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2000, 52 Minutes

Uncle Chatzkel portrays the patient triumph of one man’s dignity and intellect over genocide, oppression and personal adversity.

Chatzkel Lemchen has lived through the Russian revolution, two world wars, a communist regime and the transition of Lithuania from Soviet republic to an independent state. During the Holocaust his parents and children, along with many of their fellow Jewish citizens, were killed by the Nazis and their Lithuanian supporters. He and his wife were sent to separate concentration camps in Germany.

Chatzkel survived through his skills as a linguist and lexicographer, and his dictionaries helped preserve the Lithuanian language during the Soviet era. At 93, he still lives and works in Vilnius, Lithuania, providing a bridge between Lithuanian, Russian and Yiddish cultures. Now regarded as a national treasure, Chatzkel displays the strength of a survivor, the insight of an intellectual and the humour of a wise man.

One of seven siblings, Chatzkel was the only member of his family to remain in his homeland. His sister Gita migrated to South Africa in 1913, later moving to Australia. Filmmaker Rod Freedman is Gita’s grandson and Chatzkel's great nephew. Although Chatzkel had received his country’s highest honours, Rod and the rest of his Australian family were barely aware of him. Rod had only seen old photographs and had never even spoken with him on the telephone. The journey to meet his great uncle is an intense and enlightening experience, raising questions of personal identity and relationship to his Jewish Lithuanian roots. Chatzkel himself lived in a world removed from his relatives, separated by the Iron Curtain, by physical and psychological barriers. When he finally meets some of them, he is confronted with unexpected emotions.

Chatzkel’s enthralling accounts of the turning points in his life have great historical and contemporary relevance. In Freedman’s documentary, they are combined with powerful Russian and Lithuanian archival footage, some seen for the first time.

The result is a film of great scope, one that helps us to better understand the relationship of the present to the past through the story of an extraordinary individual, Uncle Chatzkel.

A Film Australian National Interest Program produced in association with Robe Productions and SBS Independent. Developed with the assistance of the NSW Film and Television Office. © 2011 National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, Robe Productions.

Free Teachers’ Notes - Download here


Director/Writer/Narrator: Rod Freedman

Producers: Rod Freedman, Emile Sherman

Cinematographer: Nicolai Sherman

Year: 2000

Running Time: 52 Minutes

Classification: Exempt from classification

Curriculum Links: Cultural Identity; Modern History; Jewish Civilisation, Thought and Culture; Holocaust and Genocide Studies; English (specifically “History and Memory” in 2 Unit English elective for NSW HSC); SOSE.


What is a Jew to You?

SKU 199801600
Brand Film Australia

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