Aviva Kempner credits her career as a District-based, award-winning filmmaker and film producer to failing the D.C. bar exam. “I always thanked the D.C. bar for flunking me, twice,” she said recently. “If I hadn’t, I would have worked as an immigration lawyer.”
Instead, Kempner, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor mother and a U.S. army officer father, has been sharing untold or little-known stories of 20th century Jews and others via the medium of film. Her goal is to shed light on inspiring and overlooked lives that reflect Jewish themes and values.
Growing up in Detroit, Kempner recalled, “One of the things my mother and I used to love to do was watch old movies on Sunday afternoons.” In 1981, she founded the Ciesla Foundation with the intention of celebrating non-stereotypical images of Jews and illuminating untold Jewish stories. Her first documentary, “Partisans of Vilna,” was released in 1986, sharing little-known stories of Jewish resistance fighters in the forests of Lithuania during World War II.
In “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” she told the story of the first Jewish major league baseball player, who was a first baseman for the Detroit Tigers. Released in 1998, Kempner said she hopes to take the popular Hank Greenberg documentary around the country to college campuses and youth groups. In this moment of elevated antisemitism, she noted, “Hank Greenberg faced antisemitism every day on the field. And I think showing that film about him would be really inspiring to young kids today. Especially Jewish students. I’m so upset for these Jewish students on campus.”
Kempner’s newest film is her most personal, and, perhaps, most powerful. “A Pocketful of Miracles: A Tale of Two Siblings” shares the story of her mother, Helen Ciesla Covensky, a noted abstract expressionist painter, and her uncle, David Chase, a successful businessman and philanthropist. Born into a wealthy Polish Jewish family, the siblings were separated on the heels of the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Chase, known as Dudek as a child, was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and escaped captivity during a death march.
Ciesla Covensky, in girlhood known as Hanka, managed to slip away before deportation, obtain false papers and live as a Polish Catholic – thanks to her blonde hair and green eyes and her lack of a Yiddish accent. “My mother,” Kempner said, “had chutzpa.”
Like many children of survivors, Kempner admitted that she didn’t have many details of her mother’s Holocaust history: “She said she wanted to spare us the sorrow.” This film would have never been made, the filmmaker noted, if not for one of the most notable and successful movie directors of our era.
“The person I most thank in every screening is Steven Spielberg,” Kempner said, “because 30 years ago, he decided to create the Shoah Foundation. The interviews [the foundation did] with my mother and uncle are from 1997.”
Excerpts from these four-hour interviews provide the first-hand testimony in the film. And since Chase passed away in 2016, and Covensky in 2007, both without ever sharing details of their Holocaust experiences with their families, Kempner would never have known the gut-wrenching and inspiring details of their lives from that period.
Kempner actually had copies of the interviews, but admitted, “I think I looked once at just a little bit of the interview. But when you’re told, ‘We don’t talk about it,’ you simply don’t.” Additionally, her father, Harold Kempner, was a military reporter and PR officer. He had some footage from his young family – including Aviva as a little girl – in Germany shortly after the war.
“And I never thought, even in the years I was already a filmmaker, to develop it,” she said, “until I began this film … and then it took days to find it, because I had moved. I actually have 15 minutes. That’s such a gift.”
Why did it take so long for Kempner to tell this deeply personal story? “I started when I was turning 75,” she said. “At that age you start thinking, okay, you’re not a spring chicken anymore. Of course, my mother would hate that I said my age.”
“There have been these consistent talks about Holocaust denial and antisemitism. I said, I have to do this now,” the filmmaker added. She enlisted a cadre of family members, nieces, nephews, cousins and friends to serve on her research team, since her budget was low.
She also brought on D.C.-based documentary film editor and researcher Lucia Fox-Shapiro. Kempner noted that with so many electronic archives and online databases, gathering documentation and film clips wasn’t as time-consuming and expensive as it has been in the past.
Kempner provides visuals throughout her documentaries, even if historic documentary films aren’t available. Instead, she’ll gather brief images and clips from other feature and documentary film sources. She explained: “Early in the movie when my mother says that my grandmother and grandfather really loved each other and would dance, we used footage from the Center for Jewish Film …. It wasn’t them dancing …. My M.O. is always to use, obviously, the original footage when it’s available, which is very unusual. For this, I had to use stills.”
Original photos from her mother’s childhood were fortuitously saved, Kempner said: “My mother had sewn some pictures of the family in her coat. Then, after the war, she got some pictures from relatives in Canada who had been sent [family] pictures earlier.”
Audiences have asked where she found so many photos and films for the documentary. Some are authentic family photos plus the Spielberg Shoah Foundation testimony; others are collected from contemporaneous films. Her response, “That’s when I know I’ve succeeded. I always tell my editors, ‘If I hear it, I want to see it.’”
Kempner hopes that “A Pocketful of Miracles” will reach a broad and diverse audience: “If there’s one thing the film can do it’s to be undeniable evidence of what happened to the Jews of Europe during World War II …. Now my big push is to raise money, not only to help distribute the film, but to bring it to every college campus where there has been noted antisemitism.”
She is also pleased to introduce her mother’s artwork to a new generation with an exhibit of Covensky’s abstract paintings at The Kosciuszko Foundation through mid-December. “My mother said her artwork was not traditionally Holocaust work … but I think she recreated the colors of her childhood in Poland. She said, every stroke was for one of the six-million. And she really believed that.”
As for Kempner, she’s already at work on her next movie projects, including a documentary on Jewish screenwriter and director Ben Hecht. She’ll continue to tell stories of unsung Jewish heroes: “There are enough true heroes to last me two lifetimes.”
“Pocketful of Miracles: A Tale of Two Siblings” screens Thursday, November 16, 7:00 p.m. at the Bender JCC, 6125 Montrose Road, Rockville, Md.
Helen Ciesla Covensky’s artwork can be seen through December 15 at The Kosciuszko Foundation, 2025 O Street NW, Washington, D.C. Visit thekf.org/event/kf-washington-dc-celebrating-intergenerational-talent-through-abstract-art-exhibition-of-paintings-by-helen-ciesla-covensky-and-her-granddaughter-piera-kempner/.
Lisa Traiger is the arts correspondent for Washington Jewish Week.