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My son won the Oscar
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My son won the Oscar

A proud mother credits survivor parents’ legacy of determination

Shirley Russak Wachtel, at right, with husband Arthur and Oscar-winning son Charlie.
(Courtesy Wachtel family)
Shirley Russak Wachtel, at right, with husband Arthur and Oscar-winning son Charlie. (Courtesy Wachtel family)

My son won the Oscar.”

As a Jewish mother, I am filled with pride to be able to utter these words. The story of how this came to be, to my mind, goes back generations. It’s not because we have screen writers or actors among our forebears (we don’t) or because we lived in Hollywood (we live in New Jersey); it’s because we’re a family defined by determination.

On Feb. 24, my son, Charlie Wachtel, along with with his childhood friend David Rabinowitz; the film’s director, Spike Lee; and Kevin Willmott nabbed the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film “BlacKkKlansman.”

I was seated in the orchestra section of the Dolby Theatre two rows behind Lee. With me were David’s mom, Cindy; our husbands; and our sons. Our husbands’ roaring cheers erupted as the boys took the stage.

Earlier that night, as we hobnobbed with celebrities on the red carpet, I kept asking myself how a girl from Brooklyn raised by immigrant parents landed here. Until that moment, as I chatted with and was congratulated by, among other luminaries, actors Jordan Peele, Amy Adams, and Richard E. Grant, the closest encounter I’d had with a movie star was running into Cameron Diaz in a deli on the Upper East Side.

Later, after nibbling on Wolfgang Puck’s famous chicken pot pie and tropical pavlova, we headed to the Vanity Fair party. My gold-leafed miniature chocolate Oscar was neatly wrapped for later. Despite the fact that we had no passes for the event, our sons had only to roll down their windows, stick out their Oscars, and we sailed right through. There we met, among others, Serena Williams, Scottie Pippen, Odell Beckham Jr., and — holy cow! — Elton John. As for Charlie, giving Lady Gaga a kiss on the cheek was the highlight of his night. I was pinching myself so hard my skin was raw.

How did we get here? Like any Jewish mother, all I ever wanted was for my children to earn success. But while the dream for some might be to become a doctor, a lawyer, or a banker — when I graduated from Brooklyn College in 1973, I dreamed of becoming an author — my kid wanted to make movies. I flinched at the idea. I already knew the long, tough road he would have in such a competitive creative field. While I actually fulfilled my dream — I’ve written a well-received memoir and a few other books, most self-published — finding that major publisher remains elusive.

Nevertheless, my husband and I gave Charlie our blessings, and after he graduated from American University in 2009, he set off on his cross-country journey. It was the first time he had driven on a highway, and we knew he would have many firsts ahead. In Los Angeles, he had an unpaid internship waiting for him at Warner Brothers. Stints as a chauffeur, a mail-room clerk, and a copy writer followed. The only films he had made were some scene recreations of political movies (with David behind the camera) while in high school, and a short feature while studying at a film school in Prague. In LA, when he wasn’t skipping meals, he feasted on homemade mac and cheese. Three years later, a few friends he grew up with in East Brunswick joined him in Hollywood. But it was only his childhood buddy David who shared his dream. Before long, the two began working together.

Charlie Wachtel, on right, with co-screenwriter and co-producer David Rabinowitz at the premiere of “BlaKkKlansman” on Aug. 8, 2018. The two met in Hebrew school at the East Brunswick Jewish Center. (Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

In 2015, Charlie, while scrolling through his Facebook feed, came upon an article about Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir detailing how he, a black detective in Colorado, had infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan during the 1970s. The friends ordered the book on Kindle, and despite not having an agent or a lawyer, they convinced Stallworth, who had retired as a detective, to give them permission to write the script. Eventually, after numerous frustrating phone calls home and not a few tears, they completed a script. Studios paid no attention until the pair connected with Shaun Redick (one of the contacts Charlie made while an assistant at a talent agency), who in 2017 launched the prophetically named Impossible Dream production company. He took a chance on the writing duo; Peele was called in, and he passed the script on to Lee, who immediately agreed to direct it. Lee tinkered with the script, taking it to new heights as a sometimes comedic commentary on the state of race relations then and, ultimately, now. Once the film was released, Charlie finally gave up the 2003 Camry we had given him and leased a brand-new Audi.

The film has particular meaning to me. Yes, this level of success is a parent’s dream realized, but it’s also a tribute to the determination of his grandparents. My parents are Holocaust survivors. As a young woman, my mother was abducted off the streets of her town in Poland and sent to a labor camp, where she sewed buttons onto the uniforms of Nazi soldiers. By war’s end, out of a family of eight, only she and her two brothers survived.

My father, meanwhile, had become a runner for the black market while he was in the Lodz ghetto. When the ghetto was evacuated and the Jews were sent to Auschwitz, he was selected for the line headed to the gas chambers. But, seizing his chance, he ran toward the other line, and 10 months later was a free man. After meeting my mother in a displacement camp after the war, they married and came to the United States. He owned several failing businesses, but he was always determined to make sure his children had the best in life. Charlie is named for him.

My parents taught us that family was everything and that there was nothing their children couldn’t achieve. And we believed it, not only for ourselves, but for the children we would have. As I’ve grown, it’s become more and more apparent there was a reason our parents survived, and my generation was determined to justify our existence. And so, I would become a writer and tell their story, and my brother would become a judge and mete out justice. My cousins are doctors, lawyers, and a respected journalist. My eldest son has worked in both the White House and the United Nations, and my middle son is a top bracketologist, predicting which teams will get into the NCAA tournaments and what their seeds
will be.

So, you can see why we didn’t hesitate when Charlie headed to Hollywood. Maybe someday he would win an Academy Award, he joked. Of course, we would support him in pursuing his goal, because as the child of Holocaust survivors, I didn’t only wish it, I saw it as a reality.

Today, I am one proud Jewish mother.

At the Academy Awards on Feb. 24, after Charlie returned to his seat clutching his Oscar, he leaned over and apologized for not having had a chance to speak on the stage.

“But if I had,” he said, “I would have thanked you and Dad for all your love and support and thanked all the parents who have ever supported their children’s dreams.” And that, I think, makes me proudest of all.

Shirley Russak Wachtel, a resident of East Brunswick and a member of East Brunswick Jewish Center, is the author of “My Mother’s Shoes,” a memoir detailing her mother’s experiences during the Holocaust and as an immigrant in the United States.

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