Birthright inspires upcoming Holocaust movie

Storytelling is how we immortalise experience. It is how we learn from our ancestors’ mistakes, and profit from their accomplishments. It’s 15 years of Birthright this summer, and I will never forget how visiting Israel with UJIA Birthright ignited the storyteller within me. It’s down to this experience that I embarked upon a mission to help tell the Jewish story by writing and producing my first film about the Holocaust.

During the past year I’ve had the privilege of planning the project alongside Holocaust survivor Kitty Hart-Moxon, in order to help keep her memories alive. And now I am going to tell you the story of how UJIA Birthright led me here.

It was summer 2014 in London; two weeks before our trip to Israel. There had been drop-outs, and there was a general feeling of apprehension as remaining group members wondered whether the programme would still be going ahead. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict had erupted in July, and I had been bombarded with the thoughts and opinions of impassioned friends, family, acquaintances and strangers.

Bat Mitzvah blessing: Me receiving a special blessing in Jerusalem on my UJIA Birthright trip because I never had a Bat Mitzvah.
Bat Mitzvah blessing: Me receiving a special blessing in Jerusalem on my UJIA Birthright trip.

Attending a local comprehensive school in Wembley, north London, has given me a culturally diverse group of friends who I trust and love- many of whom were concerned about my decision to go to Israel at this controversial time. Some feared for my safety, others worried I’d be brainwashed into a right-wing Zionist. I can’t deny that I had similar concerns. At this point in time I didn’t have a Jewish social life and was brought up in a non-religious home, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Yet, despite being exposed to a myriad of opinions from friends of different faiths- something I consider a privilege- I had to make up my own mind. And something told me that I must go.

We had been in the country for an hour when our guide took us to a small humble hummus bar run by a Muslim family who greeted us with open arms. This first day was filled with dancing in the sunshine, meandering through withered markets and getting to know each other. Perhaps this wasn’t going to be the politically-driven unification trip that I had anticipated? As we drove through the desert I looked around the coach of sleepy young people, and realised that we shared one important thing in common; Jewish roots, and a desire to connect with our heritage. That was all that mattered for the next 10 days.

Masada reading: In costume, recounting part of this tragic Jewish chapter.

Every hour of the day was packed with insightful journeys and inspiring stories. By the second night it felt like we’d known each other forever.
Once we’d settled into Bedouin tents, our group leader- a lover of literature and philosophy- led us into the desert, where we lay on our backs and meditated under the stars. I’ll never forget his beautiful words, as he talked of our place on Earth, and how lucky we are to be alive. He made the prospect of ‘life’ seem so special, and in that moment I realised that the trip was going to be so much more than sun, sea and kiddush wine.

In one breath we were partying in a kibbutz, and the next we were overlooking the west-bank with a peace-activist from Givat-Haviva. But one moment in particular would change the following year for me.

Soaking up the atmosphere at The Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue (My Israel Photos).
Soaking up the atmosphere at The Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue (My Israel Photos: Ashley Fairfield 2014).

We were visiting Yad Vashem- Israel’s Holocaust memorial centre, which was poignant because my Grandfather survived the Holocaust, moving to Israel after his liberation in 1946. As we walked through the organised space I was overwhelmed; not only because of the strikingly sensitive exhibition, but also because of the fact that we were there. I stood for a moment and looked around at this group of young Jewish people- my new friends. We had made it; we were all still here, liberated and free. Together, we shared tears, opening up in the way that family does. As we mourned the loss of 6 million Jews, I felt a strange desire to bottle the sensation. We were ‘remembering’. I had never felt so connected to my Jewish roots, and was left with a residue of determination.

I arrived home with a mission. Regardless of the current political situation, I had visited the land that my ancestors had once called home, and had looked up at the stars that they had once wished upon. I had mourned the dead, and celebrated the living. And I was now determined to help tell the Jewish story for the next generations.

'Kitty's Fortune': A still from  footage of Kitty Hart-Moxon, the subject of my film about the Holocaust.
‘Kitty’s Fortune’: A still of Kitty Hart-Moxon from our Kickstarter campaign video.

A month after arriving back, I started my MA at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and from the very beginning I knew I had to use my new skills to help keep the memory of the Holocaust alive- for my Grandfather, his family who perished, and all of the other Jews whose ancestry-lines were cut short.

It is now a year later, and I am at the final stages of making a film about Kitty’s first night in Auschwitz. We’re raising funds thought Kickstarter, and hope with donators’ support, this film will be a cog in the wheel of keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive. All proceeds from the film will go towards the Holocaust Educational Trust, and other Jewish charities. If you would like to donate, follow the link to our crowdfunding page. Rewards include a signed book by Kitty Hart-Moxon, and a trip to the set.

I will always be grateful to UJIA and Taglit-Birthright Israel for giving me the opportunity to connect with my Jewish roots. Without the trip, I’m not sure if I’d have had the impetus and determination to make my mark on the Jewish story- and I hope that one day I can inspire a new generation in the way that Birthright inspired me.

About the Author
Sophie Shad is an actress and writer who is training at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Since visiting Israel with UJIA Birthright, she has been in the process of writing, producing and acting in a short film about Holocaust survivor Kitty Hart-Moxon.
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