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'Upside of Memory' From a Downturn

April 20, 2006 By:
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The Lermans early in their lives together
Not all "American Idols" can sing their way to glory; some are glorious in their ability to carry not a tune, but a sense of self and history.

Meet Miles and Chris Lerman - which you can do on Sunday, April 23, as a film about their triumphs of the past is screened at Plays & Players in Center City, all part of an advance commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day, sponsored by Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, beginning at 10 a.m.

The couple's accomplishments - which would send Simon Cowell cowering in the corner - are part of a family treasure captured on film by their daughter as a special gift.

It's not every child who can salute her parents' 60th wedding anniversary with a home movie that winds up screened with such cinema scope.

But then, Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer, whose rich bio includes serving as vice president of corporate communications at Times Warner, is timelessly talented. And her parents, the Lermans, are not your average matinee idols.

Idylls of the incredible: Jeanette's "The Upside of Memory" upends the traditional and digs deep into the downtrodden past that was the Holocaust, inverting its indignities into a snapshot of enduring strength and daring that smiles on the future without the frowns of fear totally fading from view.

It is a startling, scintillating family portrait framed in joys of life and splashed with subtle colors of sad-sweet memories.

Again, this is no ordinary home movie homing in on the Holocaust: Its "stars" strapped courage and luck into their backpacks as they survived the war saddled with never-ending stories of horror. But the luggage they brought with them opened to reveal compartments of confidence to carry them along in their newfound land of freedom.

The stars: The Lermans - he's a founder and chairman emeritus of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.; she's a prominent lecturer on the Holocaust - are familiar to the spotlight, albeit it is one they are more eager to shine on good stories.

And one of those - a not-so sentimental trans-generational journey back to Poland and Auschwitz and the Belzec death camp - lights up "The Upside of Memory."

It was at Belzec that many members of the living Lerman legacy were lost, and it is here where Miles in 2004 dedicated a plaque, citing the area's restoration accomplished with the aid of American Jewish Committee and the Holocaust museum.

The miles he has traveled since - acclaimed as one of the world's leading oral historians of the Holocaust - are paved in personal success stories (Miles Lerman is a retired petroleum-company industrialist). But the road to the past is what makes this film more intriguing than any Pathé newsreel could.

And it is with camera in hand and the thought of turning negatives into positives that Jeanette Lerman learned to capture the future on film.

"It all reflects my parents' attitude," she says of the forward-looking lens she set on site at Belzec. "It was my motivation for making the film, forging a future."

And the trip was no vacation: "It was to consecrate the new memorial. It was so meaningful because members of both families had been annihilated" in the Holocaust.

Indeed, Chris and her two sisters "spent the war together, being forced from ghetto to ghetto, and concentration camp to concentration camp." Miles and two siblings were the sole survivors of their family.

Back to the future? "It took six hours to get [to Belzec] from Warsaw," but a millennium of memories was restored when "3,000 people showed up - including many dignitaries - to help resurrect history." Belzec was a bellwether of horrors in the Holocaust. "Even the Nazis knew that what they had done there was so appalling; they blew up the records after they left."

This film places it all on the record now, including the saga of the Lermans, two survivors who met in a displaced-persons camp after the war was over, and Miles had fought the good fight participating on the side of the partisans.

Taking part in this time travel of a trip "was grueling," recounts Jeanette.

But she had no intent originally to serve as a stand-in Spielberg: "I had no idea of what I was shooting. I made it for family. For the grandchildren. Not until I carried home all the footage did I realize there may be something there."

And here it is now, on screen, a story told and retold with finesse and freedom of thought. "There are a million good storytellers and 10 million good stories to tell," relates Jeanette. "I hope this film will inspire families to take their own histories and record them."

"The Upside of Memory" stands alongside the better tales to tell. Maybe it's all in the stars.

"I attribute the film's success," says a proud daughter, "to the eloquence of my parents."


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