In 2006, Arnon Goldfinger found himself in a situation familiar to virtually anyone who has experienced the death of an older relative. He was tasked with the responsibility of emptying out the Tel Aviv flat where his maternal grandmother, Gerda Tuchler, lived for 70 years, from the time she and his grandfather, Kurt, immigrated to Israel from Nazi Germany in 1936 until her death at age 98.
In addition to being a dutiful grandson, Goldfinger is an award-winning documentarian, so it’s not surprising that he “really felt an urge to take my camera with me” to record the proceedings.
“I had an immediate understanding that all of these things were going to vanish from a place I had known since my childhood,” Goldfinger recalls. “I wanted to make a short documentary, to see what you can learn about people by what they leave behind.”
The result is The Flat, for which Goldfinger won his second Ophir, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar, for Best Documentary in 2011. The film opens Nov. 9 at the Ritz Five in Center City.
Goldfinger quickly learned that his grandmother accumulated quite a bit: pairs and pairs of gloves, walls of books, multiple stoles and stacks of old newspapers, to name just a few possessions.
It was in one of those stacks that the film — and Goldfinger’s life — abruptly shifted focus. In 1934 editions of Der Angriff (“The Attack” in German), published by Joseph Goebbels, he found a multipart story headlined “A Nazi Travels to Palestine.” Baron Leopold von Mildenstein, a Nazi who would later become Adolf Eichmann’s first commanding officer, spent a month touring and reporting from Palestine in an effort to drum up support for the mass emigration of German Jews — with the support of Zionists in Palestine and Germany.
As Goldfinger read the articles, the connection between von Mildenstein and his grandparents soon became clear: They were his traveling companions. And it was no one-shot event: The Tuchlers and von Mildensteins remained friends before, during and after the former’s emigration.
Once he fully comprehended the magnitude of what he found — his German Jewish grandparents, forced to leave their beloved Germany because of the Nazis, were friends with a Nazi officer and his wife — Goldfinger turned detective to discover how they could have continued the friendship even after the full horrors of the Holocaust were revealed.
“I have never gone through anyone else’s pockets, or opened up someone else’s secret drawer,” he states emphatically. “Yet, all of a sudden, and against my will, these norms of proper yekke (the Hebrew term for a “German Jew”) etiquette melted away. Forces that were stronger than me compelled me back to the many piles of papers to help shed light on the connections and clues to the story that was rapidly unfolding.”
One of those slips of paper revealed the name and address of Edda von Mildenstein, the baron’s daughter. When Goldfinger hesitantly called her, she knew exactly who he was, was delighted to talk to him and even invited him to her house.
“She was very brave, very friendly, very full of trust,” he says. “Somehow, I think she really wanted to assist me in this. I think she had this unconscious drive to help tell a story.”
Her story — that her father had left the Nazi party before the war began — proved unsatisfying. Undeterred, he continued looking for answers, digging through the German archives until he finally found documentation that proved the baron was a Nazi who worked for Goebbels throughout the war.
When he confronted Edda with these facts, she, listened to what he has to say until ending the conversation with a curt, “Is that all?”
“The minute I understood that her father did not quit the Nazi party, I knew I must tell her,” he explains. “I had no alternative. She must understand that it is going to be part of the film. I didn’t want her hearing from a neighbor who had seen the film.”
If that sounds unusually solicitous of a filmmaker toward his subject, that’s because Goldfinger, echoing his grandparents’ relationship with her parents, became friendly with Edda, even though, he says, “When we talk, there is this topic somewhere in the air, but we don’t talk about it anymore. I think this is why our relationship will never be more than that.”
For his part, Goldfinger has come to accept that his grandparents kept up their friendship with the von Mildensteins out of necessity. They needed to believe in a Germany that once was, he says, and to do that, “sometimes you need to deny in order to survive.”