A Conversation with Filmmaker Heidi Emberling

By Ronnie Friedland


She doesn’t seem at all tormented. In fact, with her frizzy hair sticking out in all directions, she exudes energy and optimism, as well as thoughtfulness. Meeting her for the first time, you would never guess that her family history–her father’s father was a Nazi and her mother’s family is Jewish–is so complicated and emotional.   

As I chat with Heidi Emberling in the cozy foyer of a bed and breakfast in Boston, I learn that she grew up with little tension between her two divergent family branches.

Perhaps the lack of conflict she experienced can be traced to her parents’ divorce, which happened when she was three. Taking joint custody to an extreme, Heidi’s parents decided that she would alternate living for a year at a time with each parent–one of whom lived in Los Angeles and the other in San Diego. Then, every other weekend, she flew to visit the parent with whom she was not living that year.

How was this for Heidi? She says it made for some lonely times. It was difficult to make friends when she first moved to the other parent’s city. On the plus side, though, she became close to each of her parents. Since they divorced, her mother and father have remarried twice. Her German Lutheran father is now married to a woman of the same faith and ethnicity, and her mother is married to an American Jew like herself.

Despite their cultural differences, Heidi’s strong-willed parents agreed to raise her–their only child–without any formal religious education. Each believed that religion had caused many problems in the world, and neither wanted to raise a child with particular religious beliefs. Each parent also had her or his personal motives for not transmitting religion to Heidi–her mother was rebelling against her strict and controlling father; her father wanted to leave behind the shameful baggage of his heritage. As a result, during her childhood her only exposure to religion was through celebrating the major holidays of her parents’ religious traditions.

Interestingly, though, Heidi attended a Jewish summer camp as a teenager. And it was there that she came to love Judaism. Looking back, Emberling says that perhaps she was better off than many of her friends who were sent to Hebrew school, which turned many of them off to Judaism. She, on the other hand, encountered Judaism through Israeli folk dancing and outdoor services. In that relaxed and natural setting, she discovered her spiritual side and cultivated her religious identity.

Heidi’s close ties with her mother’s parents–particularly her grandmother who eagerly transmitted her own love of Judaism–also had a major impact on her.

Since neither of her parents ever discussed their religious or cultural differences, Heidi says she never really thought very much about the subject until she studied World War II in high school. After learning about the horrors committed by Germany, Heidi became more hesitant to discuss the German heritage of which she had previously been proud.

Still, though, she never associated her father’s family with Nazism. It wasn’t until she mentioned her wish to visit Dachau (a former concentration camp) to an aunt whom she was visiting in Germany that she realized the subject was a difficult one for her father’s family.

To Emberling’s dismay, when she said she planned to visit Dachau, her aunt became intensely angry and emotional. She felt both hurt and threatened by Heidi’s interest in this part of Germany’s shameful past. When Heidi noted that as a Jew it was only natural for her to want to learn more about the Holocaust, her aunt said that she didn’t consider Heidi a Jew, but rather a German. It was after this upsetting encounter that Heidi decided to make a film that would explore her “tangled roots.”

At first tentative in her exploration, over time she pursued the truth with increasing conviction. The result: a rupture in the close relations she once had with her German aunt, and a cooler relationship with her other German relatives. Thankfully, her quest did not affect her close bond with her father.

Emberling feels that making the film helped her accept and even loosen some of her “tangled roots.” She learned of the burden her father’s German identity has been for him, even though he was a young child during the Holocaust, and that World War II took a tremendous toll on German civilians. She learned that her Jewish family lost many relatives in Europe during the Holocaust, people whom she had never previously heard about. She hopes to transmit her hard-won knowledge to her young son Geordie, who she hopes will grow up with a more solid sense of identity than she  had.

For more information about Heidi Emberling or her film, visit her website at www.spiritproductions.org. You can also contact Heidi Emberling by email at heidi@spiritproductions.org.


About Ronnie Friedland

Ronnie Friedland was the founding Web Magazine Editor of InterfaithFamily.