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WELCOME . . .







To the website of freelance journalist, author and member of the Critics' Circle, London Stephen Applebaum (@grubstreetsteve).

I started out as a humble staff writer on VNU Business Publications' What Micro? magazine. After four years of working on different titles in the publisher's stable, I decided to go freelance. I branched out into writing about film and politics, and today am able to tackle pretty much anything thrown at me.

I am an experienced interviewer and have shot the breeze with everyone from Beyonce to Al Gore, Michael Moore, George Clooney, Bill Murray, Terry Gilliam, Vidal Sassoon and Jesse Eisenberg.

My work has appeared in a wide variety of publications and different media internationally, including the Guardian, The Independent, Time Out, The Scotsman, The Times, the Sunday Times Culture, Vogue Australia, What's On in Dubai, The Jewish Chronicle, The Big Issue, The Herald, Rolling Stone, The Australian, the Sunday Times Perth, The West Australian, BBC Online, The Listener, Filmfour.com, Total Film, Dazed & Confused, and Metro.

I have also been reprinted in several books, including Secrets of 24: The Unauthorized Guide to the Political and Moral Issues Behind TV's Most Riveting Drama, The UK Film Finance Handbook 2005/06, and The Film Finance Handbook - Global Edition. 

In 2008 I was nominated for an Australian OPSO award for a newspaper story about the film director Tamara Jenkins. 

In 2012, a newspaper story I wrote for The Scotsman about Robert Rodriguez supplied the concluding interview in the book, Robert Rodriguez: Interviews, edited by Zachary Ingle. 

I am the author of The Wicker Man: Conversations with Robin Hardy, Anthony Shaffer & Edward Woodward, which is available here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Wicker-Man-Conversations-Woodward-ebook/dp/B008COOH2S  

I attend the Berlin (February), Cannes (May), Venice (September),  and London (November) film festivals every year, and I am available for coverage of those events. 

If you would like to commission me, or reproduce features/interviews posted on this site, please email me in the first instance to discuss a project/rates, or contact me via Twitter: @grubstreetsteve. 

I am available for: 

Writing/Editing shifts
Feature writing
Celebrity interviews
Real life stories
Proofing/copy-editing
Reporting
Research 

Visit the sidebar on right for links to some of my published work, and blog archives.

Regards, Stephen Applebaum 


Interview: Ed Mosberg, Holocaust Survivor (Featured In The Documentary Destination Unknown)

Ed Mosberg, Holocaust Survivor
Born in Krakow, Poland, in 1926, Ed Mosberg was 13 at the outbreak of the Second World War. He was moved to Krakow ghetto with his family, and then went through Plaszow, Mathausen and Linz concentration camps. He is now one of the survivors interviewed in the moving documentary, Destination Unknown

I interviewed Mosberg. Below is a transcript of our conversation.

You have become the face of the documentary Destination Unknown. You appear on the poster. How did you become involved? 

"You know Llion [Roberts, producer of Destination Unknown], right? I met him about 14 years ago, and he was interviewing me, and interviewing me again, and he came to the United States many, many times, and I met with him in Europe and we went to the concentration camps, and we went to Jerusalem, to Israel, because at one point I was picked from the United States to meet the Pope, Pope Benedict XVI, in Israel, to shake hands with him. So this is 


 When did people in the United States, where you now live, really start to take notice about the Holocaust?
 
"Schindler's List really started people realising about the Holocaust. I saw the movie but I used to work, in the war, in a concentration camp for Amon Goth, in his office. So, to me, the actor [Ralph Fiennes] was a different person to the real Amon Goth."


How did the portrayal of Amon Goth in the film differ from the man that you knew? 

"How was he different? I knew how sadistic he was. I saw how he could beat people. How he could shoot people without any reasons. I saw him running with a whip, hitting people. Or [kill them] with his dogs [Ralph amd Rolf]. No one could, in my mind, have portrayed a person like this. When I saw him, I was always afraid. He used to come up to the office where I worked, and just walk through. When he walked into the room, you had to stand-up to attention. You could not move. So when I saw the movie, I was not affected like this during the movie. 
 
