Saved From the Nazis: A Silent Film About a Lost Jewish Woman

In 2013, leading klezmer fiddler Alicia Svigals was commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Culture’s New Jewish Culture Network to compose a new score to accompany the movie. In its day, silent film was usually accompanied by live music, its natural counterpart. Imagine the scene otherwise: the audience watching soundless black-and-white images (sometimes painted with various inks to tint tones, moods, or scenes), the actors on screen miming or soundlessly exaggerating their gestures to convey feelings that might otherwise have been subtly conveyed through voice. 

Pola Negri, who plays the protagonist Lea Raab, was herself not Jewish. In large part The Yellow Ticket concerns Jewish identity and, as we learn throughout the film, Lea’s Yiddishkeit is constantly in question. Lea is an avid reader, with dreams of becoming a student at the university in St. Petersburg. In an early scene, we encounter rare footage of Nalewki, the Jewish district in Warsaw, where Lea and her tutor Ossip Storki appear huddled over a book. Jewish shops are in the background and Jewish people (not actors), young and old, stare into the camera. This district would later become part of the Warsaw ghetto. The scene is meant to represent the village of Sokolowice. If the Nazis had succeeded in destroying all copies of the film, we would have lost, too, this brief, precious glimpse of Polish Jewish life pre-Shoah.

 Lea’s father dies early in the film, and though Lea knows that for a Jewish woman to reside outside of the Pale of Settlement (the area of Imperial Russia in which Jews were allowed to live permanently) she must obtain “the yellow ticket,” a certificate of prostitution, she decides nevertheless to travel to St. Petersburg to study medicine at the university. Just before his death, Lea’s father reveals to her tutor what Lea does not know: that she was adopted as a baby, that her biological mother left her with Lea’s adoptive parents to be properly cared for. Lea, her origin unknown, was dropped off at a Jewish home.

With her secret yellow ticket, Lea lives a double life in St. Petersburg as both student and presumably feigned prostitute, which was a common masquerade for Jewish women seeking greater opportunities in Moscow and St. Petersburg at the time. She discovers a certificate of baptism from the deceased sister of her former tutor tucked inside a book she received as a gift from him before leaving the shtetl. As Sofia Storki, she excels as a student, even receiving an honorary award from the university. Simultaneously, a Russian Gentile falls in love with her.

The film reaches its climax when Lea attempts suicide, after her double life is “found out” by her lover. In the scene in which she is driven to despair, Pola Negri / Lea backs up against a mirror, revealing her split self. Ultimately, she is saved by her professor, a medical doctor, who also happens to be her biological father, which is understood through a series of revelations toward the end of the film. Though father and daughter are reunited at the film’s close, Lea’s origins are all but decisive. If her father is not Jewish, perhaps her mother was. We are offered a few hints. Why would Lea’s mother bring her to a Jewish home? And in a flashback of the professor’s earlier courtship with Lea’s mother, we learn that the professor’s father did not approve of their union, leading Lea’s mother to leave Lea’s father once she discovered her pregnancy. Was their union “not kosher” due to a Jewish element?

Lea’s life and the very motives behind her story are founded on her assumed Yiddishkeit. For instance, she is seen in the Jewish cemetery embracing her father’s gravestone before setting out for St. Petersburg. The Hebrew on the stone reads: “A man who walked the path of righteousness and feared God and lived by the labor of his hands.” We are subtly accompanied, as the film unravels, by Jewish signs and symbols.

Now, once again, the silent gestures are overlaid, even inlaid, with sound—an echo of the klezmer of the shtetl perhaps, but also of contemporary Jewish life. With Alicia Svigals on violin, Marilyn Lerner on piano, a vocal niggun (wordless chant) to open and close the film, and Svigals’ occasional heavy breathing to signal ghostly presences, the artifact is in some sense re-made.

We might see this twofold structure, silent film and new klezmer score, as a collage of sorts: here an artifact of our past, and here a commitment to our future. Shoah survivor and poet Paul Celan wrote in Conversation in the Mountains that the Jew wears a veil behind her eyes, “a moveable veil,” and any image that gets caught there is spun into a dual thing: half image, half veil. I suspect this bipartite structure to be of such fine stuff, like breath, like silent film its inlaid score, like Jews of a certain time and place, like Hebrew letters engraved: fine, changeable, time-bound. As Lea’s father secretly mimes to Ossip Storki before taking his last breath: “Take this pouch, it contains important information.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.