“The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” Interview
by Kam Williams
A child of a Holocaust survivor and a US Army officer, Aviva Kempner was born in Berlin, Germany after World War II. She was inspired by her heritage to produce and co-write Partisans of Vilna, a documentary on Jewish resistance against the Nazis. She was also the executive producer of the 1989 Grammy-award nominated record, Partisans of Vilna: The Songs of World War II Jewish Resistance.
Ms. Kempner is the scriptwriter, director and producer of The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, a film about the Jewish slugger who fought anti-Semitism in the 1930's and 40's. It was awarded top honors by the National Society of Film Critics, the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Broadcast Film Critics Association. The film received a George Peabody Award and was nominated for an Emmy, too.
In her documentaries, Ms. Kempner investigates non-stereotypical images of Jews in history and focuses on the untold stories of Jewish heroes. Upset with the 2000 election results, she was inspired to make the short, Today I Vote for My Joey, from the script she wrote about Election Day in Palm Beach for the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women.
She produced and directed Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, a 90-minute documentary on America's favorite radio and television personality. Gertrude Berg was the creator, principal writer and star of the popular 1930's radio show and later the 1950's weekly TV sitcom, The Goldbergs.
Ms. Kempner writes film criticism and feature articles for numerous publications, including The Boston Globe, The Forward, Washington Jewish Week and The Washington Post. She also lectures about cinema throughout the country. She started the Washington Jewish Film Festival in 1989.
Kam Williams: Thanks for the interview, Aviva. How has being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor shaped your life?
Aviva Kempner: As a child of a survivor born in post-war Europe, I had grown up fantasizing about being in the resistance during World War II. In late 1979, I had a roots awakening to explore my Jewish roots. Since then, I have devoted myself to countering negative screen images of Jews.
KW: How would you say Jews been stereotyped?
AK: Typically, Jews are portrayed by the suicidal, female Holocaust survivor, the nebbishy Jewish male and the domineering Jewish mother. I am committed to making documentaries which counter these negative portrayals by showing non-stereotypical images of Jews.
KW: How did you get your start in filmmaking?
AK: I was determined to make a film about my obsession: Jewish resistance to the Nazis. I incorporated the Ciesla Foundation which I named for my grandparents who had died in Auschwitz. Ciesla was their last name. I worked with Josh Waltetzky to make Partisans of Vilna in the Eighties, a film which examined the unexplored theme of Jewish opposition to Hitler.
KW: And how did you decide to do a documentary on Hank Greenberg?
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