In the award-winning documentary short Zaida, Sophie Parens tells the story of her grandfather, Holocaust survivor Dr. Henri Parens, z”l. Born Henri Pusnizowski in Lodz, Poland in 1928, Dr. Parens survived two French detention camps until his mother encouraged him to escape. At age twelve, Henri was on his own. A year later, Henri made it to Pittsburgh where he became a celebrated psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.
In this discussion, held after a screening of Zaida, Sophie talks about her film, her grandfather’s legacy, and our responsibility to continue his life’s work.
Watch the discussion below.
This program’s original recording transcript is below. This transcription was created automatically during a live program so may contain inaccurate transcriptions of some words.
Public Programs: it's funny in as i've worked i've come across lots of journalists and filmmakers who are.
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Public Programs: grandchildren and survivors and i'm wondering like.
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Public Programs: Well, the question is, what was the impetus behind the film but i'm also wondering if the drive to.
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Public Programs: How does How does that shape in your direction even in your life that the stories that you've chosen to tell how are they influenced by being the 3G right by being the grandchild of a survivor.
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Sophie Parens: that's a great question it honestly shapes everything and this film is a great example of it, but it is really sort of this consistent lens.
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Sophie Parens: Through which I view the world we were very lucky that I mean for many reasons, but my data was very.
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Sophie Parens: Conscious of commuting communicating to us that anti semitism wasn't the only issue at hand and that prejudice at large, was always going to be the larger umbrella, to which we should pay attention, and so we started this film in 2017 primarily as a response to the.
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Sophie Parens: President who was in the White House at the time, and what that administration was doing to marginalized groups across the country and for the world and.
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Sophie Parens: That activity was stirring in me what i'm sure it was stirring within a lot of people in this Community, and the final push towards wanting to make the film was the riot in charlottesville in 2017 and.
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Sophie Parens: It was just sort of this final push I mean I had never made a documentary I had made one short film in college I studied theater I had no reason to believe I could do a project like this, but there was just this immense sense of responsibility and.
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Sophie Parens: that's really what brought this film to fruition.
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Public Programs: I think that time live, many of us so many of us new Yorkers for the first time, perhaps in a privilege way to feel other or to be aware of being others in our in the sense i'm.
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Public Programs: wondering if you could talk about the process of making the film.
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Public Programs: Thinking about the responsibility of how it affected all of your different Members of your family and how they wanted to participate or not, they would not want to participate in how you went about that.
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Sophie Parens: My family was incredibly generous and I think any family that allows a family member to commandeer the Passover seder and have cameras moving around the table.
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Sophie Parens: You know it sort of speaks for itself, they were really incredible it, I think, made people potentially a little bit nervous, but I don't think that that interfered with their willingness to participate.
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Sophie Parens: Everybody I think at the end of the day, was really.
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Sophie Parens: happy to have this living testament this sort of captured.
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Sophie Parens: presence of him, you know just a little bit of a moment frozen in time.
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Sophie Parens: So overall I think everybody was I hope this, I know, everybody was happy with the with the final product, and you know we all sort of had to put our own ego aside whenever it popped up and just focus on them on the purpose and the mission at hand so.
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Sophie Parens: It was a really wonderful experience with my family.
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Public Programs: made a gift for all of us, but also for your family actually as well, going forward it.
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Sophie Parens: yeah.
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Public Programs: It was beautiful.
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Public Programs: You ask your father when he learned about your grandfather story, but when did you learn about the story to do grew up knowing the stripe like when do you remember when I first started thinking about it.
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Sophie Parens: Oh yes, it was very, very President I think my my dad that moment, was my dad is so beautiful to me because he just says it so perfectly like when is the right time, like when do you.
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Sophie Parens: say to children, the person that you love possibly the most experienced this devastation and then to understand the bigger issue right, but when you're young that's, the first thing you see really is.
