A true story of my father, the Holocaust and the Gulag
Garri Urban was a survivor – not a victim – of both the Holocaust and Gulag. Born in the shtetl (the Jewish rural community) in 1916, he overcame adversity through a mixture of charm, aggression, and chutzpah. His 1980 autobiographical account of his adventures took its title from when he was shot during his attempt to swim across an icy river from Soviet territory to Romania. He told the snipers who stooped to lift his apparently lifeless body; “no, tovarisch (comrade), I’m not dead” before striking their officer.
In 1992 his son, film-maker Stuart Urban, follows Garri into the former Soviet Union as soon as Communism disintegrates.
The video diaries that were made over a 14 year quest into Garri’s KGB records and the fate of his family in the Holocaust, plus extensive 16mm Kodachrome home movies from the 1950s onwards, form the core of the film.
The revelations and surprises begin almost at once, when Garri finds he is still as listed as an “international spy” on the wanted list! Eventually Garri tracks down his KGB file. But the KGB keep back details about Garri which, they tell Stuart, “would make his hair stand on end” if only he knew this about his father …
As Stuart closely questions his father while he is alive, and then goes in search of answers he could not get until his father was dead, the film takes the form not of a standard biographical documentary but a probing analysis of an identity, a rolling narrative whose chapters bring fresh surprises as we come into the 21st century.
Everyone has, or had, a father, and can relate to this quest. But how many fathers’ lives were so extreme, so mysterious, and so eventful?