A single image led Professor of Film and Photography Abraham Ravett back to his birth country of Poland for his newest film project, Holding Hands with Ilsa.
The photograph, taken in a meadow near his hometown of Walbrzych in Poland in 1950, captures Ravett at the age of three with his teenaged babysitter Ilsa. Ravett and his family left Poland for Israel (before settling in Brooklyn in 1955) shortly after the photograph was taken, and he never saw or heard from Ilsa again. Through this film, he hopes to find out more about who Ilsa was.
Ravett realizes that his journey probably won’t end in re-acquaintance with Ilsa. He knows she was a German national who lived in the city, but he doesn’t know her last name. She would be in her late 70s, but he has no idea where she may be living today if she is still alive.
“The goal is not that I have to find her. It’s the search,” said Ravett. “As an adult, I’m trying to come to terms with loss and abandonment. I realized the relationship I had with this young girl was formative and important.”
He spent a month in Walbrzych earlier this summer to begin preliminary filming, exploration, and research, and he plans to return next summer through the support of a grant from the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture.
Staying with a friend in the city, Ravett was able to explore the area, meet local residents, research the archives of a cultural organization, and get a feel for a place that made such a strong impression on his life despite his brief time there. Though there was some unease in walking those streets again, returning to his childhood home, he said, was surprisingly familiar.
“I had the address of where we lived,” said Ravett. “The city is economically depressed, so the neighborhood almost looks the same as it did sixty years ago, as best I remember it. The landscape of this urban environment is what I believe I remember.”
Holding Hands with Ilsa is the latest in a series of autobiographical films Ravett has made. Notes from a Polish Jew, constructed in 2012 from material filmed in the 1980s, as well as his 2010 film From Prague to Poland are among the other works where Ravett has delved into this family history.