July 10, 2003
The Uris Inspiration
I was saddened to hear author Leon Uris died. I regret never having the opportunity to tell him how "Exodus" and "Mila 18" had inspired my Jewish identity and filmmaking career.
Born in Berlin after World War II, I was the product of a war marriage between a Polish Holocaust survivor and a Lithuanian-born American soldier. We moved from Germany to Detroit in 1950.
My mother rarely spoke about her wartime experiences; she wanted to protect us from those terrible times. Back in the late '50s, the Holocaust was not a subject taught at school.
During my 13th year, I first learned about the horrors of Auschwitz -- where my relatives had perished -- while devouring "Exodus" on a Michigan beach. I recall being visibly shaken by Uris' vivid descriptions and taken with Dov and Karen, the survivor characters.
For an American teenager coping with her first detailed knowledge about the Holocaust, Uris also provided me with a heroic Jewish character I so needed to identify with. I developed a mad crush on the fictional Ari Ben Canaan, the strong sabra.
During trips to Israel, beginning at age 16, I always looked for an Ari. I later found out this youthful crush extended way beyond my girlish purview.
I met American males named Ari, because the archetype Israeli macho also inspired their parents. Others talked about visiting Israel based on their pride for the land after reading "Exodus."
Most poignantly, I encountered Soviet Jews who learned about modern Jewish history through the clandestine reading of "Exodus." We compared notes on how Uris had been a literary teacher for us all.
After reading "Exodus," I developed a teenage fascination with fighting and killing Nazis. This intrigue even intensified after reading with pride Uris' "Mila 18" about the courageous Jewish youth that rebelled against the Nazis in Warsaw.
I sought out angst-filled films about "the war." Millie Perkins in "The Diary of Anne Frank" and Rod Steiger in "The Pawnbroker" were my favorites. I felt personally betrayed when Lee Marvin's drunk cowboy in "Cat Ballou" won best actor over Rod Steiger's compelling performance as a haunted Holocaust survivor in "The Pawnbroker" at the 1966 Academy Awards.
Every couple years I would re-read "Mila 18." After watching "Roots" and "Holocaust" on television in the late '70s, I knew that the roots path Uris had started me on was headed in a new direction. After re-reading Uris' "Mila 18" for the sixth time, I decided to leave my immigration law career in 1979 to pursue an epiphany -- to make a film about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
Never mind that while co-writing the script with director Josh Waletzky we chose to make the film about Vilna instead of Warsaw. I was not even disillusioned that in our Ph.D.-like pursuit of knowledge about the Holocaust, I realized that Uris had taken great literary license on the subject.
In plotting "Mila 18," Uris created a Polish woman who valiantly aided the Jewish resistance leader. But she was contrary to the reality, where too few non-Jews assisted the Jewish freedom fighters.
I forgave Uris' liberties, since his works gave this child of a Holocaust survivor knowledge and solace about what happened during World War II. Uris' exposure to strong Jews had planted a seed that inspired all my movies.
What really mattered, and what I will always be grateful for, is that Uris was the most important influence for me to make "Partisans of Vilna" and to continue on with the cinematic theme of Jewish heroes in "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" and "Today I Vote for My Joey."
Uris' inspiration to make a Holocaust movie fulfilled a psychological need in me to commemorate the dead, but it is not the exclusive province of a child born amidst the ashes. Lest you think that Uris' writing only spoke to me, you only have to read what Miramax head Harvey Weinstein claims is the only film he has a desire to direct -- "Mila 18." I empathize with Weinstein's passion to direct the movie version of "Mila 18." Harvey and I both owe our celluloid inspirations to Uris.
Aviva Kempner produced and co-wrote "Partisans of Vilna" and wrote and directed "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" and "Today I Vote for My Joey." She is now making "Gertude Berg: America's Molly Goldberg."