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Holocaust documentary bringing faces to film


PHOTOS DEPICTING everyday life - a woman pushing a stroller, friends playing, a couple in an embrace: The images are common, but in the context of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum they form a striking figure covering the inner walls of a tower three-stories high.

These images, 1,500 of them, of a town called Eishyshok before a Nazi invasion became the impetus for filmmaker and Oakland Mills resident Jeff Bieber to produce the film "There Once Was a Town."

The documentary, which tells the stories of four Holocaust survivors and their pilgrimage to their childhood home of Eishyshok (then a city in Poland and now part of Lithuania), will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Meeting House in Oakland Mills. It will air on Public Broadcasting System stations this fall.

Nearly 3,500 Jewish residents were murdered during the town's invasion, Bieber says. "This film puts the Holocaust in its proper context - seeing people die, not as victims but by seeing their life - and by seeing that, you truly get to understand the tragedy of the Holocaust," he said.

Historian Yaffa Eliach, who created the Holocaust Musuem's three-story Tower of Faces exhibit from her photo archives, approached Bieber in 1993 about making a film from her book "There Once Was a World: The Nine Hundred Year Chronicle of the Shtetl Eishyshok." Shtetl is a Yiddish word meaning small town.

Bieber, vice president of news and public affairs programming for WETA public television, had produced the award-winning documentary "For the Living," which chronicles the creation of the Holocaust Museum."[Eliach's book] was a topic I was drawn to only because it was refreshing to deal with documenting life after dealing with a museum that's documenting a horrible death," said Bieber, who is a two-time Emmy Award winner for public affairs programs. "But the more I got into this particular film, the more it also dealt with the Holocaust.

"It grew out of my research and my interviews of these people," he said. "Their deep memories were brought out and a lot of their deep memories dealt with the pain of what their lives were like before the war."

Bieber, who directed the film, began researching and fund raising for it part time six years ago as part of his work at WETA. By 1997, he was filming interviews that he mixes with archival photographs and film footage in the movie. By spring 1998, he was working on the project full time and completed the film last year.'The beauty of documentary filmmaking is that you get absorbed in a subject matter and you tell the story and eventually you get out of it and you go back to your regular life," he said. "Well, in this case, because it went on so long, I became much more involved with the people in the film and it was more and more difficult to separate emotionally."

The more absorbed he became in the subject matter, the more he knew the direction the film's ending should take, he said. It was an ending that Eliach and the film's writer, Barbara Jampel, did not agree with, Bieber says.

"There are many documentaries - and even at the end of the exhibit in the Holocaust Museum - that deal with the Holocaust that want to turn the story into something that is hopeful or optimistic. People like happy endings. But in this case, I felt that I had to be truthful to the subject matter and couldn't exactly put a happy face on something that was so tragic," Bieber said.

The 90-minute film, narrated by actor Edward Asner, whose ancestors are from Eishyshok, won the Golden Eagle award from the Council on International Nontheatrical Events and the New York Festivals' World Medal.

Bieber will introduce Sunday's screening and conduct a discussion after the film.

Admission to the screening is $5 and will benefit the Columbia Jewish Congregation, which meets at the Meeting House, 5885 Robert Oliver Place. Individuals may purchase advance tickets at the Columbia Jewish Congregation office. Information: 410-730-6044.

The film will air on WETA (public television Channel 26, Comcast Cable Channel 33) at 10 p.m. Oct. 1. Check listing for MPT and other local public TV station air times.

Christian bookstore

The Columbia Celebration Center, a Christian book and music store, will hold an anniversary sale with book signings and outdoor music performances from 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the store on Snowden River Parkway.

Long Reach Church of God at Long Reach Interfaith Center owns the store, which opened a year ago.

"Our experience since we've been open is that many, many people who are not Christian avail themselves to the store. People are just looking for something that is inspirational, hopeful or encouraging," said Robbie Davis, store president and assistant pastor of the Church of God.

"Someone who just had a baby or people who are even going through bereavement - we really attract a lot of folks who are rejoicing or mourning and people who are looking for something to help them through that season of their life."

The store, which developed from a book table to a cart, is open a couple of hours each Sunday at the church and progressed to a 12-by-12-foot room there. It eventually became the 2,500-square-foot shop, which carries gifts, children's videos, and wedding and ceremonial supplies in addition to Christian and inspirational books and music.

Saturday's event will include radio broadcasts from WRBS (95.1 FM) and WCAO (Heaven 600 AM), addresses by local pastors, food and prizes. Columbia Celebration Center is in the Columbia Market Place at 9400 Snowden River Parkway.

Information: 410-381-7739.

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