Lisa Lewenz dedicated her life to finishing the movie, and the puzzle, that was her German grandmother's life before and after the Nazis.

A COMPLETE PICTURE

November 27, 1998|By MICHAEL OLLOVE | MICHAEL OLLOVE,SUN STAFF

In making her documentary "A Letter Without Words," Lisa Lewenz collaborated with a woman who died nine months before Lisa's birth.

Her name was Ella Arnhold Lewenz, and she was Lisa's paternal grandmother. When she died in 1954, she orphaned her life's work, a trove of home movies she shot about her family in Nazi Germany. The 16-millimeter films ended up in boxes in a Baltimore attic, where they were all but forgotten for more than 20 years until Lisa rediscovered them.

Nearly 20 more years have passed since then, and in that time, Ella's films have been Lisa's life's work. The moment she first saw them, she came to a decision: She would finish the work she was convinced her grandmother wanted to share. The result is an elegiac 60-minute documentary that has been warmly reviewed and made Lewenz a coveted guest at film festivals around the world from Sundance to Berlin to Jerusalem.

Lewenz, an acclaimed multi-media artist, expects the film to be shown on PBS in the spring. The Senator Theatre plans to screen the film sometime after the first of the year as a fund-raiser to help Lewenz defray the debt she accumulated during production.

The documentary's reception has been gratifying, but no more so than the other surprising discovery Lewenz made in the process of completing Ella's film: the keys to Lisa's own buried past.

For "Letter Without Words" is not only a valuable addition to the library of Holocaust memoirs. It is also a haunting exploration into family identity and legacy.

Until she was 13, Lisa did not know of her Jewish roots. Her father, Hans Wolfgang Lewenz, had covered up his Jewish identity upon his emigration to the United States before World War II. He married an American Protestant, and he brought his children up in the Episcopal church to shield them from the prejudices that had driven his family from his country.

Ella's films introduced Lisa to a world she knew almost nothing about. The footage depicted a slice of humanity so thoroughly obliterated in the Holocaust that evidence of its existence was all but swallowed up as well. But there in Ella's rough, unedited films are images of a German-Jewish community that was as care-free as it was affluent: playing tennis and picnicking, skiing and riding horses. The vibrancy and optimism of Ella's family transcends the years, and in their contentment you can still detect a self-assurance about their value to their own beloved country.

They are people in lethal denial.

That would change, and, luckily for Ella's family, it would change in the nick of time. As Ella continued to make her movies, her

appreciation of the jeopardy threatening them grows. Her films show enormous Nazi banners billowing from buildings and zealots goose-stepping down the boulevards. Her camera lingers on the anti-Jewish signs that were materializing around them, each day further hemming in the activities of Ella's family and her friends.

Her films captured the beginning of the process that would end in death camps.

But not for Ella. She left Germany in 1938, soon after Kristallnacht, when the Nazis went on a rampage, destroying synagogues and Jewish homes and businesses.

By then, the Nazis had relieved her of her wealth and her house.

She and one daughter were the last of their family to leave. Ella would eventually settle in New York. Lisa's father, Hans, was already in the United States, where he had reinvented himself as a non-Jew. No one else in the family took so dramatic a step, but they all shied from their past. It was as though they wanted their escape from Germany to be psychological as well as physical.

"They just moved on to a new future," Lewenz, 43, said recently during one of her rare, brief visits home to Baltimore between film festivals. "They were living in a new culture with a new language and new struggles."

A family viewing

It was Ella's films that carried them back.

After Lisa discovered them, she arranged to gather her grandmother's surviving children - all in their 70s by then - to watch them. Their reaction was powerful and instantaneous.

"It was like a burst of incredible energy," Lewenz recalls. "When people saw people they recognized in the films, they would call out the names, start to tell stories, squabble about their memories. 'No, she left in '37, not '38!' or the like, and clarify details. I ended up starting and stopping the projector every 10 seconds or so. It was amazing."

There they all were in their youth, vamping for the camera on the grounds of their imposing Berlin home or their villa in Cladow. Nothing seemed to stretch before them except prosperity and happiness.

As she watched with them, Lewenz was startled to recognize a familiar figure, a kindly-looking man with a drift of unmanageable hair and a bushy mustache. It was Albert Einstein who, Lewenz learned for the first time, was a close friend of Ella's and her family. "He helped me with my math homework in the back of the car," Lewenz's aunt Annemargret told her.

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