Documentary Review: ‘Aida’s Secret’

Review by Jacquelin Hipes

The horrors of the Holocaust continue to echo through the decades. Around six million Jews were murdered, family lines were extinguished and, in the case of those fortunate enough to survive, family histories were irrevocably gone. A loss of such magnitude in some ways defies quantification or comprehension, even as survivors and their descendants continue to live with its consequences daily. Aida’s Secrets hones in on the story of one such family, separated and complex, as two brothers piece together the fragments of their shared history.

Izak was born in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp in 1945 and sent to Israel for adoption two years later. As a boy he learns the truth about his adoptive family, eventually meeting his birth mother Aida, who had immigrated to Canada. During this visit she reveals to several family members, but not Izak, that she had a second son while living in Bergen-Belsen. Izak only learns about his younger brother when in his late sixties; with the help of his nephews Alon and Saul Schwarz (who co-direct) and Yad Vashem, a Holocaust remembrance organization, he tracks down his brother Shep, who was raised and continues to reside in Canada.

The meeting of the two brothers opens a Pandora’s Box of secrets, all of which revolve around their mother, now 90 years old and living in a nursing facility. Shep grew up with his father Griza (who passed away in 2008) and stepmother, another woman Griza met in the DP camp. Unlike with his brother, Aida made no attempt to locate or reconnect with her second child, which understandably causes him pain. She greets him with affection when they finally meet but responds to every inquiry, gentle or blunt, about her decision so many years ago with a failing memory. Aida remembers clearly how it felt to abandon Izak, how happy she was to see him again, yet even the simplest details of Shep’s infancy are lost behind a chorus of “I don’t remember, I don’t remember”. It’s left to the viewer to speculate whether Aida has genuinely forgotten or if, for personal reasons more compelling than her son’s, she wishes to keep her memories secret forever.

Each investigation begets another. Griza’s behavior as a womanizer and black market profiteer in the DP camp is uncovered. The question of shared paternity between Izak and Shep is answered. Near the end of the film, the brothers discover that their family tree may even have more branches than originally believed. The answers they fail to find are as emotionally charged as those they do, although the process of searching helps to build the fraternal bond denied to them as children. It’s a journey heart-wrenching and fascinating in turns, unfolding steadily throughout the film. As one of the Schwarz nephews observes in voiceover, so much time has passed that some of the details so fervently desired by Izak and Shep may always lie out of reach now. Simply finding one another has healed a lingering wound, though, and made one family a little more whole. Beneath the heartbreak and frustration, there’s a comforting warmth at the heart of Aida’s Secrets.

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