"One day, I saw him hang a man on a wall by his hands, and beating him and beating him. When I walked there in there in the morning he was still hanging. I and some other guys cut him off. He [Goth] tried to get something out of him and he could not. He didn't talk. I didn't know what he wanted from him. His hands were like that, you know, against the wall, and I let him drink. After that I didn't see the man and I didn't know if he'd survived or not. Many, many years later, I was in Vienna, in a restaurant, and he walked in there with some other people. I recognised him. So I walked over to him and I said, 'My name is Ed Mosberg. Do you remember the glass of water?', and he started crying. Years later I tried to get in touch with him, he lived in Israel, and his wife answered the phone and said, 'Yes, yes. who is calling?' I said, 'Ed Mosberg.' She said, 'Any time your name comes up, he starts crying.' But I did not understand the beating that he got - no one can understand this - until later on, when I was in Mathausen. At that time I realised what it means to be beaten like he was. I was wishing at that time that I would be dead. Because once you have been killed, you don't feel the pain that I felt. So I remember him, you know?"


You say in the film survival was a matter of luck.


"Correct, yes. No one was smarter than the other. There was only luck. There was no such thing as you were stronger or weaker. Because the strong people, they went down faster than the weaker ones."


Was there any way that one could try and shift the odds in one's favour?


"Yes, there was a chance if you had money [he is talking about before going into a camp]. But the minute the money ran out, you knew you were dead already. Because they would take the money - I don't say all the time, but some of them would take it from you - and then when you didn't have it, the safety was gone. They'd tell them go. They'd push them out."


When you talk about your story for a film like this, or I have read about you giving talks elsewhere, how important has it been for you, personally, over the years to talk about what happened, and were you always able to talk about it or has it been a gradual process? 


"I'll explain to you the situation. I have been married for 70 years. I met my wife in a camp. And in my opinion she suffered more than I did because she was in so many different ghettos and camps. She was in Mielec, Dubienka, Krakow ghetto, Plaszow, Auschwitz, Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Gelllenau, and Mathausen. She was in so many different places. But my wife, she would not talk. So somebody had to talk because if we don't talk, this will be forgotten, number one. And number two, the people who say it never happened, they will have a ball. So I have to talk. This is my duty and my obligation to go and talk. As long as I live, I have to talk. 

"You have to understand, the United Nations made January 27th International Holocaust Remembrance Day, but to me the Holocaust is on Monday and on Tuesday and on Wednesday and on Thursday - every single day of a year is Holocaust Day for me. I never forgot it. I think about it every single day. I have on a wall in my bedroom pictures of my family and on the other wall pictures of my wife's family. And when I get up in the morning, I stand and I look at those pictures. When I go to sleep, I look at those pictures. It has never happened that I miss a day. I always think about it because I lost the whole family."


Where does your strength come from? 


"Where does my strength come from? The strength is to think about it. That somebody had to talk. Okay? If I stop, then it is the time that I would die. To the last day I will talk. Because I tell you right now, when I went into the camp in Belzec - I lost 16 members of my family - when I walked through that place, I could hear the voices of the 600,000 people murdered there and my family saying: 'Don't forget us.' How can we forget and forgive the barbaric murderers?  Auschwitz, Birkenau, Belzec, Treblinka, Majdanek - we could not prevent their first death, so by forgiving this would be like you would kill them a second time. Only the dead can forgive. We have no right to forgive. Only the dead can forgive. This is my life's story. It happened that Mr Roberts picked up on me and stuck with me, and I stuck with him, because he is the one that put his whole heart into it."


When you put on the camp uniform at the start of the documentary it is quite unsettling to see. When did you do that for the first time, and why?


