Review: Hershey Felder’s ‘Assembly’ Holocaust documentary series celebrates identity, resilience and music

Romeo Boccarella, right, at the wall of Poland's Warsaw Ghetto
Romeo Boccarella, right, with other former students of the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts at the wall of Poland’s Warsaw Ghetto in Hershey Felder’s film “The Assembly,” Part One.
(Courtesy of Dena Meeder)

The first movie of the two-part series filmed in Poland this fall is now streaming, with part two debuting on Dec. 4

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In his two-part documentary film series “The Assembly,” playwright-performer Hershey Felder set out to tell the story of the late Eva Libitzky, a Holocaust survivor from Poland who spent much of her life sharing her story at school assemblies in America. Her hope was that — through education — history would never repeat itself.

But Felder has done more than that. He has created an unexpected story of resilience, hope, bravery and the search for identity told by Libitzky herself in old film clips, as well as by the actress who portrays her in the film and eight San Diego students, who traveled to Poland with Felder and his film crew in October.

The first part of “The Assembly” premiered Nov. 20 and is now streaming at hersheyfelder.net. The second part premieres at 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $19.

Back in 2019, Felder was planning to write and produce “The Assembly” as a 2020 stage musical at San Diego Repertory Theatre, starring Broadway actor Eleanor Reissa as Libitzky and students from the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts as assembly attendees. But the pandemic arrived and Felder retreated to his home in Florence, Italy, where he began filming his large canon of music-filled stage plays. Then, last June, San Diego Rep suspended operations.

To keep the project alive, Felder flew Reissa and the now college-age students to Poland, where they traced Libitzky’s steps from her childhood home in Lodz to Jewish ghettos and cemeteries in Warsaw and Lodz and the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial museum. The invited students travel as unscripted observers, often visibly moved and tearful as they absorb Libitzky’s story about her brother disappearing, her father starving to death in the Lodz ghetto and the last time she hugged her mother on the train to the Nazis’ Auschwitz death camp.

The most moving scene in the film was shot at the Lodz Jewish cemetery, where Libitzky returned in 1991 to fulfill the promise she made to her father in 1944 to mark his grave with a headstone. Her son Moses, solemnly reads the Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead, and Felder sings “El Maleh Rachamim,” a sung prayer for departed souls.

Felder has told all of his theatrical stories through music, so each of the students he recruited perform musical theater songs, intercut with them telling their personal stories. Though different from the lives of Libitzky and other Holocaust survivors, the students’ backstories reflect similar and universal themes of loss of family, poverty, discrimination and their search for faith, identity and home.

Hershey Felder's "The Assembly" group enter the Auschwitz death camp.
The film crew and performers for Hershey Felder’s “The Assembly” film enter the gates of the Auschwitz death camp near Krakow, Poland, on Oct. 16.
(Courtesy of Dena Meeder)

Alexander Meeder, 18, talks about how his mother’s efforts to shield him from discrimination by not embracing their Jewish heritage made him feel lost as a young man. Nonbinary actor-singer Romeo Boccarella talks about their journey toward finding their gender identity. And Olive Benito talks about how her recent diagnosis on the autism spectrum helped her understand the ostracism she endured as a youth.

Many others in the film have Holocaust stories of their own. Felder lost his extended Polish family in the Holocaust. Klezmer musician Igor Polesitzky speaks about the Germans’ slaughter of Jews in his native Kiev, Ukraine. And the film’s star, Reissa, shares how she discovered her father wasn’t just a Holocaust survivor, but a true fighter, as the only man who came back alive from his transport train to Auschwitz.

Although “The Assembly” is filled with harrowing stories of murder and grief, that darkness is leavened with joyful moments of song and dance that celebrate life, community and the human spirit. The second film will pick up with the film crew and cast visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum.


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