A Dutch filmmaker searches for his Jewish roots
A talk with Philo Bregstein, whose movies include the WWII story of Amsterdam Jewry and the journey back to Jewry of Otto Klemperer.
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld , י"ז באב תשע"ז, 8/9/2017
Manfred Gerstenfeld

“My father, Marcel Bregstein, was a successful professor of civil law. He later became Rector of what was, at the time, Amsterdam Municipal University. My father forced me to study law. As a Jew, he was a convinced assimilationist.  He died as a result of a fall from a hotel window in Palermo, Sicily in 1957.

“I completed my law studies in 1957.  Afterwards I started to write novels.  In 1962 I received a grant to study film directing and scene writing at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia (CSC) in Rome.  I received my diploma in 1965.” 

Philo Bregstein was born in 1932 in Amsterdam.  He has lived in Paris since 1979.

“We stayed in our home throughout the entire second World War because my parents were intermarried.  There were even Jews hiding in our home.  For a long time I thought that we were naturally protected because of my parents' mixed marriage. It became clear, however, that the reality was more complicated. My father had to go into hiding frequently. Then my brother and I went to stay elsewhere.  

“In 1943 my father had to do forced labor near Amsterdam. Only later I understood that for various reasons he was privileged. As he was born in 1900, he was above a certain age limit. Young mixed married people had to go to work camps and afterwards were sent to the transition camp in Westerbork and even further to the east.

“My mother’s Christian family was not devoid of anti-Semitism.  They were against her marrying a Jew. Similarly, my father’s parents did not want him to marry a gentile. My brother and I had both been baptized Dutch Reformed in the war with the clear motive that it was to protect us against the Germans. The non-Jewish family on my mother’s side helped my father a lot during the war. He could always go into hiding with them when necessary.

“After the war, various Jewish families stayed with us in the interim period during the time they came out of concentration camps and could not return to their own homes. Their children told me a great deal about their experiences. In my student days we never spoke about the war. Thus, I repressed everything that concerned the war and my family for many years.

“The shock of awakening came when I read a book by Jacques Presser who wrote the history of the persecution of the Dutch Jews by the German occupiers. It appeared later in an English translation entitled, Ashes in the Wind: The Persecution and Destruction of Dutch Jews.  In 1969 I approached Presser and I proposed to make a film about his life.  

“In 1975 I was asked to prepare a movie about Amsterdam Jewry on the occasion of the 700th year of existence of the town.  I then recorded almost 80 interviews in which I was coached by the historian, Salvador Bloemgarten. Afterwards, from this material, I prepared the book with Bloemgarten which was later translated into English, titled Remembering Jewish Amsterdam.

“Between 1971-1973 I made a movie about the German Jewish conductor, Otto Klemperer which also dealt with the question Presser had put forward: ‘How had the German people from the land of poets and thinkers entered the abyss of Nazism?’ I had the greatest difficulty to get the rights to the movie. I finally received them in 2013.

“Klemperer is a fascinating figure.  He was a Jewish assimilationist who following the example of his mentor, Gustav Mahler, became a Roman Catholic.  In 1947 he returned to Judaism.  Later he conducted in Israel and out of solidarity accepted Israeli nationality.  

“In the early 1980’s I read the four parts of the history of antisemitism of Léon Poliakov with the same fascination as Presser’s book.  In 1989 I met Poliakov in  Paris. A few weeks later I received a letter from him in which he asked me to be his collaborator in writing the post-war history of antisemitism.  Poliakov was the first person to undertake systematic research about the century long indoctrination of hatred against Jews.

“For a long time I thought that I had little or no Jewish family on my father’s side.  In 1991 I went in search of my Jewish roots in Lithuania and I wrote a book about it. Since then I have been working on a book about my family from Lithuania who emigrated all over the world. I also discovered a number of Jewish family members who were killed in the war in Lithuania.  I have recorded the details about their lives at Yad Vashem.

“In this way I discovered Jewish history and simultaneously Judaism. As an atheist, I still consider Judaism to be my roots.  The rejection of me as a Jew because only my father is Jewish always irked me.  In 1986 at the Jewish Film Festival in San Francisco I was presented as ‘the Jewish filmmaker Philo Bregstein,’ which gave me great satisfaction. I have become increasingly interested in Judaism.  It turns out that not only is Judaism the source of Christianity and Islam, but it also laid the basis for our entire Western ethics.”
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