"I had the uniform for years. But one day, Mr Roberts asked me to put it on. But I put it on and take it off many times I go into schools, synagogues, different places. I always bring this uniform with me to show them, and the uniform of my wife. This last time I was in Auschwitz at the March of the Living, I took my granddaughter, because my wife cannot travel anymore. She's in a wheelchair and cannot travel. So my granddaughter went with me and she was wearing my wife's uniform."


When you put it on today, how does it make you feel?


"I don't feel nothing. I don't feel nothing in that uniform. The uniform is for the other people, not for me. It doesn't make me feel anything on me anymore."


I suppose if you are living with it inside every day, the uniform is just an outward show . . . 


"That is correct. I live with it every day so the uniform is just for the other people. A lot of people ask me many times, 'How can you put on that uniform?' and I say, 'I am putting it on for you.' The same thing like I have on my wrist a number. This is a number from Mathausen. Like my wife has a tattoo on the arm. in Mathausen they didn't tattoo a number, they gave you like a small number on a medal and you wear this on wires on your wrist. So I make this from the original plate, I make a bracelet, and I wear it. And many times I will go into a place, to a store, and they will say, 'What is it?' and I tell them, and they will say, 'We never spoke to or saw a Holocaust survivor.' So I am not ashamed of it. Like right after the war, people were ashamed that they survived. My wife had the tattoo and she was hiding it. She didn't even want our children in the beginning to see it. I never did [feel ashamed]. I said, 'People have to know. Not forget something like this happened.'"


Were you able to talk about it from the very beginning or was there a period of processing what had happened?


"Any place they need me, any schools, synagogues, wherever they need me, I go. I remember one day somebody asked me to go to Tennessee. So I went there to the school. First time they had a Holocaust survivor. And I went there because one boy got up in class and he said, 'Too bad they didn't kill them all.' So somebody asked me to come down there. This is who I am. I go and I talk."


Does it help you as well talking about it?


"No, not help me. I don't need no help. My family don't want me to talk. You can ask Mr Roberts. They are stopping me from going and talking. They are afraid that one day I will drop dead. But this is it, if it happens it happens."


It is mentioned in the film that you have three daughters. How have they been affected by what you and your wife went through?


"Let me tell you, they know about the Holocaust. They hear it all the time from me. Every day something different like the story I told you about the man that was hung on the wall, I just talked to my daughter about it. Yesterday she said, 'I have heard from you for many years . . . ' and I said, 'Every day something else comes to my mind what happened.' In Stuthof [a concentration camp in Poland], there was this camp on the Baltic Sea near Danzig and one day they lined up 7000 girls, alongside the Baltic Sea, and they shot them with machine guns. And the next day was liberation. And my two sisters, and a sister of my wife, were at that place. They were murdered there. Prior to it, they took some women and put them on a raft, and pulled them out into the Baltic Sea, without food and without water. I talked to Mr Roberts about it. He said, 'No, I never knew about it.' He was there with me at that spot and there is a big sign about it. He said 'The sign was in Polish and you never translated it for me.' [Laughs] But there's a sign we don't know how many drowned at that time. But a couple of them were picked up by Swedish boats, so that's why we know about them."


The sisters you mentioned were the ones you talk about in the documentary?


 
"Yes. Correct."


Had you talked about them much before because Llion said it appeared to put a great strain on you. 

 
"I've talked to hundreds of different schools, synagogues and things and always mention my sisters. As well as my mother, my father, my grandparents, my uncles - they were all murdered."


You were born in Krakow. Before the invasion by the Nazis, what was life like for you as a Jew in Poland? 

"First of all, when the war started I was 13 years old. I came from a family that was pretty good [financially]. I was going to school and I never saw any antisemites. They did exist but I never did. I never did see an antisemite at that time. When the Germans came in they started moving us from our house to the ghetto."
 
What was life inside the ghetto like?

