Review: Part two of Hershey Felder’s ‘Assembly’ documentary is wrenching and moving

Colette Giganti and Giovanny Diaz de Leon at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland.
Colette Giganti and Giovanny Diaz de Leon during an audio tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland in the film “The Assembly.” Giganti and Diaz de Leon are former students of the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts.
(Courtesy of Dena Meeder)

Released over the past two months, the two films about the Holocaust featured eight teen graduates from the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts

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On Thursday, the Anti-Defamation League released a new survey that found antisemitism among Americans has risen dramatically over the past three years, with 85 percent expressing belief in at least one anti-Jewish trope or conspiracy theory, compared to 61 percent in 2019. And, unlike in ADL surveys from years past, young adults surveyed expressed similar levels of antisemitism as older adults.

Those figures would have devastated Eva Libitzky, a Holocaust survivor who spent the last 40 of her 97 years presenting talks about the Holocaust at high school assemblies around the United States. Libitzky — who died in 2021 at her home in Florida — survived the Nazis’ Auschwitz death camp in Poland, but her family was wiped out in Germany’s genocide of European Jews. Libitzky’s hope was that through teaching young people the truth of the Holocaust, history would never repeat itself.

Libitzky’s life story was recently translated to film by actor-pianist-playwright Hershey Felder, who also lost his extended Polish family in the Holocaust. Felder had planned to present his script, “The Assembly,” as a play with music at San Diego Repertory Theatre in 2020. But the pandemic shut down theaters, and San Diego Rep ceased operations last summer.

Hershey Felder, writer and director of "The Assembly" at the crematorium at the Auschwitz death camp near Krakow, Poland.
(Courtesy of Dena Meeder)

Instead, Felder flew the play’s original cast to Poland last fall and filmed their experiences as they walked in Libitzky’s footsteps, from her childhood home in Lodz, Poland, to the Jewish ghetto, where her father starved to death, and to Auschwitz, where her mother was murdered. Libitzky, then 21, was liberated by Russian solders in 1945.

Felder’s “The Assembly” was released in two parts in November and December. The films star eight recent graduates of the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, as well as some school faculty and musicians from America and Italy, where Felder now lives.

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

In the first film, the students visited Jewish ghettos and cemeteries in Poland. They also talked about their own experiences of “otherness” and ostracism, for reasons ranging from their Jewish or Black heritage, their sexuality or gender identity or their developmental disability. Because the former students are all musical theater artists, they were filmed performing songs, with Felder at the piano.

Olive Benito and Romeo Boccarella at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland.
Olive Benito and Romeo Boccarella during an audio tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland in the film “The Assembly.” They are former students of the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts.
(Courtesy of Dena Meeder)

In the hourlong second film, the cameras followed the students on a guided tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum near Krakow, Poland. The only prepared moments in the film are the museum tour guide’s unemotionally delivered but devastatingly detailed description of the Nazis’ deathly efficiency at exterminating more than 1 million Jews, as well as thousands of Roma, Russian soldiers, homosexuals and disabled people.

Felder, who produced and directed the film, allowed the camera to linger on the faces of the students as they gasped, shook with horror and cried as they heard the descriptions of how the prisoners were rounded up, separated from their families, stripped naked and squeezed cheek by jowl into gas chambers, where their deaths were terrifying and agonizingly slow. In one moving moment of the film, Felder leads the group in a sung Hebrew prayer that the Jewish prisoners sang as they marched to their deaths in the camps.

But the most eye-opening moments in “The Assembly,” Part 2” are the final scenes, where the students admitted how little they knew about the Holocaust before their tour. Perhaps Felder’s films can become educational tools in high school classrooms, so that Libitzky’s words of “never again” can carry on without her.

To see both parts of Felder’s films, visit hersheyfelder.net.


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