Filmmaker Spotlight:
‘My Dear Children’ filmmaker LeeAnn Dance

Leading up to the 28th Washington Jewish Film Festival, we asked our filmmakers a few questions about their featured films.
In this edition, Director LeeAnn Dance discusses My Dear Children

What inspired you to tell the story of your subject or the story depicted in your film?

My Dear Children is based on a long letter written some 80 years ago by Feiga Shamis, a Jewish mother of 12 driven by a little known humanitarian tragedy to send two of her youngest children to an orphanage a continent away. Many years later, that letter was translated from Yiddish into English, printed as a small book, and given to all the family members. One of Feiga’s descendants brought me a copy of that little book six years ago, thinking it might make for a good documentary. That descendant was Dr. Steve Nathan, Director of the Lung Transplant Program at Fairfax Hospital. We have been friends for more than 17 years – our sons have grown up together.

Director LeeAnn Dance

When I first read the letter, it confused me, as I had never heard of this period of ant-Jewish violence following WWI. I put the letter aside vowing to dig into it further when I had the time. A year later, my husband was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer. The day before he was to start chemo, he suffered a life-threatening stroke and ended up in the ICU at Fairfax Hospital. Every day, Steve came into the ICU, went over my husband’s chart, coordinated his care, and kept me up to speed on what was happening. He was my lifeline through my husband’s month-long hospital stay and a long recovery thereafter.

 A year later, Steve called to say his cousin was planning a trip to Ukraine to trace his great grandmother’s story and asked if I wanted to go along. I immediately said yes. As I re-read Feiga’s letter in preparation for the trip, I was struck by the fact that Steve is alive today because of Feiga’s decision to send two of her children to an orphanage in South Africa. I have been the beneficiary of Feiga’s pain. Me – a non-Jew living in Northern Virginia, impacted by events in Eastern Europe nearly 100 years ago.

 

What was a particular obstacle you faced while making this film? 

My biggest obstacle was identifying scholars who could help me understand what had happened to Feiga.

When I first began researching the historical context to Feiga’s letter, I was repeatedly directed to Holocaust scholars who told me the time period I was researching (1917-1921) was outside their area of expertise. Each one referred me to someone else who invariably had the same response. I finally ended up on the phone with renowned Brandeis scholar Antony Polonsky who also said this was outside his area of study but that he had a PhD candidate who was currently writing her dissertation on the Russian Civil War pogroms. That scholar was Irina Astashkevich, and she was my breakthrough into figuring out what had happened to Feiga nearly 100 years ago. She is one of a small group of groundbreaking pogrom scholars upon whom we relied to tell this story.

 

What do you want audiences to walk away with after screening your film?

The Holocaust did not happen in a vacuum. The pogroms of 1917-1921 should be seen as a precursor to the greater tragedy just 20 years later. My Dear Children shows the consequences of unchecked, or worse – officially sanctioned – anti-Semitism, and given the increasing incidents of anti-Semitism today, this story remains relevant today. Feiga’s story is not unique. Nearly 80% of the world’s Jewry can trace their roots to Eastern Europe, thus Jews around the world share Feiga’s story. Many likely have no idea they do so.

 

Still from My Dear Children

Why do you think Washington, DC is a valuable location to screen your film?

The Washington Metropolitan area has the third largest Jewish population in the U.S., thus many in this area likely have a connection to this forgotten piece of history.

 

Why are Jewish-interest films important today?

My story of how I came to do this film is a testament to the fact that “Jewish” films are not just for Jews. We are all interconnected. My Dear Children is also a window into the broader story of genocide, its roots, and multigenerational impact.

Watch My Dear Children during the 28th Washington Jewish Film Festival.

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