 
"We had a big apartment before the war. My grandparents had a big apartment. One of my aunts had an apartment. Another aunt. And they put all of us together in one apartment, two bedrooms, but we were still together. We were alive. I never thought that this [the Holocaust] would happen, because no one believed that somebody would be murdering so many people. When we were in the ghetto they were systematically making selections and they were taking them to Belzec, but no one knew where they were going because they [the Nazis] were telling the people, 'When you go, take with you all your belongings. Whatever you have with you, your jewellery, your money, whatever you think, because you will be re-settled.- And they re-settled them - to the Belzec gas chambers. So no one knew, because no one came back."


Before going into the ghetto had there been any talk about trying to leave Poland? Presumably it was too late by that point.


"It was very hard because you could not do it. You could not get out from it."


 How long were you in the ghetto for?


"The ghetto was started in 1941, in the middle of '41, and in March 13, 1943, they started to liquidate the ghetto. And at that time I saw the murders that were committed of the people. Amon Goth, he was running around shooting people. When a woman was carrying a child in her arms, they ripped the child out from the mother's arms and hit the child's head against the wall, killing the child instantly. If the woman was carrying the child in a knapsack, they'd shoot into the napsack to kill the child inside. Some people were in the hospital so they brought them to an assembly spot, and they took away their crutches and the canes, and said: 'If you can get to the other side of that square, you'll survive. You will be left to live.' There was four people, they were crawling on their hands and knees from one side to the other side, and when they came to the other side, they were all shot."


What happened to you next? You were taken to Plaszow?


"We walked from there. It was only like 3km, so we walked from the ghetto to Plaszow."


Was your family split up?

 
"Well my father got killed right from the beginning. And my grandparents, they were taken to Belzec from the ghetto. One aunt with my cousin were also taken to Belzec. My other aunt with her daughter got killed also - they never arrived at Plaszow."


Who made it to Plaszow? You mentioned your mother in the documentary.

 
"My mother. My two sisters. One of my cousins."


How long were you there before you lost your mother?

 
"My mother was taken to Auschwitz to the gas chambers in 1944. This was May or June 1944."


When you were in Plaszow did you know by then what was happening at other camps?


"Yes and no. To a point yes. Because people were transferred from one camp to the other and they knew it. And we knew already that in Auschwitz they had the gas chambers. Not to that extent, but we knew in Auschwitz they were killing people."


Was there any attempt by the Nazis to suppress information as prisoners were moved? 


"No, no. They didn't care. You could see them killing people in Plaszow. I saw. They were killing and burning them. They burned them on a fire outside."


How long were you in Plaszow for before being transferred to Mathausen?


"I went from there to Mathausen. I think it was August of '44 I went to Mathausen. Did you see the Schindler's List movie? Did you see when they were pouring water on that train? I was on that train when they were pouring the water and people were dying from the heat. A hundred people were packed into these wagons and there was no air. Nothing. So they were pouring water on it to cool it off. And then we wound up in Auschwitz, and we stayed there on the railroad the whole night. At the crematorium they were too busy so they never unloaded us, and they took us to Mathausen. And at Mathausen, I worked in the stone mines; 186 steps up and down [Stairs of Death]. If somebody stopped for a moment, they'd push them to their death. Or they'd beat you. Or they'd shoot you. Mathausen and Gusen - they were the two worst concentration camps of all of them together. And they were classified that way by the Germans [they called Mathausen the "bone grinder"]. And you have to remember one thing, you've heard of a Kapo?


Oh yes. 

 
"Sometimes the kapos were more vicious than the Nazis themselves."


They were often people who'd been criminals on the outside, weren't they?


"That's correct. Hitler started the concentration camps with Dachau [in Germany]. They put all the political prisoners that were against him in there. Most of those people, they were intellectuals. Then they emptied their prisons and they had these murderers, all kinds of criminals, they were German, and they brought them into Dachau. Those criminals, they hated the other ones, and they hated each other. Then they brought in the homosexuals, and they also hated them. And then they brought the Jews, and all of them hated the Jews. And many times, those criminals, somebody was sitting in a latrine and they'd walk in there and they see a Jew, so they push them in and they drown him."


How long were you there for until liberation?
 
