Archive for the ‘The Ripple Project Series One: Share Memory’ Category

“The Show Will Go On” Starring Ela Weissberger

Ela Stein Weisberger Star of David

It’s hard to describe what it felt like walking into Ela’s house that sweltering summer of 2010. Accompanied by a motley documentary film crew, we were still in the early stages of researching the Terezín concentration camp and had little knowledge of the children’s opera Brundibar. My intern found Ela on a google search and was ecstatic when he realized she was in the tri-state area. I made a couple of phone calls, and that same day(!) we packed the car with equipment and crew we were on our way to interview Ela in Tapan, New York. The length of the drive from Brooklyn was basically our research and prep time. The team was comprised of my close friend and partner on the project, my brother who was shooting this interview as a last minute favor, and an assistant, who was only there as a favor for my partner. Ela was the second “official” interview we did for The Ripple Project, and at this point, I wasn’t sure what we wanted to accomplish, we just knew that it was going to be “sad.” I could not have anticipated what was waiting for me when we arrived at a picturesque, modest suburban house.

I knocked, the door opened, and a hesitant, slightly suspicions smile greeted us. Ela was a known personality and considered by some to be a “celebrity” within a dwindling community of Holocaust survivors. She had been interviewed, filmed, recorded, talked about, written about, and flown around the globe to share her tale of survival and lessons on life. We were newcomers to the Shoah commemoration world, but Ela agreed to meet us nonetheless. I kinda schmoozed my way to get this interview with her based on promises of things to come. Her disappointment was to be expected.

Greeted by Ela Weissberger

I jotted down a few fundamental questions while in the car, I was woefully underprepared. Ela was as charming as could be, offered us water and cookies while we set up the room for the interview. Since I didn’t know Ela yet and was still unclear about my vision, I figured we would do this one “research” sit-down interview, not my film style of choice, but at least we get to know each other. After a few awkward moments of clumsy back and forth I had a sinking feeling that Ela might be on to us, she would know that we are just a few Shoah “rookies” trying to get our feet wet. I was worried that the interview was going nowhere. I felt a bit discouraged as I sat back and apologetically raising my eyes to look at her, but Ela’s demeanor was not what I anticipated.

Her voice, tone, and pitch were unphased, as she revealed stories of her travels, adventures, and survival. Ela’s personal story is mostly based in Terezín (Theresienstadt) concentration camp, which is in today’s Czech Republic. She is known as the child who played the cat in all 55 performances of the children’s opera Brundibár by Jewish Czech composer Hans Krása. An opera the Nazis allowed to be performed, as the Red Cross visited Terezín which the Nazis set up as a model camp. It’s a complicated story filled with contradictions, a place where children attended art classes while the elders starved to death. It was a camp where music was allowed while the Nazis prepared transits to death camps. These are facts, and the stories surrounding them bring on feelings of sadness, anger, and loss when I think of them. But during my interview with Ela, I felt as if I was not able to access any of these predetermined emotions. I was about to conclude this very brief encounter, but Ela did not react as I expected, knowing her past and having grown up in a family of Holocaust survivors.

Ela was happy, Ela was joyous, Ela was filled with life, Ela was proud to tell her story, Ela was performing and we were the audience. This was not what I was programmed to capture; I grew up on Lanzmann’s Shoah, on my grandfather’s guilt-ridden heartbreaking poetry of family lost, on Maus… this was not supposed to be like this. I thought to myself, “she’s a survivor, stories of her past must flood her with sad emotions and sink her into despair.” But this was not to be. Ela was something different, and when I realized that, a calmness settled in. From this point on the interview changed, the room changed, the team around me changed, we were no longer a last-minute put together crew confused about what we are doing but rather a captivated audience listening to a live-play dramatic story.

Ela Weissberger showing her family album

Ela had a gift. Ela’s light shone bright, she energized the room and told stories of art, love, teenage confusion and friendship under the worst of circumstances. Ela humanized a time that was, and an experience that she made clear “beyond imagination”. She told us little tales of holding hands with a boy, she told us about a how a gesture of make-up, to draw cat whiskers, before the play allowed the imagination of a child to run free, she told us of the connection and bond the kids formed, which made the death of her childhood friends even more devastating, she told us about the ultimate sacrifices of her teachers. Even though Ela’s story of survival might seem by some as less “horrific” than others due to her staying in Terezín, her loss of friends, relatives, and childhood are real.

