Leo Zisman said his mission is to tell people what took place during the Holocaust. And now he’s on film doing just that.
In “The Lion of Judah,” a new documentary that opens on Friday, the 81-year-old Cedarhurst resident takes a group of young Jews, and the audience, to Poland to share his firsthand experience and memories. The cameras follow the group to concentration camps that include Auschwitz, a mass grave for 40,000 Jews in Warsaw and the Warsaw Ghetto.
“It’s not Hollywood that’s playing it — it’s real people,” Zisman said. “I tell you from my heart how I feel.”
Woodmere resident Matt Mindell, the executive director of the Jewish Enrichment Center in Manhattan, directed the film. The two met after someone recommended Zisman to Mindell for a speaking engagement. Mindell then asked Zisman if he’d be interested in going on a trip to Poland with a group of young Jews.
“Leo is unique because his spirituality and connection to Judaism is what kept him alive,” Mindell said. “I haven’t met many survivors who are religious and as lively as him. He is a lion of Judah.”
Zisman’s parents, a brother and a sister were killed during the Holocaust. His only immediate family member to survive was his brother.
“I happen to be very lucky that I survived so many selections,” Zisman said. “There are six times that I should not be here. I should have been shot or sent to the gas chambers.”
The film also captures the perspective of the young Jews on the tour as well as that of Polish youths. Mindell said he made the film not just with Jews in minds, but all people.
“This is a Jewish event and tragedy, but it’s humanity’s problem,” he said. “You could look at tragedy and learn and grow from it.”
Zisman said that seven years ago, before his retirement, he didn’t imagine talking publicly about the Holocaust. But in 2005, he made his way back to Auschwitz to speak to thousands of young adults at the 60th commemoration of the camp’s liberation. Last year, he released a book, “I Believe, The Story of One Jewish Life.”
“I speak at a lot of campuses and I tell them not why I survived the war, but how I survived the war,” he said. “For some reason, God wanted me here, maybe to talk to the younger generations.”