"Well I came in some time in August and then we were liberated on May 5, 1945. And on the last day, May 5th, they said that the Americans are coming here and there will be fighting and they want to save us. So they marched us to some caves that were set up with dynamite to blow us up, and they did not succeed. It did not go off. This is why I can sit here [emotion welling up] and talk to you. I don't know if you know, April 14, 1945, Himmler issued an order to all the the concentration camp commandants, to not leave any prisoners alive. 


"I don't know if you heard about the camp at Ebensee. It was a sub camp from Mathausen. Mathausen had 45, I think, sub camps, and in my opinion, as a survivor, camp Ebensee was the worst one from all the camps together. You know why? Because they were starving the people to death. If somebody died in the night, the other prisoners cut them and they ate them. And I have a testimony from a major of American soldiers who liberated there. He has written down about the things that happened there. And also written testimony from a survivor. I tell you, I never say anything, and Mr Roberts knows this, that I'm not a hundred per cent sure what happened."


Because there is always the danger people are going to try and pick it apart and find ways to claim things never happened.


"Correct. I remember one day, during an interview with Mr Roberts, I said to him 13000 people a day were murdered. Then he left and I went back home. I called him and said, 'Listen, I made a mistake about the 13000.' He said, 'Okay, I'll come back,' and he came back to correct the take. Months later, I found the documents and, really, I was right. I showed it to Mr Roberts and I said, 'I was not wrong at that time.'"


There are always deniers who are trying to pick apart testimony. Have you ever encountered one?


"I would never talk to them. If I could get a guy, I would invite him to meet me. You know where?"


No.


"I would meet him at the top of the quarry in Mathausen - 186 steps - and I would hold his hand, and I would jump with him, together."


Are you concerned though about the spread of denial on the internet?


"As I say the deniers can say a million times nothing happened, and this is why I am here and I talk about this. Because if I would not talk, and not tell what happened, the deniers will have a ball. And like I told you from the beginning [angry], as long as I live, I will be talking about this. That's all."


With the survivors disappearing, it is becoming increasingly important that testimony like yours is on the record and there are people to carry on the mission. This documentary is part of that.


"Every day there is less survivors. I can't help it. I can't stop the dying. Whenever comes my day -tomorrow, whenever it is - I cannot stop it. But as long as I am alive, I will be talking. I never stop."


Finally, if there is one message you'd like people to take away with them from your story, what would it be?


"They should talk about it, tell their children and their grandchildren, that I, a survivor, told them this story. This is a true story. And they should know it should never be forgotten."   

  
Destination Unknown is out now

©Stephen Applebaum, 2017

   




Saturday

Going Undercover With Sylvia: Tracing Blood

Saxon Logan at the world premiere in Israel
How did Sylvia Raphael, a beautiful middle-class South African with a Jewish father and Christian mother, become one of Mossad's most successful spies? 

What motivated her to put her life on the line for Israel, and how did she earn the trust of some of the most dangerous people in the Arab world at a time when Palestinian terrorism was expanding across the Middle East and into Europe? 

And why did an attempt to assassinate Ali Hassan Salameh - chief of operations for Black September and mastermind behind the terrorist action at the 1972 Munich Olympics that left 11 Israeli athletes dead - in Lillehammer, Norway, instead result in the murder of Ahmed Bouchikhi, the older brother of Gipsy Kings co-founder Chico Bouchikhi, leading to Sylvia's arrest, exposure and imprisonment?

A fascinating and visually arresting new documentary, Sylvia: Tracing Blood,  explores these questions by attempting to get under the skin and inside the life of Sylvia through some of the people who knew her – in some cases, like a former lover, thought they did – and weaving a thematically rich course through her world and times, haunted by the Holocaust and informed by the historic struggle of Jews to achieve safety and security.