For Ela the show never ended, the stage was endless, and the lights were always on, only the audience changed. After the interview concluded we stayed at Ela’s for a few more hours, we got a tour of family photos, memorabilia, saw and held her Jewish yellow star and more and more stories. A friendship was formed between us, one of the gossipy calls, to receiving a hand-knit sweater as my second child was born. As I struggled to come to terms with the vision telling Shoah stories and the harsh reality of documentary financing, I could always rely on Ela telling me about her recent travels, the interest of certain book writers, movie directors, and TV producers. In Ela’s world, we were all a captivated audience, listening and watching the retelling of the story of this little show called Brundibár and its doomed child stars. It makes me happy to know she dedicated her life to giving voice to those young voices who could no longer speak.

And I find peace in knowing there were so many audiences that handed Ela the microphone so a few more lucky people could hear and feel a story of the human spirit’s triumph over unimaginable evil.

Ela Weissberger holding family heirloom

I never ended up working with Ela on the film we wanted to complete, we never shot another frame, but that is OK. As for me and my journey, Ela has given more than I could have imagined. Her memory and words have given me enough strength to tell the story of many others. Ela would be happy to know that the show will go on.

Liron and Ela Weissberger at a Brundibar performance

Ela Weissberger June 30, 1930 – March 30, 2018

Here is are parts of that interview we conducted with Ela in her house

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A Lesson in Civility

Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited to an art opening of one of the most talented, absurdly under-recognized, smartest and kindest person I know, Fred Terna (Recent BOMB article on Fred). On it’s own, this is already an exciting enough event. The fact that Fred’s important, and rarely seen in public, work being exhibited in a formal space is a great gift. Add to that, the chance to see and hear Fred in person and you get a night to remember. Speaking to Fred, one always faces an opportunity to hear words of enlightenment. Which, just like Fred’s art, are filled with secret textures, meanings and colors that are not immediately apparent, it’s an effect that is both illuminating and sometimes confusing…

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A Lesson in Civility: Courtesy of Frederick Terna

Last week I was fortunate enough to be invited to an art opening of one of the most talented, absurdly under-recognized, smartest and kindest person I know, Fred Terna (Recent BOMB article on Fred). On it’s own, this is already an exciting enough event. The fact that Fred’s important, and rarely seen in public, work being exhibited in a formal space is a great gift. Add to that, the chance to see and hear Fred in person and you get a night to remember. Speaking to Fred, one always faces an opportunity to hear words of enlightenment. Which, just like his art, are filled with secret textures, meanings and colors that are not immediately apparent, it’s an effect that is both illuminating and sometimes confusing. This is a feeling I’m very familiar with, one I felt multiple times while working on the film I made about Fred (Shared Memory). I started The Ripple Project with a pre-conceived notion of how to portray the social scar caused by trauma, particularly the Holocaust. As the project progressed I realized that in fact, it’s not a scar but rather an open wound.

This idea started to crystallize after spending a few days with Fred. As, so many times with him, you learn that things are not always as they appear. Fred’s words and art gave rise to the idea of fluidity of memory and acceptance of inevitability. He proudly, shows me two, seemingly, completely different paintings. He explained to me that the two are of the same horrifying event he witnessed during the Holocaust. The abstract paintings were painted in different eras, nearly thirty years apart, and their stark difference of color, brush stokes and composition reflects the way the “feeling” towards the memory has changed. The most recent of the two paintings is poignantly labeled: “Shared Memory.”

An idea, that might have been instinctively present in my subconscious has been put on display in front of my eye so clearly. A memory of an event, as horrific now as it was then, but the artist’s attitude towards the memory of the event has drastically changed. Memory is fluid; constantly shifting and moving.