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Sophie Parens: This person that I love suffered so greatly and that's a really hard thing to hold when you don't quite have.
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Sophie Parens: Just like the emotional maturity, but you also have to, I think, as a responsible member of a family like ours talk about it yeah.
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Sophie Parens: And I don't remember the exact age, but I do remember when the Iraq war happened, I thought it was another Holocaust and that has always been sort of my frame of reference of like I was young enough that I couldn't quite.
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Sophie Parens: Put two and two together that war in general, did not mean this war, and it did not mean this war on us, specifically, but it has impacted me greatly, I know I can speak for my cousin's when I say that all of us have grown up with that as a really central focus in our lives.
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Sophie Parens: In some you know hardware is right, but also really wonderful ways I think it's motivated each of us and really shaped to we have become as active members of our you know our world.
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Public Programs: Let me, I have a few more but.
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Public Programs: Someone just asked about ronnie rose just asked about.
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Public Programs: survivor good night they write that your grandfather was so strong and such a special soul, but that, as a survivor he has experience in his words survivor's guilt.
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Public Programs: In the story of his talking about his mother did he was to talk about this and address this in other ways that you found.
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Sophie Parens: He spoke about it less explicitly with me at least personally I think perhaps with my dad and uncles maybe he's gotten into it more.
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Sophie Parens: I think that that was one of the things that was almost too painful to process and.
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Sophie Parens: I do think it's something that greatly affects to Jesus Jesus as well, like there's very much the sense of we're not supposed to be here, why are we here when so many people are not so I think that affects all of us in a more general way, I think it impacted him.
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Sophie Parens: very greatly in the in the terms of like needing to.
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Sophie Parens: needing to do the most with the chance, he was given knowing how sacred, it was knowing how many people didn't have the same chance, like, I think that.
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Sophie Parens: That was a really big motivating factor, and so, and how hard he worked and how much he gave and how he moved through the world, and I think that the guilt around his mother.
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Sophie Parens: yeah it's almost impossible to but language to, but I think that that moment when he reads from his memoir and says should I have stayed.
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Sophie Parens: sort of captures as much of it as he was able to put words to.
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Public Programs: There, there are a number of questions from the audience about his brother.
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Public Programs: What happened to his brother.
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Sophie Parens: We don't we don't know we don't know about his brother or his father.
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Public Programs: Do you know what happened to Sabah.
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Sophie Parens: So week they escaped separately, they were reunited they went into the same foster family and they remained friends for the rest of their lives.
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Public Programs: that's amazing.
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Sophie Parens: yeah.
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Public Programs: Unbelievable wanted to be Kevin family that your family knows, and yes, yes that's beautiful um along those lines so did did he stay in contact with the wagner's.
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Public Programs: There was a question about the balance of the film um it does talk a lot about his experiences during the Holocaust, but then it also.
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Public Programs: I don't know if it's more than about half of its bet it's like after the war.
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Public Programs: on how did you decide to bounce the film that way like.
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Sophie Parens: Oh yeah that was one of the hardest parts honestly I mean in a perfect world, it would have been a feature, and there would have been.
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Sophie Parens: space and time for all that his life was, I mean it was such a huge life and there was so much to say about it, but we didn't have the time or the.
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Sophie Parens: resources to pull that off and once we decided it was going to be a short, you know it would have been a lot easier to just make it a Holocaust film specifically kind of ending about the 20 minute mark and and not getting into the life after but.
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Sophie Parens: So much of who he was was the after I mean he was very informed by his early life experience as as you saw but.
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Sophie Parens: The amount that he overcame and the amount that he created as a response to destruction.
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Sophie Parens: felt so huge and it felt.
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Sophie Parens: impossible to leave behind.
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Sophie Parens: I also just personally felt really.
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Sophie Parens: passionate about spreading a larger message about survival and healing from trauma.
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Sophie Parens: And you know he had every reason in the world to be one of the most vicious angry hateful people and he was genuinely the most loving optimistic kind joyful person i've ever met and.