Understanding someone who made deception her modus operandi was never going to be easy. Fortunately for the film's South African director, Saxon Logan, he was able to enlist the help of Sylvia's Norwegian widower and former lawyer, Annaeus Schjodt, who died shortly after filming, and charismatic brother David, affectionately known as Bunty, whom Logan calls her “memories keeper”. He was “so forthcoming”, the film-maker tells me on the phone from Cape Town. “And even though he admitted to a certain degree of ignorance, or lack of curiosity, he was able to really tell us the majority of the story.” 

Filming in South Africa, the UK, Norway and Israel, Logan was able to put as many of the pieces of the puzzle together as his budget and time would allow. Not that unlimited resources would've enabled him to uncover everything about Sylvia.

She did not open up to anybody unreservedly,” he says. “She was true to her cause to the bitter end.” 

When Sylvia succumbed to leukaemia in 2005, she took her secrets to the grave. Today it's likely that only Mossad knows everything, and they're not telling. The agency helped Logan, but within limits.

“Mossad feel a huge debt of gratitude [to Sylvia], and I think that's why they cooperated in the way they did. But I was left in no uncertain terms that there would be certain stuff held back. Because, even today, other agencies can extrapolate from things she did and, perhaps, detect what they're up to in contemporary times.”

Logan is in no doubt, though, that Sylvia was exceptional in her field and devastating in her impact. “There are things that we'll never know, but it's true that she was responsible for near-enough eliminating the entire European Palestinian wing that were behind not just Munich, but many other outrages that took place.”

According to Eitan Haber, who served as Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin's media advisor at the time of what became known as the Lillehammer Affair, in the film, if people knew what Sylvia had done for them and future generations, they would “visit her grave and place flowers on it until they reach the sky.” This so moved some of those at the documentary's world premiere in Israel, that they travelled to kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh, where Sylvia's ashes are interred, to pay their respects. “It was a significant act on their part,” says Logan. “And I am sure others will visit her grave when the film is widely shown.” 

Although Sylvia was already known to Israelis, Logan is quietly critical of the way that her story has been embellished by the likes of her Mossad recruiter, Moti Kfir, and journalist Ram Oren, in their 2014 book, Sylvia Rafael: The Life and Death of a Mossad Spy. The documentary “sets certain points straight”, he says, including an anecdote about a supposedly influential visit Sylvia's family received from a paternal uncle who said he'd seen family members murdered by the SS. Despite the story being widely repeated, Bunty confirms that it is, in fact, untrue. 

Logan has some sympathy for Kfir. “I think being a former Mossad operative, he felt duty bound to be circumspect in telling her story, and then felt, or had been misled into thinking, that certain things happened that simply didn't happen.”

He suggests that Sylvia herself may have sometimes been the source. “She was a top bullshitter. She was very theatrical. We bumped into fellow scholars from her boarding school in South Africa and they remember her literally prancing down the corridors, spouting Shakespeare. She wanted to be an actress, and I think that also is key to how she was able to do what she did.”

Sylvia was born on April Fool's Day, 1937, and raised in Graaf-Reinet, in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, in her mother's religion. Her entrepreneur Jewish father was an atheist, and apparently so assimilated that he was the only Jew allowed in the Graaf-Reinet Club.

The Afrikaners were largely antisemitic,” says Logan, “and to some of their leaders' disgrace, sympathised with the Nazis.” 

One day, Sylvia witnessed some local boys pushing a Jewish girl in a wheelbarrow and chanting, “We're going to take you to Hitler.” She was so distressed that her family sent her away to a private girls' school.

I suggest to Logan that her father's ability to thrive may have provided the future undercover spy with an early example of how to survive in a potentially hostile environment.

Exactly that,” he agrees. “How to cope. How to get on. How to get under that little gap that's presented.” 

Sylvia moved to a kibbutz after breaking off her engagement to a South African when his drinking became a concern, following a move to London. She was a passionate believer in Israel's right to exist, and enthusiastically joined Mossad when approached.

They gave her a new identity, “Patricia Roxborough”, using a passport that its Canadian owner had unwittingly promised to an agent as they'd drifted through a Tunnel of Love, and trained her as a photojournalist. She moved to Vancouver to learn to speak French with a Canadian accent and create a plausible cover story as a freelance photographer, and then relocated to Paris, the centre of Mossad's operations in Europe.

