Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Microcosm of the Afterlife: The Catskills' Four Seasons Lodge


When Andrew Jacobs heard about a bungalow colony of Holocaust survivors on Geiger Road in the Catskills, his mind unleashed a series of pardonable stereotypes. “I imagined a band of beaten-down octogenarians, embittered by their pasts, whiling away their final days in decrepit lawn chairs,” the New York Times staff write r remembered. But when he arrived at the Four Seasons Lodge he was surprised to discov er a social scene that “would have put a teenaged prom crowd to shame;” nearly 100 men and women “elegantly dressed in evening wear,” were dancing to “a tuxedo-clad band that played disco classics as effortless as Polish pre-war tangos.”

Jacobs owned a dairy farm not far from Four Seasons, and he was working on a six-part series for the Times about summers in the Catskills. He wrote about the group, which has been spending summers together for more than 25 years, in “Where 80 Is Young, All Friends Are Old Friends” (September 8, 2005), where he observed that the survivors were “determined to enjoy summers alongside others who have lived through the unimaginable.”

Survivors dancing at Four Seasons Lodge.

When he learned that the colony was slated to be sold – Chassidim are the only buyers, and they offered $2 million to buy a different bungalow colony, according to Jacobs’ article – he decided to return to observe the group’s final summer. “A book, I thought, could never capture these remarkable characters and their intensely communal lives,” he said; “a longer newspaper article would not do justice to their astonishing embrace for life, and the darkness that shadowed them even when they were laughing.” So the man who had never before made a film decided he had found fodder for his first documentary.

“Four Seasons Lodge” is not your typical Holocaust documentary. On the one hand, there is the plot of the people who survived the death camps now struggling to save their summer camp, which they call “our paradise in the mountains.” Meanwhile, these individuals are straight out of the “Twilight Zone”: a quickly fading demographic clinging to a summer lifestyle that seems to have outlived its usefulness. Though bungalow communities initially offered New Yorkers a way to flee the city’s hot summers, today’s air conditioning and more globalized travel ambitions have left bungalows to become ghost towns.

Survivors’ minyan at Four Seasons Lodge.

But ghost towns apparently are very welcoming to people haunted by ghosts. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, firemen, or more accurately arsonists, are employed by the State to destroy books, and it takes exceptional individuals to thwart this anti-intellectual campaign. They succeed, in part, by memorizing books, and each comes to identify with the work he or she preserves. The differences between Bradbury’s fictive human books and the very real stories of the summer visitors to Four Seasons Lodge surely extend far beyond the fact that the characters commit other people’s stories to memory, while the survivors remember their own experiences. But like Bradbury’s resistance fighters, these Holocaust survivors had to not only survive, but also to rebuild their lives after the war. “No psychiatrist in the world can heal you from that,” one man says in the documentary. “It always comes back to you. You live with this.”

“Four Seasons Lodge” is so successful for a variety of reasons. Like David Lean’s 1962 film, “Lawrence of Arabia,” which was arguably as much about sunrises and the desert as it was about T. E. Lawrence, the cinematography of “Four Seasons Lodge” (Albert Maysles, Gimme Shelter, and Grey Gardens) juxtaposes very intense discussions and human interactions with gorgeous shots of the rain, of umbrellas on porches, and of the Catskills landscape. It also fuses the past and the present through old photographs that show how far the survivors have come and how different their lives have become.

Survivors engage in a game of cards at Four Seasons Lodge.

Jacobs’ journalistic skills show through as well, and a lesser writer and director might not have been able to tease out such interesting – though also sad, terrifying, and depressing – conversations. One man tells of reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (in Polish translation) in the mid-1930s and crying for the injustice as he wondered how anyone could enslave other people. Little did he know what was in store for him and his family.

In another scene, two men sitting outside hear some music. “In Auschwitz there was always music,” one remembers, “a Stradivarius, and a fiddle. You know what it is, a fiddle?” (He pronounces it “feedal”.) The other nods, and adds, “But later they killed them too.” A different man who was forced to repair Nazi officials’ cars shows a postcard he took from the glove compartment of Hitler’s Maybach. The postcard contains a picture of the Gestapo restraining a bearded Jew wearing a tallit, as they cut off his side curls, or payos.

Old friends meeting again for the summer at Four Seasons Lodge.

As is to be expected, the survivors do not agree on everything. A theological debate breaks out while several of the men and women are cleaning fish. “I believe in food. I believe in eating,” the conversation starts, though it quickly turns to “I didn’t see the miracles.” “I look, I look for G-d ... and I can’t get ahold of Him. Maybe he is asleep,” says one man, who questions where G-d was during the Holocaust. “I do believe there is a G-d,” a woman insists. “You can’t believe in nothing,” she says of the non-believer, “You know what he is? A yeshiva bochur. He used to have payos!”

But even though some struggle with their beliefs, the camera captures the women lighting Shabbat candles, and the men reciting havdallah. This community began of necessity (several of the survivors address the difficulties of finding a community after the War), but the viewer gets the feeling that it continued to sustain itself for so long, through resilience that is about both having fun during the summer and deeper religious motivations. “This is our revenge on Hitler. To live this long, this well, is a victory,” says Fran Lask, 82, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen.

One of the most important lines in the film might be one woman’s observation, “Life can be beautiful even when it’s not so easy.” Coming from a community of survivors who happily drink “l’chaim” on soda, orange juice, and their medicine, this is not to be taken lightly. It takes a special group of people to create their own afterlife and an even more special group of people that can still fight to protect that “paradise in the mountains” well into its 80s and 90s. (Source: JewishPress.com)

Four Seasons Lodge

Directed by Andrew Jacobs

2008, Rainlake Productions, 110 minutes

http://fourseasonsthemovie.com/

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