A Pocketful of Miracles: A Tale of Two Siblings

Discovery Stories

In making “A Pocketful of Miracles: A Tale of Two Siblings,” director Aviva Kempner, with the help of editor Lucia Fox-Shapiro and Associate Producer Emily Nesha Streim, had to dig through decades of family archives to find the photos, letters, and even footage that were used in the film. Read on to hear the stories of searching for and discovering long-lost materials near
and dear to the Ciesla family.

Helen’s Art Show

After Helen and Harold’s divorce in 1959, Helen studied art at Wayne State University. She
became a successful abstract artist in Detroit, Michigan. In the film, she proudly tells of her
biggest accomplishment – her one-woman show at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1981. Over six
months into the process of making this film, our Associate Producer, Emily found another
valuable box with a reel of film inside. It was from Helen’s one-woman show at the DIA.

The footage was filmed by Sue Marx, an Oscar winning filmmaker from Detroit, Michigan. She
also recorded Helen’s 1974 interview which we use clips of in the film. The full interview can be
found on the Ciesla Foundation’s YouTube channel.

Production assistant Connor Buckley took the reel to Colorlab, where they digitized it for us.
Unfortunately, there were no audio files accompanying the reel. It was still a great gift for Aviva
and her brother Jonathan to see her mother laughing and smiling surrounded by friends and
family, as well as an exciting addition to the film.

To watch the entire reel of Helen’s DIA show, click here

To learn more about Helen’s painting career, visit her website.

Footage in Munich of Baby Aviva

For months, Aviva has spoken of a long-lost canister of footage from Germany in the 1940s. She had a vague recollection of it coming from her father’s belongings, and that it was likely a film can of baby footage of herself. The canister hadn’t been seen since well before Aviva moved houses over 12 years ago.

Emily lead the search of going through the boxes that had stayed unpacked for years as we were closing into locking the film. One day, Emily let out a scream that editor Lucia could only
describe as “in pain.” Pain was not part of this scenario, though. Emily came running to the cutting room shouting “I found it, I found it.” In a box hidden at the bottom in the farthest corner of the back room were stacks of financial papers, project archives, the occasional greeting card, and most importantly a well preserved canister clearly labeled “Aviva’s baby footage.”

Aviva, Lucia, and PA Connor Buckley took the reel to Henninger Media Services the next day to have it digitized. Not sure if it would be still photos, grainy footage, or even usable at all, everyone at the Ciesla Foundation was in for a pleasant surprise: preserved in a Siemens can was 18 minutes of pristine quality footage of baby Aviva and her parents’ life in Munich. The footage shows little Aviva living a happy childhood with plenty of toys, dresses, a dog, and two
loving parents. As they play, dance, and kiss, those of us viewing it feel transported back to a peaceful, post-war era, if only for a moment. And for Aviva, she finally gets the chance to see her parents and herself at a young age, and know what her life was like in Berlin back then.

Harold’s Radio Recording

Although Aviva’s parents spoke very little of their wartime experiences, she vividly remembers the few stories they did share. She remembers her father proudly recalling the time he crashed a reception attended by Marshal Zhukov and General Eisenhower in Berlin in November 1945.

Because he spoke Russian, Harold interviewed Zhukov who said that the Allied occupation of Germany “could be completed in less than ten years if the Germans are cooperative”, and when asked when he would visit America, Zhukov said he hoped to be in the United States next spring.

Harold said “there was nothing to it”, when asked about approaching Zhukov with no invitation. “I saw General Eisenhower and the marshal go into a room together, so I just got as near to the door as I could and waited. I thought for a while the vodka was going to get me before they came out, but I hung on”.

Aviva initially sent Emily on the search for newspaper articles covering the story – and there were many, including The Washington Post and New York Times. Because this story was so widely covered, Aviva thought there must be a radio or television broadcast of the story as well.

She sent Emily to the Library of Congress, and after listening to about two hours worth of radio stories from Berlin on November 10, she found it.

After receiving permission from NBC for the Library of Congress to provide us with a copy of the recording, we placed it in the film under a montage of the newspaper articles we found, accompanied by the Russian song “The Red Army is the Strongest”.  Again Aviva and Jonathan heard about for the first time what a scoop their father had accomplished.

The Obituary

One day, when Aviva was going through her collection of personal documents, she found an obituary for her mother, Helen Ciesla Covensky written in the Detroit Jewish News. This obituary had so many details about her life that Aviva only found out through her Shoah Foundation testimony. The obituary includes that Helen survived on false papers in a labor camp near Stuttgart, posing as a Polish Catholic. It even mentions that she secretly gave food to concentration camp inmates. It goes on to tell of her working for UNRRA, her reunion with David in Berlin, and meeting and marrying Harold Kempner in a dress made from parachute fabric.

It was as if the person who wrote this obituary had listened to her testimony. What is peculiar about this obituary, is that it includes details that neither Aviva or her brother knew at the time it was written. The writer had to have done their own research. Lucia reached out to the Detroit Jewish News to find the author, but unfortunately they did not have any record of who wrote it.

Aviva said that if she had read this obituary earlier, perhaps she would have made this film earlier. Regardless, it was a touching discovery that someone at the Detroit Jewish News had done diligent research to properly honor Helen’s life.


Helen’s False Papers

In Helen’s testimony, she described receiving two different sets of false papers that allowed her to survive the war. The first was created by Manus Diamant, a boy from her hometown who was involved in Zionist Youth movements and Nazi resistance efforts. Helen claimed he was in love with her and carried a photo of her throughout the war. Manus generously offered to make fake identification papers so that Helen may pass as a Polish Catholic. She chose her mother’s name, Helena, and made up the last name Matusik, derived from the Polish word for mother, matka. Soon after, a friend of a friend’s father was able to create false papers for Helen to go to a Polish labor camp instead of a Jewish concentration camp.

While the original false identification that Manus gave her has been lost to history, Helen held on to her false papers that sent her to the labor camp. She passed these papers down to her daughter Aviva. To Aviva’s memory, she, “put them in such a good hiding spot, she can’t remember where they are.” For months each night, Aviva sorted through her personal effects, each night coming up empty-handed. She finally put Emily and Lucia on the case. Looking for the papers and for photos of Helen and David, Lucia and Emily sat on the floor of Aviva’s second story for two days to sort through cabinets and drawers in hopes of finding the false papers.

One day, Lucia opened a drawer to a dresser in a room upstairs. She took out a folder to begin sifting through the drawer. Underneath that folder was a plastic sheet with two yellow tinted pieces of paper. When she saw “Matusik”, she knew she had found what we all had been searching for. It was Helen’s false papers. With gloved hands, Lucia carefully scanned the fragile yellow papers that allowed Helen to survive one of the most horrific events in human history.

The document indicates she was employed as a foreign auxiliary worker at Swab Hall barrel factory and sawmill, in Stuttgart, Germany.

And the lesson learned is to always separate such important papers and preserve them in a safe place.

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