RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- As children, they survived the death and trauma of genocide. Now, in their golden years, these Wake County seniors and Holocaust survivors combat the challenges of the pandemic. On this Mental Health Action Day, which comes amid Jewish American Heritage Month, ABC 11 meets the local stars of a brand new documentary that explores the shared experience of pain and resilience -- past and present.
"You always have healing to do because you never forget. It's always there with you," Eva Weinerman said.
This 78-year-old Wake County grandmother has carried the traumatic scars of the Holocaust since she was a toddler. She was born in 1942 in eastern Poland, three years after German forces invaded. Her father, a tailor, had been forced into the service of the Russian Army. She and her mother were living with her grandparents when the Nazis came knocking. Adolf Hitler's troops were there to kill Eva and her family -- because they were Jewish.
"My grandparents went (with the Nazis). But prior to them leaving (my grandfather) told me, my mother, where we could hide up on the roof that we wouldn't be spotted," Weinerman described to ABC 11. "It worked. They didn't spot my mother and me. But my grandfather and grandmother were killed on the spot."
In the new documentary, "Where Can I Go", released this spring by Raleigh-Cary Jewish Family Services and the Justice Theater Project, filmmakers focus in on Weinerman and four other Wake County Holocaust survivors -- all navigating the challenges of their complex histories as they collide with the present hurdles of an isolating and deadly pandemic.
In one moment of the film, Weinerman describes processing the reality of Jewish extermination as a 3-year-old.
"I said, 'Momma, why are you crying?' She says, 'Cause Bubby and Zady (grandfather and grandmother) were killed. They're dead.' That's when it clicked in me," Weinerman recalled.
Even as she approaches her eighth decade on Earth, Weinerman said making the film revealed things about herself she never fully realized.
"I learned about how strong I was with all the things I went through," she said.
Barbara Kaynan is a licensed drama therapist, hired by JFS just as the pandemic began to helm their new program called Kesher -- Hebrew for connection.
"Drama therapy is taking a story and the human experience, purposeful role-play and exploration," said Kaynan, who served as co-director of the documentary. "Some of our group members had moved to the area just before the pandemic hit. And so this was literally one of their only outlets to have a connection and make friends in the area, socialization, finding like-minded people who went through similar experiences."
Filming a documentary with seniors during a pandemic meant meetings on Zoom and socially-distanced one-on-one interviews. But, they say the result wasn't just a piece of art, it was a cleansing of the emotional wounds of Wake County seniors who weren't all comfortable calling themselves holocaust survivors.
"They had to really grapple with the idea of what does that mean to them. Are they survivors," said JFS Director Limor Schwartz. "And they all together and came to the understanding that they are all survivors and they all have stories that are meaningful, that are valuable, that are important and need to be processed together. And as a group, that's what they did."
Kaynan added, "The mental health piece of this is that war, hate and prejudice are issues that cause complex trauma and have long-term effects. What is it to be a child witnessing certain things and to grow up and still have dreams about that time."
As filming continued, the documentary discovered the correlation between the survivors' past trauma and the world-changing dilemmas presented by COVID-19.
"We didn't intend to have a pandemic in the middle but I think the pandemic really elevated that to being alone, being isolated and feeling displaced," Schwartz said. "Being able to have this group and figure out what does life look like right now alongside processing their trauma from the Holocaust really helped that in a way."
As for Weinerman, who did not know any of her fellow survivors before the filming began, she describes the feeling of making new friends at 78-years-old as "wonderful."
The Holocaust stole so much from her as a child. During a pandemic, she gained a whole new emotional understanding. Now, she's hoping their stories help ensure the history is never forgotten.
"A weight has left my shoulders," Weinerman described. "Because I was able to express myself and tell my story."
CLICK HERE to watch Where Can I Go? on demand