Two Jewish filmmakers from Montclair, a 94-year-old Holocaust survivor who lives in Manhattan, and a preteen Latina student from the Bronx may seem unlikely team members for a project that has earned an Academy Award nomination.
But when the envelopes are opened on Sunday night, survivor Joseph Feingold, documentarians Kahane Cooperman and Raphaela Neihausen, and 14-year-old Brianna Perez will be watching intently.
Their collaboration, “Joe’s Violin,” is one of five films nominated for best documentary short subject.
The connections began one morning three years ago when Cooperman was driving to work in Manhattan. While listening to classical music on WQXR-FM, she heard an unusual request.
The announcer asked listeners to donate musical instruments to the station, which in turn would put them into the hands of needy children in New York City schools.
Then Cooperman heard the voice of Feingold explaining where and when he acquired the violin he was donating: in a displaced persons’ camp after World War II.
As a boy in prewar Poland, Feingold played the violin and often accompanied his mother as she sang. But his music ended with his youth when he and his father fled the Nazis from their home in Warsaw. They spent much of World War II in separate Siberian labor camps. His mother and one brother were interned in Treblinka, where they were killed; his other brother survived Auschwitz.
While the Feingold survivors were living in the Zeilsheim displaced persons’ camp near Frankfurt after the war, Joseph went to a local flea market and traded a carton of cigarettes for a violin. He brought it with him to New York in 1948.
In the film Feingold says that he played — not very well, he admitted — until about 10 years ago. He told NJJN that that was why he decided to donate his instrument through WQXR.
Cooperman was intrigued by his story. She wondered who would receive the violin and whether that youngster would learn the history of the instrument and its donor. Cooperman, said Neihausen, “was taken by the idea that a single musical instrument would connect two complete strangers.”
Cooperman served as director of “Joe’s Violin”; both women were the film’s producers.
Brianna, a seventh-grader at Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls, a charter school in which every student learns to play the violin, was chosen as the student who would play on Feingold’s gifted instrument. In the film, Brianna responds to Feingold’s story, saying she was “chosen for something special.”
She wrote a thank-you note to Feingold and invited him to visit her school. He came, accompanied by the filmmakers and a camera crew.
Brianna is shown playing “Solveig’s Song” from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt, which Feingold and his mother performed together. “I know for certain you will come back again, and even as I promised, you will find me waiting there,” say its lyrics, translated from Norwegian, and the message Feingold’s mother included in a letter she sent him when he was in the labor camp.
The film captures the meeting of Feingold and Brianna — and the school’s other students and teachers — as they embrace and she tells him, “The piece is very special to me.”
During his visit to the school, he modestly asks Brianna about the attention he is receiving. “Do I really deserve it? What did I do?” he asks.
“You never gave up. That’s what you did,” she answers. “You had hope.”
The emotional character of the film has special resonance for Neihausen, whose grandfather survived the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Riga, Latvia, even as his parents perished in its ghetto.
Neihausen told NJJN her mother, a singer, infused her with “a musical dimension that really spoke to me. Brianna’s story also spoke to me. There was something special about Brianna and her music and the emotions she brought to playing the violin.”
Cooperman, who has been crisscrossing the country giving screenings of “Joe’s Violin,” was unavailable to be interviewed.
Feingold will not attend the Oscars ceremony, but the two filmmakers and their husbands, along with Brianna and her violin teacher, Kokoe Tanaka-Suwan, will be at the 89th Academy Awards, Feb. 26 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.
Neihausen said she “cannot believe this is happening. Ever since I was a child it was such a special night in our house to watch the Oscars. So the idea that I’m not with a bunch of my friends, but actually on the television screen is mind-blowing.”
Although he is thrilled to be the subject of a documentary that refer to some of the happiest and saddest moments of his life, Feingold said, “I am really not a movie star. I made my contribution and I am very pleased. I don’t think there could be a happier outcome.”