Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Saul & Ruby’s Holocaust Survivor Band

You have heard bands play "Hava Nagila” and “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” before, but those songs hold special significance when these musicians perform them. Arguably, everything they play has special significance, because of what they witnessed and survived. The apt name of their band explains why. Documentarian Tod Lending follows klezmer musicians Saul Dreier and Ruby Sosnowicz gigging, enduring the heartaches of their advanced years, and their celebrated return to Poland in Saul & Ruby’s Holocaust Survivor Band, which releases today on VOD.

All things considered, Dreier still lays down a solid beat on drums and Sosnowicz, a long-time accordion teacher, still squeezes with authority. They often play with a multi-reed musician, whose parents fled the National Socialists (a reasonable fudge), while Sosnowicz’s daughter Chana performs the vocals and serves as the road manager (keeping the band a focused, family affair). Neither Dreier nor Sosnowicz has returned to Poland since the war, but they have ambitious tour plans. Sadly, both men will experience loss yet again before leaving on their remarkable engagements.

Discussion of the Holocaust in Poland always comes with the caveat: it was the German occupiers who did the killing, which is true. They were also more Poles among the Righteous of Nations than any other nationality, many of whom attended the band’s special command performance, with Muniek Straszcyk, who has been dubbed the “Bono of Poland.” Yet, understandably, some survivors still have bitter memories of the nation, so it is good and productive to see government officials warmly welcoming the nonagenarian musicians (especially since the current president has discouraged open discussion of Poland’s past and been receptive to Xi’s Belt-and-Road overtures).

Clearly, Dreier and Sosnowicz formed the band in the first place to facilitate such discourse—and it seemed to be working, at least pre-Covid. It is good that the film can continue their mission now, during this time without gigs (not just for them, but for anyone). Lending is very respectful and conventional in his approach, but that is the treatment his subjects demand. He also captures quite a good deal of human drama, as well as some catchy klezmer.

Admittedly, there have been other documentaries that followed survivors as they finally returned to their homelands, but Dreier and Sosnowicz are considerably more charismatic than most. Their message has even more urgency now, at a time when Anti-Semitism is on the rise. Recommended for general audiences and klezmer fans,
Saul & Ruby’s Holocaust Survivor Band releases today (11/24), on VOD.