If you are coming to Yale Strom’s documentary “The Last Klezmer” expecting a light-hearted music-filled journey, you will be in for a surprise. This wonderfully moving production, first released in 1994 and now on DVD, is actually a celebration of a courageous man in the face of unspeakable horror.
The man is Leopold Kozlowski, who is introduced as one of the very few klezmer music virtuosos in contemporary Poland. This is not due to the lack of interest in the Jewish music genre, but in the absence of a Jewish population – the Holocaust decimated Poland’s Jewish population, while anti-Semitic policies in the postwar Communist years took the madness further.
Kozlowski survived the Communist era, rising through the ranks of the Polish Army to become the conductor of its symphony (he was expelled from service during the 1968 anti-Semitic purges). He survived as a musician and a teacher, and in the post-Cold War years he saw his livelihood flourish as a musical director.
But most of the film focuses on Kozlowski recalling his youth in a musical family and his survival during World War II, first as inmate at a concentration camp and later, following an escape, as a member of the partisan movement. A large portion of the film follows Kozlowski to his hometown of Peremyshlyany (now part of Ukraine), where he reunites with a fellow partisan rebel for the first time in a half-century. Kozlowski speaks at great length of the humiliations he experienced under Nazi incarceration, and of the death of his brother one week before the liberation of Poland by the Red Army. In the film’s emotional peak, he visits the graves of those who perished at the hands of the Nazis. To director Strom’s credit, the scene is captured in a subtle, respectful and unobtrusive manner.
“The Last Klezmer” is intentionally vague on many aspects of Kozlowski’s life. His wife is briefly mentioned as being ill with Parkinson’s Disease and is not seen on camera. He also mentions an unmarried adult daughter, and she is also absent from the film. There is also no discussion of his work in the Polish Army or whether Kozlowski supported the Communist political system that ruled Poland in the four decades after World War II. And while Kozlowski has kept the klezmer music aspect of Polish-Jewish culture alive, his own religious beliefs are not examined at any depth.
But even if there are voids in Kozlowski’s life story, what emerges is an amazing oral history that recreates a once-vibrant culture that was cruelly annihilated. Yet Kozlowski does not have time to wallow in self-pity. He is too busy passing on the klezmer tradition to, ironically, a young Polish Christian generation that is eager to keep it alive despite the absence of a flourishing Jewish cultural community. In his vivacity and zest for life, Kozlowski is truly a role model who can be embraced by viewers of all persuasions and cultures.
“The Last Klezmer” is truly a cinematic mitzvah.