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The boy who ran, the man who lived

by Tom Tugend

April 23, 2014 | 3:27 pm

Identical twins Kamil and Andrzej Tkacs portray an 8-year-old boy who escapes the Warsaw Ghetto and survives on his own for three years in “Run Boy Run.” Photo by Hagen Keller

Identical twins Kamil and Andrzej Tkacs portray an 8-year-old boy who escapes the Warsaw Ghetto and survives on his own for three years in “Run Boy Run.” Photo by Hagen Keller

Every survivor of the Holocaust has a distinct story, and among the most remarkable is the one told in the movie “Run Boy Run.”

It’s the tale of an 8-year-old boy who escapes the Warsaw Ghetto and survives on his own for three years in Nazi-occupied Poland; the story could easily defy belief if the survivor were not still alive and ready to detail his experiences.

At the center of “Run Boy Run” — to be screened May 4 as part of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival — is the lad born as Israel Fridman but nicknamed Srulik, the son of a baker in the Polish village of Blonie.

In 1942, the 8-year-old Srulik is smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto and hunkers down — wet, cold and hungry — in a vast Polish forest.

He first falls in with a band of orphaned Jewish youth who raid Polish farms for food and wood, but when that falls apart, Srulik again strikes out on his own.

Knocking at the doors of Polish farmers to ask for shelter in return for work, Srulik encounters rejections and even beatings until finally he is taken in by Magda (Elisabeth Duda, in a stellar performance), the wife and mother of Polish partisans.

Magda is warm-hearted and brave, but above all, practical. Knowing that Srulik will have a better chance of survival as a Catholic boy than as a Jew, she renames him Jurek, teaches him the Hail Mary prayer, gives him a crucifix and, most important, warns him never to take down his pants or relieve himself in front of a Pole.

Despite all precautions, word spreads in the village that Magda is hiding a Jew. The SS raids and torches her home, and after some heart-stopping escapes, the boy is again on the run.

In one of the film’s few light episodes, Jurek earns extra food from sympathetic adults by spinning wild stories about how he lost his arm, first blaming a German tank and finally assuring his listeners that Hitler personally cut off his arm.

In 1948, he is tracked down by a Jewish search agency and, despite the boy’s initial denials of being Jewish, he eventually returns to his ancestral roots.

The film essentially ends there, but in a phone call to his home in Shoham, a Tel Aviv bedroom community, Yoram Israel Fridman — formerly Srulik and Jurek — told the rest of the story.

With his daughter, Michal, translating from Hebrew and filling in for her 79-year-old father, Fridman continued his life story from his aliyah in 1948 to the present.

After arriving in Israel as a functional illiterate, Fridman took an intensive six-month ulpan course in Hebrew, then started his formal education and eventually earned a master’s degree in mathematics.

In 1963, he married Sonia, who was born in Russia during World War II, and the couple now has two children and six grandchildren.

Fridman retired from his position as a math teacher 11 years ago and now enjoys life as family patriarch, an ardent basketball fan and helping his grandson with math homework.

Some years ago, he told his wartime story to Israeli author Uri Orlev, who wrote the book on which the film is based — in the form of a thriller for young readers, in the same way Fridman has recounted his experiences for his children and grandchildren, Michal said.

Fridman’s children attribute his survival to considerable luck, and even more so to his inherent resourcefulness — a trait he also displays in diapering and tying the shoelaces of his youngest grandchildren with one hand, after rejecting a prosthesis following a short test-run.

In January, the family attended the premiere of “Run Boy Run” at the Jewish Museum in Warsaw, liked the film and deemed it 90 percent factually correct.

Veteran German director Pepe Danquart was attracted to the film’s theme because it viewed the Holocaust through the eyes of an innocent yet adventurous child.

“The Holocaust is still topical, still relevant,” Danquart said in a phone call from Germany. “But 6 million dead Jews is an abstract figure, especially to kids. Yet, they can be reached through a well-told adventure story.”

Danquart, who won an Oscar in 1993 for his short film “Black Rider,” had considerable difficulty finding the right actor for the central role of Srulik/Jurek.

“Two weeks before we were to start photography, I had interviewed 700 youngsters without finding the right one,” he said. Just then, he discovered not only the one actor he was looking for, but two, in identical twins Kamil and Andrzej Tkacs.

With the huge physical and psychological effort the role demanded, the twins could spell one another in front of the cameras.

North Germany’s fields and forests largely stood in for the Polish landscape, impressively rendered by cinematographer David Gottschalk.

One notable aspect of the movie is the depiction of Poles and Germans. There are Poles who risk everything to help Jurek, and others, like a Polish doctor, who refuse to treat a Jew whose arm was ripped off in a farm accident.

In contrast, there is not a single good German in the German director’s movie. Danquart explained that he didn’t want to diffuse the film’s central theme by including an Oskar Schindler or a music-loving Nazi officer as in Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist.”

“Run Boy Run” will be presented by the L.A. Jewish Film Festival at 7 p.m., May 4 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills. The screening is sponsored by the L.A. Museum of the Holocaust, Goldrich Family Foundation and Anti-Defamation League. For information and tickets, visit www.lajfilmfest.org, or phone Brown Paper Tickets at (800) 838-3006.

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