The other revelation I had while working with Fred, was an acceptance of the inevitable. On the last day of the shoot, Fred dropped a verbal “bombshell;” He proclaimed, with pride, that had he been given the opportunity, he would not have chosen a more “ordinary” life. According to Fred, had his life been an “ordinary” one, he would have ended up as a: “Crotchety old university professor for historical geography or geographical history.” Fred has no anger, no remorse, no regrets, life has a forward momentum that needs to be lived and experienced with all its twists and turns. My first instinct was one of disbelief, why would someone “choose” to go through the pain, suffering and loss that Fred experienced? My skepticism turned to understanding, when I later heard this idea echo through the words of another grand personality I interviewed (Itzhak Arad). It’s the journey taken which creates the rich tapestry of life which makes it all worth while. This is a profoundly human and humane idea.  It’s these conversations with Fred which helped me see and deal with the trauma of loss from the Holocaust, in a different way, including lessons applicable to my own life.

So when I saw Fred last week, I was hesitant about asking any questions, concerned this is not the time or place to search for “pearls of wisdom” which would again add a whole new dimension to my take on the Holocaust. But, thinking and doing are two different matters and considering these opportunities are far apart the moment just begs for a question to be asked. This was a special evening for Fred. He was outside of his studio, surrounded by his work lovingly hung for people to enjoy (rare) and smartly curated by his son Daniel, who’s an accomplished artist in his own right ( The place was full of friends, loved ones and admirers, just begging for another chance to see and speak to Fred, who was in top form, but visibly tired. After we embraced and chatted about mutual work, out of the blue, I asked a simple, even banal question: “What do you think about the election…?” I don’t know why I asked him this question or what I was expecting the answer to be. I just really wanted to know what Fred thought. The election left people on both sides of the aisle confused, angry, bitter, frightened and suspicious of each other. It exposed the sharp divide in American society and revealed the thin wires which hold it together. As a person who tells stories of genocide it left me scared that once again, irrational fear and anger can shatter a fragile society. Fred smiled at me, the kind of smile that says “you asked for it kid…”

He closed his eyes for second, as he often does before he begins to speak, as if to enhance the drama. Tilting his head right and with a wry smile said: “I’m disappointed, confused, and surprised but not worried. Dictators don’t last, it’s against human nature. We just need to keep our civility.” I looked at Fred with puzzled eyes, where was the anger? The fire? So I followed up with another question: “Civility? At this time? Who cares about that? People are angry now.”

Fred responded in a deeper tone, the smile was gone: “When we were in the camps, facing death, humiliation, starvation, anger, not knowing if we will live another 10 minutes… we still kept our civility. We always knew the Nazis wouldn’t last, it’s against human nature. It doesn’t matter what the Nazis did to us, how much they screamed and yelled at us. When we were alone in the room, at night, we were civilized. We knew that our civility is the key to survival, our humanity and civility will outlast the Nazis. It might take a month, a year or ten, but it will outlast them.”

Fred did it again, in three sentences he was able to refine, and perhaps redefine my perception of civilization and humanity in a time of crisis. It allowed me to put my fear, anger and confusion in check. It’s not just about the survival of the body, but one of soul, this is a lesson that transcends something larger than our imagination, as the Holocaust, but is also valid in our everyday struggles.

That night I went home, hugged sarit, the kids and found some serenity.

Daniel Terna, Brooklyn NY


I first met Daniel Terna through his father, painter and Holocaust survivor Fred Terna. The Ripple Project has worked with Fred on several projects, including the multimedia exhibition Mirrors, and Shared Memory, a short film about his life of survival through art and creativity. At the premier of Shared Memory, Fred revealed to me he had a 20 something year old son named Daniel —  whose photography work was transitioning into the pursuit of film. Upon meeting Daniel at their brownstone in Brooklyn, I was surprised to learn this aspiring filmmaker was interested in making a film about his father’s road trips across the United States with his first wife Stella some 40 years ago. Inspired by images taken by Fred and Stella, Daniel set out fo retrace their travels, retake their images and frame the story of a woman who died before he was born. The short film Daniel Terna documents this journey of discovery for The Ripple Project’s Vignettes Series.


Excutive Producers: Micheal McDevitt and Liron Unreich

Directed by Dylan Angell

Director of Photography  Tal Unreich

Edited by Joe Morgan

Additional footage shot by Daniel Terna

Photos by Fred Terna

Music by Phantom Fauna



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