Bunty recalls Sylvia talking about embassy parties in Switzerland where she'd pretend to be antisemitic, allowing her to get close to Arab-based anti-Zionist movements. And she was constantly dicing with death: when top Mossad spy Eli Cohen was publicly hanged after the discovery of his high-level infiltration of the Syrian regime, Sylvia took over. “In those days the Syrians would never have guessed Mossad would use a woman,” says Logan. She also became one of the first agents to penetrate the bases of the PLO in Jordan and Lebanon when Arafat was beginning his terrorist attacks.

Following the Munich massacre, Sylvia became part of the Wrath of God operation to hunt and kill members of Black September and the PLO, and is believed to have been involved in a number of assassinations. However, success turned to failure when Salameh set a trap for Mossad in Lillehammer, designed to damage the organisation's reputation for infallibility. 

Sylvia had studied Salameh closely and knew they'd been led to the wrong man. She admonished her commander to abort the mission but he sent in the “wet-workers” - Mossad's name for their hit-men – anyway, and Ahmed Bouchikhi was shot dead, in front of his pregnant wife. When Salameh heard about the murder, says Logan, “he just laughed and said, 'To think Mossad shot a pool attendant.' 

In the film, Chico Bouchikhi describes the devastating effect of the murder on his family and how he'd hoped in vain that Israel would apologise during his mother's lifetime. Today, he promotes a message of peace and talks about forgiveness as a step towards healing. 

By contrast, Yaakov Armidror, a former major general and National Security Advisor, explains how the size, position and Jewish character of Israel mean that she can never afford to be complacent. If Israel were ever to lose one war, he says, it would be the end of the Jewish State. 

They know that they will never be accepted within the Security Council,” says Logan, who while not Jewish is an ardent Zionist. “They know that they are up against billions of people that wouldn't really blink an eyelid if you told them that Israel had fallen, and they're surrounded by many millions that want to do just that, and they are determined that that will never happen.” 

Sylvia knew this and one of the most affecting aspects of making the film, says Logan, was seeing it dawn on Bunty that what she was really committed to was preventing a repeat of history. 

I'm sure there were all kinds of different appendages to that particular motive,” he says, “but I think her principle motive was to ensure that what occurred in Europe would never, ever happen again.” 

Balanced, thoughtful and haunting, Sylvia: Tracing Blood is thus not only a powerful testament to the courage and skill of its mysterious heroine, but also to the strength of the Jewish people and their will to endure.

 The UK premiere of Sylvia: Tracing Blood, including a Q & A with Saxon Logan, will take place at JW3, on Sunday 7th May, in aid of the charity Habaid. For more information go to http://www.habaid.org/sylvia-tracing-blood

Sunday

Saar Maoz: Who's Gonna Love Me Now?

Saar Maoz, subject of the documentary Who's Gonna Love Me Now?, talks about coming out in an Orthodox Jewish family, and finding peace. 

Speaking from Tel Aviv, Saar Maoz sounds like a man who's had a weight lifted from his shoulders. The subject of Tomer and Barak Heymann's documentary, Who's Gonna Love Me Now?, the affable gay Israeli lives with HIV, but no longer worries about what his family and the Orthodox community he grew up in think about his sexuality and condition.

It was different when Maoz, 44, was 14, and realised he wasn't attracted to girls. The eldest of seven siblings living on a religious kibbutz, Sde Eliyahu, in northern Israel, he was terrified of coming out.

“My big fear was my family would kick me out, or the kibbutz would kick me out, and I wouldn't be able to stay around my friends, my family. It was a very scary thought. So how I dealt with it was to hide it.” He kept his secret for five years, “and gradually got more depressed. To everybody I was a very friendly teenager. But I spent a lot of time in my room, crying.”

