What would you say to your birth mother, meeting her for the first time when you’re nearly 70 years old?
That’s what Shep Shell had to conquer in one of the most wrenching moments in Aida’s Secrets, a documentary in Hebrew and English that tells the story of two brothers separated when they were babies and their mother, Aida.
The film opens at the Ritz at the Bourse Theatre on Nov. 24.
Shell, 67, and Izak Szewelewicz, 68, were born in the Bergen-Belsen camp for displaced persons in Germany.
Szewelewicz was sent to Israel where he was raised by an adoptive family. When he was 10, a classmate told him his parents were not his real parents. He approached his family about it, who then told him about his biological mother, Aida, who lived in Canada and had been searching for him. The two found each other and formed a relationship.
Years later, he shockingly discovered that he had a brother.
Shell — born Szepsyl Szewelewicz — was sent to Canada. In one of many heartbreaking moments in the film, he discovers he’s lived his life just a few hours away from his birth mother and never knew. Born blind, Shell made strides as an athlete, winning a medal in the Paralympics in the ’80s.
In another twist, Szewelewicz’s family knew about Shell, but were sworn to secrecy. In the style of The Parent Trap, as Szewelewicz had their mother in his life, Shell had their father, Grisha, and a stepmother.
Their reunion came about at the hands of Szewelewicz’s nephew, filmmaker Alon Schwarz, who directed and produced Aida’s Secrets with his brother, Shaul. Schwarz began looking for answers for his uncle in 2013 by working with MyHeritage, an online genealogy platform headquartered in Israel, and searching through documents and archives. He eventually located Shell’s daughter, which led to the brothers’ reunion.
In an interview with Jewcy.com in October, Schwarz called keeping the secret of Shell’s existence from his uncle for 40 years a “childhood trauma.” He found out about Shell at 5 years old.
“Four years ago, when I was sitting in my uncle and aunt’s living room, they started telling me that Izak came back from Poland with his granddaughter [from a trip], and that’s when he realized that he might have a brother,” Schwarz said. “I said to myself, if you don’t tell them now, you’ll never be able to. I started researching that night, and that continued for three years with the help of MyHeritage.”
One climax of the film comes early on when the brothers finally reunite. You can feel Szewelewicz’s nervous excitement as he heads down the escalator in the Winnipeg Airport and sees his brother for the first time.
The brothers are crying. The crew is crying as they try to steady the camera.
Another touching moment is when the brothers head to the nursing home in Quebec where Aida spent her last years.
In one of the film’s many heartbreaking moments, as Shell prepares himself to meet his mother for the first time, he reflects on his own life and wonders why she sought out Szewelewicz but not him.
“I think I’m a person a mother could have loved,” he says.
Aida immediately recognizes him as her son — “Szepsyleh,” she calls him affectionately — but gives no further insights into his past. She is careful about the details she gives her sons, answering some questions and evading others with an “I don’t remember.”
A key figure emerges: Their father, Grisha. Well, maybe not their father.
The brothers take a DNA test and discover Grisha — whose name was on Szewelewicz’s birth certificate — was actually Shell’s father but not Szewelewicz’s.
The filmmakers discovered more about the displaced persons camp, in which the inhabitants made a life for themselves. They partied, they danced, they ate, drank and moved forward.
“There were thousands and thousands of babies born in the DP camps,” Schwarz said. “There was a baby boom — people wanted to live, and they started doing that. There were 6,000 people in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp, and 1,300 babies were born in the first year.”
In an album they discover with photos of camp life, they found Aida and Grisha, who was not monogamous. Through photos and interviews with others who knew the couple, it was discovered Grish had affairs with other women and eventually married a woman who worked as a nurse at the camp, who became Shell’s stepmother.
There is also the matter of two photographs the filmmakers had on-hand, which they showed Aida. One photo featured Grisha sitting along the banks of a river and another featured a family of four sitting along the same bank — the two brothers, Aida and a mysterious man.
His father’s real identity is just one of many secrets Aida keeps.
Szewelewicz’s background came into question, as he was a blond and blue-eyed boy.
“There were rumors that Izak had a Nazi father,” Schwarz said to Jewcy, “and everyone knew this but no one knew if it was true. Shaul said, ‘You don’t want to open this Pandora’s box.’”
While the documentary raises questions about this family and what really happened when Aida gave up her children, the core story is satisfying enough to satiate your lingering thoughts.
[email protected]; 215-832-0740