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Sophie Parens: Again Against that backdrop of 2017 it was sort of like if he can come from where he has come from and become who he is like there has to be some sort of hope for all of us.
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Sophie Parens: And because so much of his work revolved around this idea of like hurt people will hurt people, we have to help them so that they don't continue to hurt.
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Sophie Parens: It just sort of seemed in line with that, like look at the way he recovered, we can all recover.
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Sophie Parens: And he just accomplished so much, and I wanted to you know celebrate his legacy, in that way by by including it in the film, I think.
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Public Programs: it's amazing not only rebuilding life but.
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Public Programs: Having that attempt to help people overcome trauma that we do a lot of work in our programs with think a lot of that intergenerational trauma and Jason three g's and how that.
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Public Programs: What can come up with even interests of three days like, as you said, more social justice and Time started to balance stuff that we're learning about.
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Public Programs: How did your family react to the finished film.
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Sophie Parens: Again, they were they were so generous and they were so supportive and my uncle josh actually I received beautiful messages from from many people in my life after these other film and his stood out to me the most, I think, because he.
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Sophie Parens: just spoke to how well it captured my grandfather's spirit in a way that he hadn't seen done before and.
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Sophie Parens: That there were actually details in the story that he shared sorry if you get are getting airplay nice um there were details of His story that he shared that no one had heard before.
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Sophie Parens: And that was one of the most incredible parts of the experience was you know, having him tell this story a few times, and you know he has told it so many times he's.
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Sophie Parens: Given talks at schools and temples and has done all of this work, giving back, and so we all sort of know it down to the word and to.
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Sophie Parens: Watch him interrupt that sort of scripted narrative and either remember, or if we decide to disclose or whatever it was in our interviews was like.
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Sophie Parens: truly incredible and that also meant a lot to my family to just have you know.
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Sophie Parens: we're so desperate for any information in any form of there's no such thing as closure and new situations, but just kind of anything will take whatever we can get and so getting those extra tidbits was really special for all of us.
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Public Programs: Right going going off script right.
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Sophie Parens: yeah.
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Public Programs: What do you hope people take from watching the film is terrific the softball question but.
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Sophie Parens: Oh man I.
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Sophie Parens: I know i'm i'm biased, but I do feel that anyone who.
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Sophie Parens: was lucky enough to know him or just even interact with him briefly.
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Sophie Parens: was always changed for the better and.
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Sophie Parens: I was very, very, very, very lucky to have that, as my family member and someone who I got to talk to all the time and be loved by a known by and I wanted to share that like he just sort of had this magic thing that he brought with him wherever he went and.
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Sophie Parens: We could all use some of that these days, so I really wanted to share that and.
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Sophie Parens: Also, I think, just.
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Sophie Parens: The sense that there are these like really huge horrible things in the world that are almost too evil and bad to grasp and it can either paralyze your can motivate you and.
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Sophie Parens: He was able to take this like really macro issue of prejudice and genocide and boil it down to like where's the smallest like place we can start.
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Sophie Parens: Like where can we bring it back to where it's like some sort of source right and that's where he focused and worked.
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Sophie Parens: So I hope that people who watch the film can walk away with that sense that even the biggest scariest most evil thing you can bring it back to the source and you can do your own part to sort of chip away at whatever it is that you're passionate about changing.
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Sophie Parens: And also just the kindness of strangers, you know he talks about the man on the train and the Wagner family and there was also the Stein first family who were not in the film truly just because of time constraints, but they were another family that helped him immensely and.
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Sophie Parens: You know you just says no one is an island, and I hope that we can all take that in our daily life, like the small thing you do that, you might not think much of could be someone's first meal in a year, you know, like that man on the train.
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Public Programs: um.
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Public Programs: I know that we're going to put the recording of this talk up on on our site where can people see the film we're telling people to see the film.