Since the Torah decrees homosexual intercourse punishable by death, religion offered no comfort. In any case, it had started to feel restrictive to Maoz “from a very early age”. “There is an age where it's all like Seder nights and candles and nice songs, and then at some point it starts to limit you. That's how I experienced it.”

His family, moreover, weren't living in the city, where people “can go with the flow of what occurs in their life”. The kibbutz (“Imagine a small country with a fence around it”) demanded conformity (to democratically agreed rules), and being different could lead to problems.

“If your path is on the middle of the road, then you are fine. But if your way is on the side of the road, then you have a bumpy ride.”

Maoz was eventually expelled, although not because of his sexuality - “I was kicked out because I did not keep Shabbat. You are not meant to go out driving, drinking or smoking.”

While he was still at the kibbutz, his pious mother discovered he was gay. In the film, she describes it as “a crisis . . . There were elements of grief, one of which was anger . . . In a religious society it's totally unacceptable.”

She was “disgusted by the thought of what two men do together”, and saddened by the idea that her son wouldn't have children. “Part of the big argument,” Maoz tells me, “[also] was that I kept it from her for five years.” His father, a patriotic officer in the army, laughed and told him: “Take two pills and it will pass.” At the time, the Israeli ideal of manhood was someone who was there “to work the land and make sure we had a country”, says Maoz. “There was a lot of homophobia.”

Inevitably, he asked himself many questions throughout his late teens/early 20s, “because when you find you're gay, it's part of the fabric of this identity crisis”, he says. “Who am I? Why am I not like everybody else? How can I design my own identity in a way that I am proud of myself?” He laughs. “Also, I think it's quite Jewish to examine [things]. It's a nice Jewish trait, not to just accept things as they are.”

Still unreconciled with his parents, he took a trip to London after doing service as a paratrooper, and was “charmed” by what he found. “I just wanted to be free . . . And suddenly arriving in London, living by Hampstead Heath, nobody seemed to care.”

He found love with a man, which he thought would last forever. But when the relationship ended after three years, Maoz fell in with someone else and spiralled down into a reckless life of unsafe sex and drugs, that ended with them both contracting HIV. The virus added a further complication to his relationship with his family, though it also began to break the near-silence between him and his father. “[We] always talked," he says. "But mostly it was like a 'Hi Dad. Is Mum there? Can you pass her the phone?' kind of relationship. I don't think we had a meaningful conversation from the 90s till 2003, when I was diagnosed.”

For years, Tomer Heymann had wanted to make a film about Maoz – whose openness about his HIV status (unusual for an Israeli at the time) had stunned the filmmaker in 2004 – but he'd always refused. By 2011, though, Maoz had built a secure network of friends in London, acquired an alternative family as a member of the London Gay Men's Chorus, and resolved most of the issues he had with himself; he finally felt the time was right. The result is a compassionate study of a family striving to overcome their prejudice, fear, and hurt, in encounters that are raw and painfully honest, but always underscored by love.

"I think we were all at the point where we were ready to say the things that there was to say,” Maoz suggests. “But I also think if we'd had any idea what it'd bring out, then maybe we wouldn't have done it. At times it was really heavy.

"For me, on a personal level, it shows what happens when you dare to scratch the surface and have the courage to actually say what you want to say, and have the courage to listen to what the other person has to say, because I think listening needs a lot more courage than talking.”

To the film-makers' surprise, Maoz decided to move back to Israel, giving them an ending they never expected. He wanted to be close to his nephew and nieces (his hope for kids of his own was thwarted when he contracted HIV), and to do something meaningful with his life.

Joining the Israel AIDS Task Force allowed him to return on his own terms, and gave him a “massive boost” because of their work's social significance. This doesn't mean going back has been easy.

“But I had been in England for 18 years, watching things in Israel, and saying, 'This is good, this is not good,' and passing comment. And I thought, 'If you want to change your country, then you have to be in your country.'"

Who's Gonna Love Me Now opens April 7
An edited version off this story appeared in The Jewish Chronicle