A family reunion you’ll relate to

By Simon Round, May 23, 2008

True Stories: The Reunion
More4, Tuesday, May 20

As Tolstoy might well have written, had he thought of it, families everywhere are all very different — but family reunions are all pretty much the same.

Somehow, if your extended family is large enough, you will always run into people whose names you ought to recognise but don’t; there will be the cousin you lost touch with years ago for good reason, who is now very keen to start emailing again; there will be the great-aunt who gets you mixed up with another great-nephew who looks nothing like you; and there is the fact that you always seem to be the only one who has no idea who practically any of the other people are.

These images and more came flooding back to me as I watched The Reunion, Monica Magyarosy’s affectionate documentary about the Katz-Jedlicki clan, who assembled for the first time in years at the Buffalo Marriot Niagara Hotel.

If you go back a couple of generations in any Jewish family you will find tragedy, and this one was no different. German-born David Katz lost his parents and the rest of his family in the Holocaust and spent the war in hiding. When the Nazis were defeated, he was adopted by his family in the USA.

He, and one of his sisters, Renee, had tracked down family members from all over the US and beyond, including several who had been born in Europe and later fled across the Atlantic.

There was Bella, who had survived by adopting the identity of a Polish Catholic. Because she did not have any documents including her real name, she continued to live as a Catholic after the Second World War and even enrolled in a nunnery. Later, when her mother, who had also survived the war, saw a photo of Bella in her nun’s habit, she apparently passed out on the spot.

There were other family legends. Uncle Julio had run away from his own barmitzvah; another family member had married his own first cousin.

At times it was hard for the viewer to know who was related to who, but then neither could some of the family members. Everyone was trying to work out whether their aunt’s first cousin’s second wife’s nephew was actually married to their sister’s brother-in-law, Howard, or perhaps that was Morrie from Wisconsin?

As is the case with any family group of American Jews interacting on-screen, there was always the sense that at any moment Larry David would appear and say something inappropriate.

Regrettably this did not happen, although Renee, who seemed to be the driving force behind the project, was happy to tell everyone that she could not bend over to pick up her earring because “my pants are too tight”.

Comedy and poignancy were delicately balanced. Tearful reunions were mixed with those deliciously awkward moments where people were obviously attempting to work out who they were talking to, and indeed why.

Claude, who had travelled from Barcelona, last had contact with the family when he was 10 years old. He said his overriding feeling was regret that he had missed out on a lifetime of contact with his family. Everyone sought some significance from the discovery of where they actually fitted in to the family’s history, including one woman who confessed she had never seen the point of looking back until he attended the reunion.

Clearly the experience had been a profound and uplifting one for David and Renee, as well as for the man who sat wistfully in the lobby of the hotel at the end of the event.

“Looks like we ran out of people to say goodbye to,” he said.

Last updated: 1:06pm, June 2 2008