Aida's Secrets: A 'displaced persons' camp baby-boom sparks a parent-search 60 years on

By Jim Slotek

Rating: A

Reunited-sibling stories can be inspiring enough. But the doc Aida’s Secrets – about brothers from Israel and Winnipeg who find each other – tells a deeply affecting story about how Holocaust survivors replaced lost families with new ones.

A single statistic from the almost-forgotten post-war Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp may tell all you need to know about the urgency of life. Some 6,000 rescued Jews celebrated every sweet breath as young people will. And in this temporary environment, they soon produced 1,300 babies.

Shepsel meets the mother who never looked for him, in Aida's Secrets

Shepsel meets the mother who never looked for him, in Aida's Secrets

That’s the basic background for the story of the boisterous Israeli Izak and the dryly sarcastic, blind Winnipegger Shepsel – a.k.a. Shep. Though Izak’s biological mother Aida had long since sought him out from her home in Quebec, she’d made no effort to find Shep, who lived considerably closer.

And that’s the central mystery that soon emerges in Aida’s Secrets. No sooner do Izak and Shep find each other, then they are involved in a detective story (aided by the filmmaker, Izak’s nephew    Alon Schwarz, who co-directed with his photo-journalist brother Saul).

And as in every good mystery, there is a “mystery woman” – Aida herself, in her last days in a nursing home, in and out of lucidity, but determined to take some secrets to the grave.

Schwarz’s involvement was largely inspired by guilt over being complicit in the family pact that kept his uncle unaware of his brother’s existence for a half-century. And he brings a clear determination to the project that pays off - both in unexpected revelations of parentage, and in the picture he paints of an ad hoc community, who, with their previous families shattered, begin to create new ones that would span the planet.

It is a remarkable picture of celebration that followed horror. The archival footage Schwarz unearths shows joyous, brash, fun-loving young people going to dances, partying, pairing off, marrying, posing for family pictures. (Schwarz also turns the camera on the enterprising process of discovery that led him to the treasure trove of photos and film that make Bergen-Belsen come alive).

Aida’s Secrets is a complicated story, with more than one surprise ending. It is a real-life generational drama of events that led to two elderly men’s tragically-late discovery of each other’s existence. There are myriad other people involved in the saga of Aida and her eventually-ex husband Geshel, all entangled in Izak and Shep’s story. There’s even something of a cliffhanger revelation which suggests a sequel.

Aida’s Secrets is simply a hell of a human story, one that speaks to determination, cruel bargains and sacrifice. It is an emotionally involving ride.

Aida's Secrets. Directed by Alon and Shaul Schwarz. Starring Isak SagiShep Shell and Aida Zasadsinska. Opens in Toronto January 12 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.