In 2008 a man went on an emotional journey to the land of his youth. This journey was captured by filmmaker Micah Brandt, and is the subject of the upcoming documentary, Robbery of the Heart.
The man is Harry Weichsel, my second cousin. Harry is an outstanding member of his community in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He raised six great children, he started a successful program called Grass Roots Tennis that teaches Tennis to inner-city youths, and is involved in his local government. But he also harbors a dark past. Harry Weichsel is a holocaust survivor.
In 1941, at the age of eight, Harry Weichsel left his home town of Wetter, Germany with his mother. The two traveled through France, war ravaged Spain, and finally Portugal, where they were able to board a ship taking refugees to America.
When Harry first returned to Wetter with his mother in 1992, he was shocked to learn that the old synagogue was being used as a stable to house barn animals. Harry wrote a letter to the mayor of Wetter suggesting a collaborative effort between Wetter and the surviving Jewish families to reclaim and restore the synagogue, in order to turn it into a cultural and learning center. The city of Wetter agreed that the synagogue should be restored, but felt they should take on the responsibility on their own.
The restoration was completed in time for the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kristallnacht, also known as the night of broken glass, took place on the evening of November 9th, 1938, when the Nazis destroyed Jewish businesses and homes and placed 30,000 Jews in concentration camps. Although he was only five years old, Harry Weichsel remembers the night well. His grandmother hid him under the bed, and he had to stay there all night as the Nazis ransacked Wetter.
The film Robbery of the Heart deals with the surviving Jewish Wetter families returning to Wetter for the reopening of the synagogue as a cultural and learning center on the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Harry brought four of his six children, two of his grandchildren, and his sister who was born in America with him on his journey back to Wetter.
When Harry and his family, along with other surviving Jewish families, first arrived in Wetter in November of 2008, they found a close knit, strong, noble, middle class community that was warm and welcoming. Many older Germans spoke out in public for the first time about their experiences living through the time of the Third Reich. Holocaust survivors spoke openly and emotionally about their experiences as well. The children of Wetter learned about the holocaust, and the importance of taking responsibility for the actions of Germany during the war.
But, there was a dark side to the trip as well. Neo Nazis vandalized an old Jewish cemetery, and hung up anti-Semitic signs on Wetter's school and around town.
The town of Wetter responded by holding an anti-Nazi vigil, and declaring their solidarity against the actions of the neo-Nazis.
Harry Weichsel is a resilient, strong man who is proud of his heritage, his family, and where he came from. Director Micah Brandt is a serious, sensitive filmmaker with an intuitive grasp of history. Brandt does an excellent, unflinching job of capturing Harry, his family, the entire town of Wetter, and the emotional, sometimes turbulent 70th anniversary remembrance of Kristallnacht.
I was lucky enough to catch a screening of twenty-five minutes of Robbery of the Heart at the Birthright Israel NEXT Los Angeles annual Film Showcase. Director Micah Brandt also showed me the first ten minutes of the film when we met. The footage looks great, and is incredibly moving, but the film still needs to be completed. If you would like to learn more about the project, including how you can make a 100% tax deductable donation to the film, visit http://www.indiegogo.com/robberyoftheheart.