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Sophie Parens: that's a great question.
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Public Programs: we're sort of.
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Sophie Parens: In this transition period now we've been on the festival circuit, for the past two years, almost three years we've been very fortunate to have success there and i've been shifting gears towards.
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Sophie Parens: This is our first museum event doing sort of more public screenings with Q and a's and you know involvement in that way, so if anyone is interested in.
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Sophie Parens: hosting a screening, or you know getting in touch with me they can email me or check out my website, as of now, the film doesn't live online anywhere but hopefully someday soon, but in the meantime it's available, and you know, we want to share it with as many people as possible.
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Public Programs: And then lastly what's next for you, I know you have your amazing day job but are you going to make more documentary are you working on something related.
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Sophie Parens: Yes, I really, really hope to continue, I think you know this film was very specific, but my overall passion is telling stories about survivors, and you know kind of.
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Sophie Parens: bringing to light human stories of human resilience and social action so documentary film is sort of the perfect place to do that, so I hope to continue in this field.
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Public Programs: Someone writes that they knew your grandfather.
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Sophie Parens: Who.
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Public Programs: Were several people I there.
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Sophie Parens: Oh, I haven't been on.
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Public Programs: and wise grandfather.
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Sophie Parens: Oh, my gosh.
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Sophie Parens: Please email me I haven't ever reporting of invoices.
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Public Programs: And you can actually email me at J MAC it's Jay ma ck at mgh nyc.org and I will put even Sophie in touch but.
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Public Programs: She writes how proud, he was a view and how you'd be shopping nexus.
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Public Programs: Now, and.
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Public Programs: belly that has.
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Sophie Parens: made me cry I just put my oh i've tried to put this in the chat hey yay all right there we go there's my email, because I have not been paying attention to the chat so please forgive me if I missed your message.
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Public Programs: Thank you.
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Public Programs: So much, I will.
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Public Programs: conclude by saying that we will put this up on the QA that was just a remarkable film and he was remarkable and you are as well, so thank you very much.
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Sophie Parens: Thank you say that.
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Public Programs: Everything we do at the museum is made possible through donor support.
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Public Programs: And we hope that you join us from our programs and consider making a donation, but I also hope that you visit us on the museum.
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Public Programs: is opening our new core exhibition the Holocaust what he can do on June 30 it's a major new exhibition with over 800 objects from our collection New York stories on.
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Public Programs: Many like like Sophie seta who came and have donated things the museum and we'll be able to learn their stories we are so far as laurie very lovely exhibit here and join us for more online programs, thank you very much for joining us and we'll see you again thanks, and thank you Sophie.
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Sophie Parens: Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.
Hear from Other Polish Holocaust Survivors
Nate Leipciger was born to a Jewish family in Chorzów, Poland in 1928. When he was eleven years old, the Nazis invaded, and Nate and his family spent the next three years living in ghettos. The family was later deported to Auschwitz, where Nate was separated from his mother and sister. He would never see them again. By the time he was liberated in 1945, Nate had survived seven different concentration camps. Learn more about Nate’s story in this “Stories Survive” program.
Learn More About Sophie Parens
Sophie Parens is a director, writer, and producer based in New York. Originally from Sleepy Hollow, she graduated from the New School for Drama with a concentration in Directing in 2017. She is the producer and director of the award-winning documentary short Zaida. By day she does casting, producing, and directing for Simon and Schuster Audiobooks, and by night she is developing her next documentary. Learn more about Sophie at her website.
Go Deeper into Dr. Henri Parens’ Story
Dr. Henri Parens was born Henri Pusnizowski in Lodz, Poland in 1928, Dr. Parens survived two French detention camps until his mother encouraged him to escape. At age twelve, Henri was on his own. A year later, Henri made it to Pittsburgh where he became a celebrated psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Learn more about Henri’s story in his book Renewal of Life: Healing from the Holocaust.