Determined: The Story of Holocaust Survivor Avraham Perlmutter
– Interview with Keren Perlmutter by Yizhuo Li
Based on Avraham Perlmutter’s #1 best seller, Keren Perlmutter traces her father’s incredible life from Nazi-occupied Vienna to his daring escape to resettle in the United States.
YL: In Determined, humanity shines beyond borders and discrepancies between people to tell a story of courage, love and hope. How do you see the significance of this message amid the rise of far-right nationalism and in this country, notably the problematic past and present of racial justice?
KP: I think the messages of my father’s story are more important now than ever. By featuring the brave actions of many non-Jewish Dutch people who risked their lives to save him and other Jews, his story highlights the importance of tolerance, compassion, and empathy towards people of other faiths and backgrounds. His story has a positive call to action, encouraging audiences to be upstanders rather than bystanders when they see injustices, racism, and antisemitism.
YL: This documentary is an adaptation of the widely read and acclaimed autobiography of your father, Avraham Perlmutter. What are some new additions or adjustments you’d like to highlight? How does the documentary compare with the book?
KP: We were very pleased that his autobiography was so positively received and have been equally pleased that the film has also earned fantastic reviews and awards. The film adaptation of the book follows my father’s story closely, but there are a number of benefits to conveying his life with a documentary compared to doing so via the written word of an autobiography. Since audiences are able to actually see and hear my father tell his story, they are able to develop a stronger and more emotional connection to him. With the film, I was also able to include a significantly larger amount of visual materials, including photos, videos, and documents, compared to those included in the book. The visuals used to complement his narrative further enables the audience to better relate to my father’s story and better understand the horrors of the Holocaust and its impact. The film also includes interviews with some of the people who helped to hide my father in the Netherlands, and they share their unique perspective on saving him and on those dangerous times. In addition, there are interviews with some of the descendants of these heroic individuals, which helps to illuminate how an act of kindness can impact not only the person extending help and its recipient but the descendants of both parties as well. The documentary also provides additional historical context compared to the book, which further helps to frame the story. Furthermore, I was able to incorporate a phenomenal original score. As such, with the documentary, I believe I was able to weave all of these many amazing aspects into a powerful presentation that will elicit a stronger emotional response from the audience and enable them to better absorb the important messages of my father’s story.
YL: The fact that your father was a teenager during WW2 adds many important layers to your story. How did you approach this history as a daughter and film director? Did you grow up hearing these stores? How did and didn’t you identify with them?
KP: As I was growing up, I mostly heard my father’s stories about his captures and escapes, and I was inspired by his resilience and determination to survive and to succeed. His focus on the people who helped him, such as the Beijers family who hid him for over a year in the Netherlands, also reinforced to me the importance of helping others in need. These positive values and lessons influenced my own life and also motivated me to share these with others, especially with the younger generation. This led me years later to become involved in sharing his story — first by editing and publishing his autobiography, then by jointly and independently sharing his story to schools, museums, and other venues, and then by creating this documentary.
In terms of the specific negative experiences he endured, such as having to leave his parents at a young age and constantly being threatened by Nazis, these were very different from my own experiences as I was fortunate to grow up with my loving family in Los Angeles. But my father’s stories did influence me to become more aware and concerned about the antisemitism in the United States and throughout the world, and to appreciate the importance of the State of Israel to the Jewish people.
YL: Did you find balancing the elements personal narrative and the historical horror of the Holocaust difficult?
KP: Although my father’s story ultimately is an inspirational and triumphant one since he survived, I felt it was important to provide the historical context and tragic elements of the Holocaust so that audiences could understand the horrors of what occurred during that dark period of history. My father’s story intersects many of the significant events and aspects of the Holocaust, including the Anschluss of Germany with Austria, Kristallnacht, the Kindertransport, and the invasion of the Netherlands by Germany, among others. By weaving both the personal narrative and the historical horror of the Holocaust into a coherent story, people can better understand how the events of the time impacted my father and the dangers he faced as well as how the Holocaust impacted the Jewish people in general. With this objective in mind, I did not find it difficult to accomplish a good balance.
YL: The archival materials and historical facts that you provide to your audience help to set an emotional, yet serious tone for Avraham’s remarkable story. Would you like to share some of the obstacles or surprises that you uncovered in your research and interviews while developing the documentary?
KP: In performing research for my film, I was pleasantly surprised to come across new photos, documents, and information related to my father, aunt, and some of our relatives who were killed during the Holocaust. For example, I discovered photos of my father at various refugee camps as well as specific details about the locations and dates of some of the significant events of his life during the war. It was also especially meaningful to find photos and letters written by my aunt about her experiences, since she never spoke about them. In addition, I was able to find photos of our Dutch relatives who were killed, some of whom we had never had a single photo of before. Being able to finally put faces to their names was really special for me.
YL: Continuing in the vein of your father Avraham’s dedicated and inspirational work, do you have next steps planned for Determined?
KP: I plan to continue to share my father’s story via my film, his autobiography (available in both English and Dutch), and my talks, and to also explore new mediums in which to do so. With respect to the film, I plan to continue to show it at film festivals and will also make it available to schools by the end of the year. In 2021, I plan to make it more available to the general public — to community groups, at museums, religious and other institutions, as well as via streaming channels. More information about these plans will be available on our website determinedstory.com.