with my own father, I believe.

As far as the reactions of friends and other people coming out of the screenings, some say, “Oh my gosh. I had no idea.” For second-generation and third-generation viewers, especially for those whose families didn’t talk about what happened to them, it’s a real revelation. 

Has the film been shown on any college campuses? 

I was recently at Cornell University, where a professor organized the showing of American Jewish films. It was very moving to be in class the next day because the students were engaged in discussing the movie. I asked if anyone was third generation, and an outpouring of students said yes, my family was this, my family was that. They told me they hadn’t talked about it and it was really important to see the film. I think it was very cathartic for them. That is exactly why I made Pocketful—to say, hey, this is one family’s story of a brother and sister before, during and after the war. A lot of this is trying to encourage others to find out their families’ stories.

There was one student who said that on her grandfather’s deathbed, he confessed to his daughter, the student’s mother, that they were actually Jewish. She had never known that. 

If I can raise the funds, I’d really like to take the film to more campuses in the fall.  

How did you decide to name the film A Pocketful of Miracles

One of the highlights of the film is the reunion between my mother and uncle. It was a miracle. In the interview, my uncle David said the whole thing was really “a pocketful of miracles.” That is where the title came from. (It’s also the name of a 1961 Frank Capra movie that has nothing to do with the Holocaust, so I added the subtitle A Tale of Two Siblings to mine.)

How did you first learn about the Holocaust growing up? 

I first learned about the Holocaust reading Leon Uris’s novel Exodus when I was 13, reading about love and caring. Then I went to the library at school and I would read and watch everything I could about the Holocaust. 

Did your mother or uncle ever share their personal experiences during the war with you?

When my brother and I were growing up, we essentially never heard any stories directly. My cousin, Arnold, recalls going up to his father, my uncle David, when he was a young boy and asking, “What’s that number on your arm?” My uncle said it was his phone number, which of course didn’t make sense to my cousin because there weren’t enough numbers. 

My mother did mention that her grandmother was murdered in front of her, and something about outsmarting the people who tried to steal a suitcase from her during the war. She talks about this in the film. 

Later in life, my mother, who died in 2007, would say that each stroke of her painting was for the six million. To keep the name of her parents alive, my mother signed her paintings with her maiden name, Ciesla, which is also the name of my foundation. The other thing she said was that she thought her father was going to rescue her. 

If you could go back and ask your mother anything, what would it be?  

I don’t know what I’d ask because for many years I was told not to ask. Just the whole thing about carrying in her heart that her father was going to come and rescue her. “Why did you think that?” I’d like to ask. “Was it because your parents gave you an angelic life and everything you needed?” She says at the end of the film that it was really the wonderful parents she had that allowed her to keep going. I’d probably also want to know how she had the courage to stand up to that horrible Nazi woman and defend the woman in the film falsely accused of being pregnant. 

What is the importance of the Shoah Foundation interviews? 

I cannot emphasize how grateful I am to Steven Spielberg. I thank him at every screening where I see him because he had this idea 30 years ago to start the Shoah Foundation. To be able to learn about the family, both the good things and, of course, the sorrowful things, it’s a real revelation. I think Spielberg talked about making Saving Private Ryan because his dad never talked about the war or what it meant to be a soldier. 

The Shoah Foundation has also begun collecting testimony from survivors of the Hamas terrorist attack of October 7. Perhaps some of those testimonies can be used for future film or book projects. My dad made aliyah and I feel like I am the daughter of an Israeli, so I’m very concerned about the hostages. 

I can’t believe what is going on right now. I don’t say this often but I’m so glad my mother isn’t around. It would have been totally traumatic and brought back bad memories.

From your films, it is clear that your Jewish identity is important to you. What influence did your parents have on that? 

My dad actually taught me more about what happened historically and he had a lot of pride about being Jewish. It was very influential for me. I grew up hearing all about Major League Baseball player Hank Greenberg. That’s why I made The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. My modus operandi is little-known Jewish heroes fighting fascism, sexism and racism, and now, in the last two and a half years, it’s concentrating on the personal stories of my own family. It’s just a shame my dad never saw any of my movies. 

There is a funny postwar story that didn’t make it into the film about the importance of Jewish identity to my family. My aunt wouldn’t go out with my uncle originally because she thought, because of his looks, that he wasn’t Jewish. He recited the beginning of his Haftorah and she said, “Okay, you’re Jewish. I will go out with you.” 

The Shoah interviews reveal that your mother and uncle both had larger-than-life personalities. How did this shape you? 

They had a lot of chutzpah. I’m in awe of them. After her divorce, my mom decided she was going to become an artist and that is my role model. She had a one-woman show and some of her paintings hang in the Carter Library. And my uncle—he came to this country with hardly anything and said, “I’m going to become a businessman.” How do you just go and make another life when you don’t even know the language? They felt they were the lucky ones. I think I have some of the same chutzpah. 

How did you decide to become a filmmaker?

At one point I had an epiphany. Well, I was helped by the fact the DC bar did not pass me. I had very good grades in law school but was terrible at multiple choice. My epiphany was to do a film about how Jews fought back. I was originally going to make a film about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Then, at some point, Yitzhak Arad, the director of Yad Vashem, handed me this book about Vilna. More people were still alive from Vilna, so I decided to take their testimonies, and I’m so glad I made Partisans of Vilna instead, because there have been a lot of newer films about resistance, but  oftentimes it’s the children of the resisters talking about it. But I was able to get the first-hand testimonies.

What is your next project? 

I would love to do something about the whole Kempner family. When my father died he was living in Israel, but the Kempners originally came from Lithuania. 

I’m now working on a film about Ben Hecht, which is a big project aboutsomeone trying to do everything they could in America to save European Jewry. Ben Hecht was an American Jewish journalist, novelist and playwright. I’m very excited because the J x J film festival in Washington, DC, will be showing a sneak preview of the film on May 12. 

This fall will also be the ninetieth anniversary of Hank Greenberg refusing to play in a pennant game on Yom Kippur in 1934, so I hope to promote the film across the country. All I can do is keep on making my films, and trying to get them out there.

Top image: Aviva Kempner (center) with her parents in 1947. Courtesy of Aviva Kempner.

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