Through family connections, L. Mark DeAngelis first heard the story of Leah Welbel. She was on the first women’s train to Auschwitz and survived there for 33 months. She watched as her entire family was killed, but she survived.
DeAngelis went with Leah back to Auschwitz in 2003, hoping to record it with his handheld camcorder. That was until he realized he had stumbled onto a bigger story.
“She (Leah) invited me to go to Auschwitz with her,” he said. “I was going to record the trip myself but then I hired a professional film crew.”
Returning with hundreds of hours of footage, DeAngelis teamed up with director Lisa Leeman, hoping to produce a documentary about Leah’s story.
“Leah has an amazing story, but there have been a lot of films made about Holocaust survivors. Let’s find something unique about this family,” Leeman said.
The two found out about a struggle in Leah’s family that was three generations deep — interfaith marriage.
Leah told them she hadn’t talked to her grandson Danny in six years because he had married out of the Jewish religion.
The family’s story turned into a documentary called, “Out of Faith.” Although finished in 2006, the film will be broadcast for the first time in Pittsburgh, Sunday, May 3, on WQED at 5 p.m.
For a little over two years, Leeman and DeAngelis followed the Welbels, a family living in the Chicago suburbs. Leah and her husband, Eliezer, also a Holocaust survivor, have five grandchildren.
“I feel like this is a classic American story,” Leeman said. “Immigration, assimilation and generational conflict. It’s incredibly important for American Jews because of the Holocaust and their history.”
The documentary combines Leah’s Holocaust survival story with her strict views on interfaith marriage.
Two of her five grandchildren have married out of the faith — Danny, who she avoided for six years, and Cheryl, who wasn’t shunned by her grandmother.
Leah and Eliezer’s stories about their survival during the Holocaust play a big role in how they believe their children and grandchildren should live.
“As we began talking to the family, it was clear how being survivors impacted their future generations,” DeAngelis said.
Both Leeman and DeAngelis were personally connected with the documentary.
Leeman’s parents were an interfaith couple and DeAngelis became an Orthodox Jew after the filming.
“By birth I’m Protestant and Jewish.” Leeman said. “The Jewish part stuck, the other didn’t.”
Leah’s stories about her survival provide for some powerful and emotional scenes.
“We screened at the University of Southern California and I cried at the end of it,” Leeman said. “Leah and Eliezer reminded me so much of my grandparents. We didn’t have any survivors but their body language and Eastern European influence reminded me.”
The screenings throughout the country have provided Leeman and DeAngelis with emotional feedback. People who view the documentary can connect with it because of similar problems they might be dealing with in their own lives.
“We’ve had so many screenings where people have come up to me and told me their interfaith story,” Leeman said. “I really do believe that this film while it speaks specifically to Jews, it’s a classic American story.”
“It was important for me to explore this topic,” she continued. “What I wanted people to take away from the film is what their heritage and culture means to them and how they want to pass it on.”
For DeAngelis, his hopes of following one Holocaust survivor turned into a bigger project.
“I felt that their story was too important not to be told properly,” he said. “I thought I was going to do amateur chronicling. But things just changed. Every survivor is important. You don’t even hear all of Leah’s story in the film.”
Whether or not viewers have connections to an interfaith couple, the documentary is a must-see for the stories and messages the family delivers.
(Mike Zoller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)