Barry Levinson's 'Avalon' describes his family's coming to America


September 28, 1990|By Randi Henderson

In the town of Pavolatch, in eastern Russia near Kiev, Leib and Malka Krichinsky watched the 19th century turn into the 20th and wished for a better life for their children than they had endured.

Leib and Malka had 12 children. Some died in infancy, although family history is unclear on exactly how many. Much more clear to the Krichinsky clan are the stories of how the family emigrated to the United States and settled in Baltimore.

These stories, which have survived through several generations, are now being told to the public in "Avalon," a new movie written and directed by Leib and Malka's great-grandson -- Barry Levinson.

"I've been thinking about doing this movie, about telling my family's story, for quite a few years," said Mr. Levinson, who interviewed a number of family members to gather anecdotes and reminiscences for the script.

Family members say he has succeeded in capturing the essence of the Krichinsky family. As Phyllis Press, Hyman's youngest daughter, said after watching the filming, "I met my uncles, I met my aunts, I met my parents all over again."

The first of the family to arrive in the New World were Leib and Malka's oldest sons, William and Hyman, who came to America around 1912. They were joined by their brother Sam in 1914. The three worked to save enough money to send for the rest of the family and, in 1922, Leib and Malka arrived with their four surviving younger children, Morris, Gabriel, Mindel and Bertha.

The Krichinskys settled in Baltimore, where the brothers did well with a wallpaper-hanging business. They married and had children. Sam had a daughter named Violet, and Violet, who married Irvin Levinson, had a son named Barry.

Barry Levinson never tired of hearing his grandfather's stories of the family's early days in America.

Sam -- as young Barry called him -- lived with the Levinsons when Barry was growing up. And as Mr. Levinson matured as a moviemaker -- with such hits as "Diner," "Tin Men," "Good Morning Vietnam" and the Oscar-winning "Rain Man" -- the idea of a movie based on his grandfather's stories began to evolve, a movie rooted in the immigrant experience and the family's assimilation into American life.

The result is "Avalon," which will have a special Baltimore premiere Sunday and then open to the public next Friday. Based on the lives of the Krichinsky brothers and their many offspring, the movie focuses on the period after World War II when the cousins and their families moved to the suburbs, joined country clubs and ate dinner in front of that new marvel, the television set.

Among the people attending Sunday's premiere will be most of the 19 living grandchildren of Leib and Malka Krichinsky and a number of the 46 members of the next generation, including Mr. Levinson.

In the mobile world of modern America, the Krichinskys have remained a close family -- 15 of the 19 first cousins still live in the Baltimore area and stay in touch with each other. Many feel the movie is doing more than presenting their story to the world; it is fostering a new chapter in their family relations.

"You grow up and you go your separate ways," said Mollie Fishel, daughter of Morris (whose name in the movie was changed to Nathan). "It's wonderful the way this movie has brought us back together again."

And the unifying effect of "Avalon" is trickling down to yet another generation of Krichinskys.

"The movie has made my children excited about their family," said Mrs. Press. "They're learning a lot about their grandparents, about how hard it was for them to make their way when they came to America."

The characters in the movie are remarkably similar to the real-life people they were modeled on, said a number of family members. Sam Krichinsky, who is at the center of the story, is a warm and loving grandfather, just the way Sharon Levinson Ziman, Barry's sister, remembers him.

"He was unique, he was one of a kind," Mrs. Ziman said. "He would come home every day from his wallpaper store with a tiny bag for me with a Tootsie Roll or some other little piece of candy, just to let me know that he was thinking about me."

In the movie, Sam Krichinsky's son Jules changes his last name to Kaye. In real life, some of the male Krichinsky descendants Americanized their names to Porter and Kirk.

"It was done for business reasons, as much as anything else," explained Benjamin Krichinsky, son of the oldest Krichinsky brother, William, who died in the 1918 influenza epidemic.

The movie's title, "Avalon," refers to the neighborhood where the family first settled in Baltimore. It is mythical, Mr. Levinson said, a reference to the place called Avalon in Celtic mythology that is supposed to be "the home of the heart." In reality, most of the family first settled in and around Jackson Place in East Baltimore.

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